Falkland Islands - Overview
- 28 January 2015
- From the section Latin America & Caribbean
The isolated and sparsely-populated Falkland Islands, a British overseas territory in the south-west Atlantic Ocean, remain the subject of a sovereignty dispute between Britain and Argentina, who waged a brief but bitter war over the territory in 1982.
Argentine forces, who had landed on the Falklands to stake a territorial claim, were ejected by a British military task force.
Argentina says it has a right to the islands, which it calls the Malvinas, because it inherited them from the Spanish crown in the early 1800s. It has also based its claim on the islands' proximity to the South American mainland.
Britain rests its case on its long-term administration of the Falklands and on the principle of self-determination for the islanders, who are almost all of British descent.
The windswept and almost-treeless territory is made up of two main islands, East Falkland and West Falkland, as well as hundreds of smaller islands and islets.
The islands are said to have been sighted in the 1500s. An English captain made the first recorded landing in 1690, and France and Britain subsequently established settlements.
Britain claimed the whole of the Falklands in 1765, while France transferred its settlement to Spain in 1767. Although Britain withdrew from its settlement in 1774 on economic grounds, it never relinquished its claim to sovereignty.
Spain abandoned its settlement in 1811 when it withdrew its garrison to the South American mainland in order to help quell colonial rebellions, leaving the islands uninhabited apart from occasional visits from British and US fishing vessels.
In 1820, newly-independent Argentina claimed sovereignty, and later founded a settlement. Britain established control over the islands in 1833 in support of its own earlier claim to sovereignty, and expelled the Argentine garrison. Most Argentine settlers left gradually thereafter. The Britons who then settled came to make up the islands' first permanent population.
Argentina continued to press its claim to the islands, which intensified in the 1960s. In 1965 the UN designated the territory as a "colonial problem" and called on both countries to negotiate a solution.
Talks, held on and off for more than 17 years, failed to resolve the issue. After months of sabre-rattling, Argentine troops set foot on the islands on 2 April 1982.
Britain dispatched a military force to eject them. The Argentine garrison commander in Port Stanley surrendered on 14 June. The fighting cost the lives of 655 Argentine and 255 British servicemen.
London and Buenos Aires restored diplomatic relations in 1990, but the status of the Falklands remains a sore point, with disagreements over flights to the islands and fishing rights.
The dispute again came to the fore in 2009. In May, Britain rejected a request by Argentina for talks on the future sovereignty over the islands.
In December, the Argentine parliament passed a law laying claim to the Falklands, along with nearby South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands, in a move rejected by the UK.
In February 2010, tensions rose further when a British company began exploring for oil near the Falklands' waters.
Earlier in the month, Argentina had responded to the drilling plans by introducing new rules requiring all ships travelling to the Falklands through its waters to have a permit.
In late 2011, as the 30th anniversary of the war approached, the Argentine government sought to increase pressure on Britain by persuading members of the South American trading bloc Mercosur to close their ports to ships flying the Falklands flag.
In what it described as a "routine" move, early in 2012 the British government dispatched one of its newest destroyers, HMS Dauntless, to the South Atlantic to patrol the Falklands coast.
Buenos Aires responded by formally complaining to the UN that Britain was "militarising" the area.
The Falkland Islands government decided to counter Argentine claims by scheduling a referendum on the status of the islands, saying that it wanted to "send a firm message to Argentina that the islanders want to remain British".
In March 2013 the islanders voted almost unanimously in favour of remaining a British overseas territory.
Fishing and sheep farming are the main economic activities on the Falklands. The territory has a small tourist industry; one of the main draws is the islands' wildlife, including the penguins that breed there in their millions.
The seabed around the islands is thought to contain substantial oil reserves, but although there has been extensive exploration by oil companies, exploitation of the reserves has not yet begun.