40 years ago Britain and Argentina fought a bitter war over a few small and remote islands in the Atlantic ocean. The Falkland islands remain a controversial issue today. Where are the Falklands? Why did Argentina and Britain go to war over them? And who should control the islands? Let’s discuss these questions on today’s episode of Thinking in English! 

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Vocabulary List

Remote (adj) – far away in distance

He lives in a remote mountain village

Sparsely (adv) – with only a small number or amount of people or things

His room is sparsely furnished

To renounce (v) – to say formally or publicly that you no longer own, support, believe in, or have a connection with something

Gandhi renounced the use of violence

Sovereignty (n) – the power of a country to control its own government

Talks are ongoing over the sovereignty of the disputed island

To occupy (v) – to move into and take control and/or possession of a place

Troops quickly occupied the city 

To surrender (v) – to stop fighting and admit defeat

They would rather die than surrender

To inherit (v) – if you inherit a situation, problem, department, etc., you become responsible for dealing with it or managing it

When I took on the job of manager, I inherited a lot of financial problems

Undisputed (adj) – if something is undisputed, everyone agrees about it

He is the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world

Self-determination (n) – the ability or power to make decisions for yourself, especially the power of a nation to decide how it will be governed 

The UN considers self-determination to be a human right   

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40 years ago, on April 2nd 1982, Argentina invaded a remote British colony known as the Falkland Islands. A short but bitter war quickly followed which made headlines around the world and left hundreds dead. 40 years on the Falkland Islands remain a highly controversial part of the world, particularly in Argentina who maintain the islands should be part of the South American country.

What and where are the Falkland Islands? Why was there a war over the remote territory? And who should control the islands? By the end of today’s episode, you all should have a clearer idea about these issues!

Importantly, I need to make it clear that although I’m British, I will always try to approach issues neutrally and think critically when discussing something controversial. I know I have Argentinian listeners and if I say something you disagree with or think is incorrect – that is fine! Reach out to me and let me know why – just please don’t get angry with me… I always ask my listeners to keep an open mind, and that is true about an issue you think you already know about. 

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Where are the Falkland Islands?

Map of the Falkland Islands

The Falkland Islands (or Malvinas in Argentina) are a small, isolated, and sparsely-populated British overseas territory located in the south-west Atlantic Ocean (I’ll put a map in the blog so you can see yourself!) about 8000 miles away from Britain. There are two main islands to the territory (East and West Falkland) and hundreds of smaller islands. 

The Falkland Islands are a British Overseas Territory. There are currently 14 British Overseas Territories ranging from Gibraltar in Europe, to Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific (check out my episode on Pitcairn…), and Anguilla in the Caribbean. All of the overseas territories have some kind of connection to Britain’s history and culture – although each place is certainly different and unique.  

Most overseas territories, including the Falkland Islands, are self-governing – meaning they have their own governments and councils to make decisions relevant to the territory. However, Britain tends to be responsible for the defence and international relations of such countries. The government of the Falkland islands is also responsible for other British territories including South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands! 

As of 2012, the Falkland Islands have a population of 2840. The population is almost entirely of British descent and are English speaking. The main industry on the island is sheep farming – wool and some meat are sold to Great Britain. Tourism has also become a major industry in recent years, and there are current attempts to extract oil from under the Falklands!

The Falklands are not the easiest place to live. The wind averages over 30km per hour, and temperatures rarely get higher than 7 or 8 degrees. There are no natural trees, but a great variety of birds and sea animals can be found around the Falklands!

History of the Falkland Islands

The islands were first landed on by an English sailor called John Strong in the year 1690 – he named the islands after a British naval official called Viscount Falkland. Years later the French were the first country to found a settlement on the islands. Britain founded their first settlement on islands just after the French, but they were forced to leave by the Spanish in 1770. 

Britain returned to the island in 1771 after threatening a war with Spain, but the left the island again a few years later due to economic problems. Importantly, when Britain left they never renounced their claim to the island!  

Argentina became an independent country in 1816, and soon declared that they now owned the Falklands (or Malvinas). Remember, however, that Britain never renounced their claim so there were now competing claims to who owned the islands. 

The USA destroyed Argentina’s main settlement in 1831 after the community arrested American fishing boats. In 1833 Britain retook control of the islands and forced the few remaining Argentinian officials to leave. By the end of the 19th century, a British community of 1,800 people was living independently on the territory. At the same time, Argentina regularly protested and complained against the British settlement. 

After WW2, the United Nations also started to consider the issue of the Falkland Islands sovereignty. In 1965, the UN General Assembly asked Britain and Argentina to find a peaceful solution to the issue. Discussions were regularly held until 1982, when Argentina decided to invade the islands. 

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The Falklands War

In April 1982, Argentinian President Leopoldo Galtieri decided to invade and take control of the islands by military force. Argentina had already established a settlement of the South Sandwich Islands in 1976 – this was not authorised by the UK but was unopposed at the time. In 1982, they decided to fully occupy the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. 

An Argentinian military force was sent to the islands, the British Governor was sent back to the UK along with a small group of soldiers who surrendered to the much larger Argentinian forces. Some of the Falkland Islanders were deported off the island by the AR gentians, while others were arrested and spent weeks under Argentinian control. 

In response, the British Prime Minister authorised a full military operation involving all branches of the British armed forces for the first time since WW2. 127 warships, submarines, and merchant ships taken over by the British government set off to reclaim the Falkland islands. 

After retaking South Georgia on April 25th, the British military established an exclusion zone around the Falkland islands. No ships or aircraft were allowed in or out of the zone. Argentinian ships were attacked and sunk, including the ARA General Belgrano which sank with a loss of over 300 Argentinians. Argentina responded by attacking British ships – in total 7 British ships were sunk and many others seriously damaged. 

Despite Argentinian attacks on ships, 4000 British soldiers landed on the Eastern island in May. Although Argentina had significantly more soldiers on the island than the British, Argentina’s soldiers were mainly conscripts with less experience than the professional British military. British troops were forced to march 56 miles across East Falkland while avoiding mines, enduring terrible weather, and attacking largely at night due to the lack of cover on the island. Fierce battles took place between the British and Argentine forces. 

After more fighting in the mountains behind the Island’s capital Port Stanley, Argentina’s soldiers surrendered on June 14th. 11,000 Argentine soldiers had their weapons confiscated and were sent back to Argentina. The islanders enthusiastically celebrated the return of the British, and the task force then retook control of the South Sandwich islands. In total, 907 people died during the conflict: 649 Argentinian, 255 British soldiers, and three Falkland Islanders. 

After the war, the restrictions introduced by Argentina were removed and Britain established stronger control. A larger contingent of soldiers and warships are now permanently stationed in the region. Britain and Argentina re-established diplomatic relations in the 1990s, but the issue of the Falklands is still controversial and disputed in the South American country. 

Falkland Islanders after the referendum in 2013!

In 2009, the Falkland islands introduced a new constitution. The island’s government is now significantly stronger and the islanders have the right to decide for themselves the political status of the territory. In March 2013, a referendum was held on the sovereignty of the Falkland islands – basically the islanders were asked whether they wanted to stay as an Overseas Territory of the UK. 92% of islanders voted, with 99.8% voting to stay British. Only 3 people didn’t vote yes – and in fact they didn’t vote no either (their votes were blank or incorrectly filled in). 

Who should control the Falkland Islands?

Who should control the Falkland islands? I’m sure as you’ve listened to this episode, you’ve been questioning who should be in control of the islands. Should it be the UK? Or Argentina? Or should they be independent? I think a good way to think about these issues is by looking at Britain and Argentina’s reasons for saying the Falkland islands should be their territory. 

From the Argentinian perspective, the Falkland Islands are Argentinian because they inherited them from Spain when they became an independent country. During discussions with the UN, Argentina cited a 1493 declaration by the Pope which divided newly discovered territories between Portugal and Spain. Argentina argues that the Falklands were in the Spanish area. 

However, at the time the Falklands had not been discovered, and Spain was actually the third country to establish a settlement on the island – behind the French and British. Spain bought the French settlement, but Britain never renounced their claims. Argentina also argues that because Britain never protested the Spanish occupation in the 18th century, they had in effect dropped their claims. The islands were claimed officially by Argentina in 1820 and Argentina controlled the territory until 1833. 

Argentina also bases their claim on the location of the Falkland Islands – they are closest to Argentina and on the same continental shelf. In summary, Argentina’s claims to the Falklands are based on history, geography, and inheritance from Spain.

On the other hand, the UK also claims the Falkland Islands. While Argentina consistently references the fact that they controlled the islands until 1833, the UK actually claimed and settled the islands long before Argentina was a country. When the UK left the island in 1774 due to economic conditions, they left documents on the island explaining it was still a British territory. Argentina could not have inherited the islands from Spain because Spain was not in undisputed control of the islands when Argentina became independent!

The Islands have been continuously and peacefully occupied by Britain since 1833, which also gives justification for British sovereignty.  Argentina claims that the current population of the island should not be able to choose for themselves the political situation of the Falklands because the Argentinian settlement in 1833 was illegally taken over and the Argentinians forced back to Argentina. However, while soldiers were sent back civilians and regular people were asked, and even encouraged, to stay!

In my opinion, the strongest claim comes from the people of the islands. The principle of self determination states that people should be able to make their own decisions. Considering 99.8% of the island voted to stay British 10 years ago, I think it is clear they support Britain’s claim. They have lived on the island for nearly 200 years, speak English, and are British citizens. 

Final Thoughts

What do you think? After hearing the history and current situation of the Falkland Islands, as well as the arguments by each country, who should control the islands? Personally, I think we should respect what the islanders want. If they want to stay British, then the islands should stay British; if they want to become independent or Argentine then they should be allowed to be Argentinian. 

Britain and Argentina are not the only countries with a territorial dispute. The chances are that your country has, or in the past had, an argument with another country about land. Disputes over Crimea and the Donbas region in Ukraine have now resulted in a war after an invasion by Russia. China has disputes with almost every country it is close to – especially over islands in the South China sea. India and Pakistan; Israel and Palestine; Western Sahara in Africa; Transnistria in Eastern Europe; Japan and Russia; Taiwan; Somaliland and Somalia; and Antarctica…. There are disputes over land everywhere. 

Often the wishes of the normal people who live in disputed lands are ignored by the powerful central governments who don’t want to look weak. But we should remember that there are often real people who have lived in disputed areas for years – and their wishes need to be respected! 

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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