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Falklands diplomatic offensive puts UK on back foot

Argentine protesters burn a British flag in Buenos Aires on 23 February 2010

By Paul Reynolds
BBC News website, world affairs correspondent

The higher profile the Argentine government has recently managed to give the Falklands/Malvinas dispute reflects the greater support Buenos Aires has over the issue these days.

Following backing for Argentina's claim by the Rio Group of Latin American countries, the matter is being raised by Argentina's foreign minister with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Of course, the background is completely different today, compared with 1982 when the war over the islands took place.

There has been a democratic revolution across South America and the old antagonisms (especially between Argentina and Chile, which supported Britain in 1982) have died down.

Grandstanding

Despite dismissing it as another round of grandstanding that will lead nowhere, the British government is having to work harder than usual diplomatically to justify its refusal to discuss sovereignty.

Argentina's President Cristina Kirchner and Mexico's President Felipe Calderon  in Cancun 22 February 2010
Argentina's leader (left) said her nation was committed to peace

Its minister for the region, Chris Bryant, said that Britain had "no doubt about our sovereignty over the Falkland Islands".

"It is underpinned by the principle of democratic self-determination. Falkland Islanders want to remain British," he added.

Earlier, Argentina had imposed a new requirement for shipping to get permission to go from there to the islands.

This was in response to the start of drilling for oil off the Falklands, within the exclusive economic zone claimed by the Falkland Islands government, with the support of the UK.

However, even Argentina says this will not lead to conflict.

'Ridiculous claim'

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner told the Rio Group meeting in Mexico that the British Foreign Office had "stirred up the spectre of a threat of war from the Argentine Republic".

She continued: "This, I would say, was a ridiculous claim - no, it was a brazen claim because I think that since the return of democracy, few countries have given better evidence than Argentina has that it is a country with a profound commitment to peace."

File pic of Argentine bomb exploding on board the Royal Navy frigate HMS Antelope in 1982
There is little chance of a re-run of 1982's conflict, say analysts

So, one can rule out an armed conflict, despite the warning of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez that if it came to one, Argentina would not be alone this time.

President Chavez also had some advice for the British monarch: "Queen of England, I'm talking to you. The time for empires is over, haven't you noticed? Return the Malvinas to the Argentine people."

But the Rio Group declaration supporting Argentina does not commit any government to giving Argentina material aid in the dispute, and all the talk there, as well as at the UN, is that the dispute should be solved peacefully.

Argentina has not got very far in the UN beyond an annual call from the decolonisation committee for talks about sovereignty and for a peaceful resolution.

The basic problem remains the same.

Treasure islands?

Argentina claims the islands based on its possession of them before the British takeover of 1833.

Ocean Guardian under tow
The Ocean Guardian rig began drilling on Monday

Britain rejects this historical claim and bases its own claim on the self-determination of the people living in the islands.

The best effort to get the two countries closer together came in 1995 when, in a joint declaration, both agreed to co-operate in developing oil exploration in the south-west Atlantic.

The agreement broke down when Argentina wanted to expand the co-operation zone across the disputed seas and Britain refused.

In the present atmosphere, it appears unlikely that the declaration could be revived in the event that oil is found in the drilling now under way.

So a flare-up of the dispute can be expected from time to time, with both sides falling back on their entrenched positions.

This has been going on since 1833 and will run and run.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

Falkland Islands map



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