And so it came to pass: in less than 24 hours, Argentina’s armed forces had invaded the islands. Thus began a 10-week occupation, ended only by a British task force sent to restore the Falkland islanders’ liberty.
This week’s anniversary of the start of that conflict marks a day for commemoration and reflection, especially for those families – on both sides – whose loved ones were lost to its battles, including many Argentine soldiers who also rest in peace on the islands. In the UK, we will remember those 255 service personnel who made the ultimate sacrifice for an inviolable principle: to restore the Falkland islanders’ right to determine by whom they wished to be governed.
As we look back on those events, we should remind the world that in the years since their liberation the Falkland islanders have repeated – without qualification or equivocation – their wish to keep their constitutional status, their national identity, and to live peacefully with their neighbours in Latin America. As long as the people of the Falklands continue to express that view, the UK will defend and support their right to do so.
Over the past 30 years, much has changed. Despite the challenges of relative geographic isolation, the Falklands have grown and prospered. The population has almost doubled to about 3,000. GDP rose from £5 million in 1980 to more than £100 million in recent years. And in the face of a sustained Argentine effort to prevent them from doing so, the Falkland islanders have developed a thriving local economy, with a responsibly managed fishery, growing tourism based on their unique natural environment, and the beginnings of a
This transformation has coincided with significant wider change across Latin America as well. Democracies have blossomed, and trade between neighbours is driving socio-economic progress throughout the region. These are positive developments which I welcome warmly. As I said in a speech shortly after becoming Foreign Secretary, the UK has been too much absent from South America for too long. The increased potential of the partnerships between Britain and Latin American countries is beginning to show since we’ve increased our diplomatic presence, with more staff and new posts, and dramatically increased the number of ministerial visits to the region since 2010. We are well on track to double our trade with Brazil, Mexico and Colombia by 2015.
Regardless of the regional politics, the Falkland islanders are keen to play their part in this new regional reality. The trade, commercial and people-to-people links between the islands and South America are long-standing, but have even more promise today. As 21st-century mature democracies, we should all embrace the economic opportunities available to those willing to trade openly in an increasingly interconnected world.
Against this broader context, the Argentine government’s policy in recent months has been deeply regrettable and its statements have impressed few people, including in South America. In place of the dialogue and engagement we saw in the 1990s, Argentina has in recent years taken a range of measures to try to coerce the islands: from attempts to intimidate businesses involved in the hydrocarbons industry, to the harassment of Falkland fishing vessels by the Argentine coastguard; from threats to cut the one air link between the islands and South America, to actually closing its ports to cruise ships that have visited the Falklands. Such efforts to intensify a disagreement – which neither we nor the people of the Falkland Islands have ever sought to provoke – are out of step with international collaboration in the modern world.
Britain will maintain an absolute commitment to preserve the right of the Falkland islanders, some of whom have lived there for nine generations, to determine their own political and economic destiny.
And while the British government will not negotiate over the sovereignty of the islands unless and until the people who live there wish it, there is much that all three of us – Falklands, UK and Argentina – can nevertheless discuss together. Fisheries, hydrocarbons, communications, trade and confidence-building measures have all been the subject of agreements in the past – albeit agreements that Argentina has subsequently resiled from.
So if anniversaries provide moments for reflection, it is surely time to reflect on how we can all work together in our common interest in the years ahead. It is relevant that many countries who have bilateral disagreements still collaborate on areas where there are mutual benefits such as economic and trade co-operation. That is our wish with Argentina.