Focus on: The Falklands or las Malvinas?

As the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War approaches tensions over the islands' sovereignty have resurfaced

Three decades after the Falklands War, a conflict that claimed more than 900 lives in 1982, tensions have resurfaced between Argentina and the UK over the islands in the South Atlantic. The Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has accused Westminster of remilitarising the Falklands, which are officially a British Overseas Territory. The accusation came after the UK sent HMS Dauntless, one of the world's most advanced warships, to patrol the waters around the islands and despatched Prince William on a six-week tour of the area as a search and rescue pilot. British MPs also plan to visit the islands next month to inspect Britain's defences, and Argentina has alleged that a submarine carrying nuclear weapons has been deployed to the area. Although it was under the guise of security concerns that Kirchner complained to the United Nations about Britain's activities in the South Atlantic, the tensions run much deeper.

Argentina claims that the islands, located about 300 miles off the coast of the country and known as las Malvinas, were inherited from Spain when Argentina became independent in 1816 - and that the inhabitants of the islands are therefore illegal occupants, transplanted from the UK. Argentina's "legitimate rights in the sovereignty dispute" have been backed by a 33-country strong union of Latin American and Caribbean states. Meanwhile Britain, which first laid claims to the islands in the 17th century and then took control of them in 1833, argues that the 3,000 people who live on the Falklands have a fundamental right to self-determination - and that they are, and want to continue being, British.

The historic claims to the islands are ambiguous and opinions are polarised in Argentina and the UK. A group of 17 leading Argentinean intellectuals have been criticised by President Kirchner for supporting the Falklanders' right to self-determination in a paper entitled "Malvinas: An Alternative Viewpoint". In the UK, a number of commentators have criticised the Falklands' annual defence bill of £70 million - footed by the British taxpayer - and suggested that we would, in fact, be better off without the islands. Even Hollywood actor Sean Penn has waded into the debate, criticising the British government for intimidating Argentina and advocating a renegotiation of sovereignty in the South Atlantic.

In addition to these well-established arguments, however, is a new concern. Thanks to the discovery of oil in the Falklands' waters, the question of power in the South Atlantic has become more urgent. Estimates suggest that there could be anywhere between eight billion and 60 billion barrels worth of oil reserves lying to the north, south and east of the islands and that the Falklanders could earn up to £115 billion in royalties and taxes when oil companies begin drilling. Consequently, the UK is more determined than ever to maintain and defend its strategic position in the South Atlantic, particularly as oil reserves in the North Sea are drying up. Furthermore, Argentina is keen to assert what it claims is rightful sovereignty of the islands in order to benefit from the oil boom.

As the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War approaches this April, it is, perhaps, time for a new conversation on sovereignty to guarantee recognition of the right to self-determination of the Falklanders and to negotiate a fair distribution of the area's natural resources.

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