Argentina has recently stepped up pressure on Britain over the Falklands by criticising British actions as “unilateral” and hence a breach of UN Resolution 31/49. This article places this current phase of the Falklands dispute in perspective and considers which side’s unilateral acts have been more significant.
The background is as follows.
On 1 December 1976 the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 31/49, section 4 of which ran:
[The General Assembly] Calls upon the two parties to refrain from taking decisions that would imply introducing unilateral modifications in the situation while the islands are going through the process recommended in the above-mentioned resolutions.
At that time negotiations over the Falklands were going on between Britain and Argentina, and the Resolution, undoubtedly introduced at Argentina’s request, was intended to promote them. The section calling on both sides to refrain from unilateral acts was presumably introduced to ensure that Britain did not alter the status quo in the Falklands during the negotiations.
However, it clearly prohibited unilateral action by both sides to the dispute, not only Britain. The “process recommended” referred to here (as in earlier UN resolutions) was of course the peaceful solution of the sovereignty dispute over the islands.
But all that changed on 2 April 1982, when Argentina launched its armed invasion of the Falklands. There could have been no more serious “unilateral act”, and no more serious breach of Resolution 31/49. The invasion was also a breach of international law and of UN Resolution 2065 which had started the negotiation process in 1965. That Resolution had called for peaceful negotiations between Britain and Argentina, but had not specified any particular outcome. It was only Argentina that assumed the result should be a handover of sovereignty, and the invasion was designed to secure that.
Every Shot a Unilateral Act
In the aftermath of the 1982 war it became absurd to continue talking about Resolution 31/49 at all. Every shot fired had been a “unilateral act”, and both sides had acted as they saw fit, committing innumerable “unilateral acts”. Moreover, the islands were clearly no longer “going through the process recommended in the above-mentioned resolutions”, much as Argentina might have hoped that they still were.
Amongst Britain’s unilateral acts after the war was the declaration of economic exclusion zones, and Britain also modified the internal governance of the Falklands with two new constitutions.
But subsequent Argentine unilateral acts were very much more serious. In 1994 Argentina put a claim to the Falklands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands into its new constitution. That unilateral act meant that the sovereignty negotiations it continued to demand could only end in a complete Argentine takeover. There was no longer any room for compromise, and hence no room for meaningful negotiations – Argentina demanded everything.
More recently, in December 2009, Argentina also included the Falklands within the province of Tierra del Fuego. That unilateral act meant that the Falklands under Argentine rule would be part of a small, chaotic, corrupt, and bitterly anti-British province, with the small Falklands population a tiny part of an overall Argentine provincial population that is contemptuous of Falkland Islanders.
Repudiation – a Unilateral Act
Another recent Argentine unilateral act is particularly relevant now: the repudiation in March 2007 of the 1995 Oil Agreement between Britain and Argentina under President Carlos Menem.
That agreement had signified Argentina’s acceptance of oil exploration around the Falklands, and Britain had not broken the terms of that agreement in any way, as Argentina asserted in order to justify its repudiation. The Kirchner government in 2007 simply did not like the terms the Menem government had agreed to.
Argentina’s unilateral act of repudiation was not only a breach of a treaty; it also allowed Argentina to turn logic on its head and accuse Britain of acting “unilaterally” – by carrying on with the oil exploration that Argentina had expressly agreed to in 1995 and had accepted without comment in 1998. Companies that had been investing their money peacefully and lawfully over the previous twelve years were suddenly accused of acting “illegally”.
To apply pressure on the Falklands over oil exploration, Argentina followed this up with yet another “unilateral” act: decree 256/10, signed by President Cristina de Kirchner on 16 February 2010, which required permits for shipping passing through Argentine waters to the Falklands.
Such permits were to be unavailable for any vessel or cargo connected with Falklands oil exploration. This was also a breach of the “right of innocent passage” enshrined in international shipping law.
Security Council Resolution 502
UN General Assembly resolutions are not binding on any country, whether or not they are members of the Security Council. But Britain certainly did its best to comply with Resolution 2065, and was complying with Resolution 31/49 too, until Argentina broke it so dramatically by invading the Falklands in 1982.
But Argentina conveniently ignores the fact that unlike General Assembly resolutions, UN Security Council resolutions are binding, and that it failed to comply with the crucial Security Council Resolution 502. That Resolution, passed on 3 April 1982, the day after Argentina’s invasion, required Argentina to withdraw its troops and negotiate. If Argentina had obeyed it, it might have obtained an eventual handover of sovereignty, since Britain was willing to make major concessions to avoid bloodshed. Instead, the Argentine troops had to be expelled by military force, with considerable loss of British and Argentine life.
Despite the facts of the matter, Argentina continues to heap absurd criticism on Britain.
Recently, one newspaper in Tierra del Fuego actually published the text of section 4 of
Resolution 31/49 in order to accuse Britain of acting “unilaterally” over oil exploration. But the article concerned omitted to mention that that UN resolution was passed in 1976, over five years before Argentina “unilaterally” invaded the Falklands! If it had mentioned that date, every reader would have seen the absurdity of it all.
It’s clear that Argentine unilateral actions and mind-boggling hypocrisy are the real problem here – rather than any wrongdoing by Britain. It’s an old adage that truth is the first casualty of war, but in Argentina logic is a casualty now as well.
By Graham Pascoe and Peter Pepper - London