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Drawing a Line from the Falklands to the Persian Gulf

Johanne Marie Skov | Lancaster University

Ken Griffiths, British sailors from HMS Cardiff ashore Pebble Island June 1982
Ken Griffiths, British sailors from HMS Cardiff ashore Pebble Island June 1982

Whilst this year marks the 40th anniversary of the 1982 Falklands War, it provides an opportunity to consider new perspectives on this 74-day conflict. The beauty of history is that everything is interconnected, and so too, this conflict plays out in a larger context. The Falklands War is traditionally viewed as a bilateral conflict between Britain and Argentina, but the war had implications for many other states too. As this article will demonstrate, some states found they had unexpected common enemies, or common causes - or even both! What follows is a segmented retelling of the Falklands War. The segments will be presented as individual puzzle pieces of information and as the article progresses the pieces will start to fit together in sometimes surprising and absurd ways to produce a coherent picture. The pieces of information have been collected from scholarships on the Falklands War and arms trade, United Nations (UN) documents, and internal Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) correspondence available at The National Archives in Kew.


The Falklands War took place during the Cold War. After the end of Second World War, the Northern Hemisphere was divided into two competing ideological blocs; the Western Bloc, led by the American superpower championing capitalism and democracy, and the Eastern Bloc which under Soviet superpower leadership championed Communism. Because the tension between the two Blocs did not develop into direct armed conflict, it was termed the Cold War. Each Bloc formed its own mutual defence pact against the other. The Eastern Bloc formed the Warsaw Pact, and the Western Bloc established the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).


Concomitant to the above development, the Second World War was followed by a period of decolonisation, where many countries achieved independence during the late 1940s to 1960s. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of 1961, was established by leaders of several recently independent sovereign states who believed that developing countries should maintain their independence and not be drawn into either the Eastern or Western Bloc and their Cold War. Further, they also believed that developing countries should be neither capitalist nor communist, but find their own way. The NAM was a post-colonial anti-imperial movement aimed at maintaining developing states’ freedom to build their own future, uncorrupted by Bloc politics.

The Falklands War broke out in 1982 when Argentina’s military invaded the islands. The Falkland Islands are a British Overseas Territory, located in the South Atlantic approx. 400 miles off the coast of Argentina and 8000 miles from the British Isles. At this time, Argentina was anti-communist, as was Britain. Argentina was also a full member of the NAM. Argentina justified the military invasion of the islands by referring to the fact that the territory was disputed and that ownership had never been properly settled. The Argentinians thus considered the military intervention an anti-colonial act against the British imperialists. Argentina still referred to the islands by their Argentinian name: Islas Malvinas.

HMS Sheffield at Diego Garcia. February 1982
HMS Sheffield at Diego Garcia. February 1982

When the Argentinians sank several British war ships, it became apparent that the French had supplied the Argentinians with arms, including the Exocet Missiles that sank the ships. The French and British were both part of the Western Bloc and therefore ‘on the same side’ in the Cold War. Moreover, both countries were part of NATO. The French firmly supported Britain in the Falklands War, if for no other reason, because it would look awkward if a NATO country was dealt a loss. This policy was naturally at odds with the arms transfers but the French were, and still are, known for their rather indiscriminate selling of arms.

Another country that was selling arms to Argentina was Israel. This meant that for the duration of the Falklands War the British unexpectedly had an ‘enemy’ in common with the Arabs. The Israelis had their reasons for selling arms to Argentina. These reasons went beyond the need to generate income. Many Jewish families migrated to Argentina in the sixteenth century, following the expulsion from Spain. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards they were joined by East- and Central European Jews fleeing economic upheaval, revolution and anti-Semitism. The result was a sizeable Jewish minority in Argentina. These Argentinian Jews were not treated well in the 1970s and 1980s as anti-Semitism was on the rise. Whilst the Israeli arms transfers were not necessarily very popular among Israelis and British Jews, the Israeli government feared that stopping the arms transfers would deteriorate the already precarious position of Jews in Argentina.


So far, with the exception of Israel, all the players mentioned have been either part of the Western Bloc, or the NAM. The Eastern Bloc was not a party involved in the conflict and one could therefore argue that the conflict had nothing to do with the Cold War. However, it is important to notice that all the alliances that have been discussed- the Western Bloc, NATO and the NAM – had been established in relation to the Cold War.


The Western superpower, the United States, was not very eager to get involved in the Falklands War. Some in the Reagan administration argued that the friendly South American country should be supported against a declining empire trying to pursue its claim to an old colony. Moreover, Argentina was considered by the Americans to be a bulwark against Communism in South America. Others in the administration weighted the Anglo-American “special relationship” and argued that the British should be allowed to defend their territory from armed invaders. Eventually the Reagan administration decided it had to maintain its good relationship with Britain as it was one of the great powers in Western Europe, and a fellow member of NATO. Had the Americans forced Britain to give up its claim to the Falklands, it would seriously have weakened the Anglo-American “special relationship”. Without American political and military logistical, material, and intelligence support, the British would have lost the islands.


Since 1945 the issue of Falkland sovereignty had been raised by Argentina with the United Nations (UN) several times. Britain repeatedly offered to have the issue settled in the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Argentina declined each offer. In 1964 a UN Resolution was passed, calling for both parties to reach a settlement that would be in the interest of the population of the Falkland Islands. The Islanders made clear that they wanted to stay British and so Britain upheld their right to self-determination.


When it became clear to the British that an Argentinian invasion force was on its way to the Islands they prepared a draft resolution for the UN Security Council demanding immediate cessation of all hostilities and the immediate withdrawal of all Argentinian forces. The Security Council has fifteen members, of which five (including Britain) are permanent members with veto powers. The additional ten seats in the Security Council are rotated between the rest of the members of the UN. For a resolution to pass it required the support of nine Council members and no vetoes.


Due to Cold War tensions, Britain knew that the Eastern Bloc and Eastern aligned Security Council members – the Soviet Union, China, and Poland - would not vote in favour of Western Britain. The question was whether the Soviet Union and China as permanent members of the Security Council would utilise their veto power, or merely abstain. Panama had already identified itself as a supporter of the Argentinian cause. Spain was uncertain as it was influenced by considerations of Latin solidarity. Britain had its own vote and knew it could count on the support of its fellow Western (aligned) states: the United States, France, Ireland and Japan. Britain thus had to secure at least four of the remaining five votes from Uganda, Togo, Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), Jordan, and Guyana. However, each of these five states were NAM members, partial to the anti-colonial cause.


Argentina’s strategy in the UN Security Council was based on past support for its stance in the sovereignty debate and thus counted on the South American countries. However, while the South American countries expressed their recognition of Argentinian sovereignty over the Islands during the debate preceding the vote, most of them also expressed that they preferred peaceful solutions to international disputes. When the Argentinian Ambassador attended a meeting of the Non-Aligned caucus of the UN, he argued hard for the Argentinian case, relying on shared anti-colonial sentiments. Argentina, therefore, expected that NAM members would support their cause. It is important at this stage to note that most Arab states were members of the NAM.


Argentina underestimated the objections by NAM members to the use of force. Guyana, the South American Security Council member, voted with Britain because it could not allow Argentina to set a precedent with the use of force. Zaire had similar considerations. France persuaded Togo on Britain’s behalf. After a phone call from Prime Minister Thatcher, Jordan voted with Britain. After all, Britain supported Jordan and the Palestinians in the Middle East peace process. It would appear some interconnections and commonalities of interests were created by the leveraging of unrelated relationships.


The British draft resolution was supported by ten votes and was passed as UNSC Resolution 502/1982. Uganda had decided to vote with Britain. Spain and the three Eastern (aligned) countries abstained. China and the Soviet Union would not use their veto power over a matter that was not of great importance to them. Moreover, the Soviet Bloc was ideologically anti-imperial and therefore tended to stay in step with the Non-Aligned vote. However, in a surprising turn of events the NAM was leaning towards the British vote. For the anti-imperialist Soviet Bloc and its allies, the most prudent course of action was thus suddenly to abstain, as they could not vote for the British out of principle. The Soviet predicament beautifully demonstrates the interconnectedness of the Cold War, the NAM and the Falklands War, resulting in absurd political balancing acts.


Argentina did not take Resolution 502 to be the end of their cause and the dispute thus continued on all fronts, militarily as well as diplomatically. Seven months later, in November 1982, the UN General Assembly voted on a draft for another resolution. This time the draft was presented by Argentina and called for a resumption of negotiations in order to find a peaceful resolution to the ongoing dispute over sovereignty. The resolution, however, had no binding force, and Britain had no interest in discussing the future of the Falklands with anyone other than the Islanders. Again, the Argentinians lobbied hard for the NAM votes. Though the passing of this draft into resolution was of little de facto consequence to the British, they still lobbied hard in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent it from being passed. In the Gulf countries, the British focused their lobby on the principle of self-determination. The same principle of self-determination that applied to the Falklands also applied to the Palestinians. Palestinian self-determination was precisely what the Arab states had been working for, for several decades. Suddenly the Falkland Islanders and the Palestinians had common interests, demonstrating yet another surprising interconnection. This became very apparent when the overwhelming majority of NAM members voted in favour of the Argentinian resolution but all Gulf countries either abstained or voted against the Argentinian resolution.*

 

* That is, the United Arab Emirates accidentally voted for the Argentinian resolution but promptly contacted the British explaining that the UAE delegation to the UN had been instructed to abstain and that they would submit a note of clarification to the UN to the effect that their vote should have been an abstention.


Further Reading:

  • Mark Pythian, The Politics of British Arms Sales Since 1964, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000).

  • Larence Freedman and Virginia Gamba-Stonehouse, Signals of War. The Falklands Conflict of 1982, (London: Faber and Faber, 1990).

  • Mark Garnett, Simon Mabon and Robert Smith, British Foreign Policy Since 1945, (London: Routledge, 2018), pp. 199-204.

  • Azriel Bermant, ‘A Chronicle of Failure Foretold: The UK, Israel and Arms Sales to Argentina in the Era of the Falklands War’, in: The International History Review ,vol. 41, no. 2 (2019), pp. 237-256.

Johanne Marie Skov is a doctoral candidate at Lancaster University. Her research focuses on Western intra-Bloc Cold War rivalry and arms transfers to the Global South. Her thesis is on the 1985 Anglo-Saudi Al Yamamah arms deal.