The Falkland Islands are an archipelago in the South Atlantic comprising two main islands, East and West Falkland, and approximately 778 smaller islands and islets. The Falkland Islands has a population of around 3,200 people. They are situated 300 miles from the southern extremity of Argentina and 8,000 miles from the United Kingdom. The Falklands are an overseas territory of the United Kingdom, but they are also claimed by Argentina, which calls them Las Malvinas. The dispute between the two states over sovereignty of the Islands escalated into conflict when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in April 1982.

1. Falklands War: April–June 1982

On 2 April 1982, the Argentinian military junta, then in power and led by General Leopoldo Galtieri, invaded the Falklands and took control of the capital Port Stanley.

In response to the invasion, the British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, instructed defence staff and service chiefs to assemble a naval taskforce of warships and rapidly refitted merchant ships. The taskforce set sail from Portsmouth on 5 and 6 April, led by HMS Hermes. The taskforce reached the Falklands in early May. On 2 May 1982, the British submarine HMS Conqueror sank the Argentinian cruiser General Belgrano, which lost over 300 of its crew. After this incident Argentinian ships remained in port.

However, according to the Imperial War Museums (IWM), the Argentinian air force still posed a threat. Two days after the sinking of General Belgrano, an Argentinian cruise missile fired from a fighter aircraft sank the British destroyer HMS Sheffield, killing 20 of its crew. By the end of the conflict, the British had lost several ships to attack from Argentinian aircraft armed with missiles. IWM describes the attacks on landing logistic ships RFA Sir Galahad and RFA Sir Tristram and merchant container ship SS Atlantic Conveyor as “particularly devastating”.

On 12 May 1982, the requisitioned Cunard liner Queen Elizabeth 2 set sail from Southampton carrying 3,000 further troops. On 21 May, the first British amphibious landings on the Falklands took place. After a series of engagements against the conscript Argentinian army, the British troops recaptured Port Stanley on 14 June 1982. The following day more than 11,000 Argentinian soldiers surrendered. During the conflict 649 Argentine soldiers were killed, while 255 British service personnel and three Falkland islanders died.

2. Question of sovereignty: The historic claims

The British claim to sovereignty over the Falkland Islands is based on the argument that with the “exception of two months of illegal occupation in 1982”, Britain has “continuously, peacefully and effectively inhabited and administered” the Islands since 1833. It also bases its case on the principle of self-determination, according to which the people of territories such as the Falklands have the right to choose their own future and status. The Argentinian government’s claim is based on Spain’s possessory title and the concept of territorial continuity. However, Britain argues that possessory title is not accepted as a general principle of international law.

The first recorded landing on the Falklands was made in 1690 by the English naval captain John Strong. However, the English did not establish a permanent settlement at that time. In 1764, French colonists established the settlement of Port Louis on East Falkland. The following year, 1765, a British expedition reached West Falkland and took formal possession of it and all neighbouring islands in the name of the British crown. A British settlement was established on West Falkland in 1766. The same year, the French colony was sold to the Spanish, who named it Puerto de la Soledad.

In 1774, the British settlement was withdrawn, but British sovereignty was not abandoned. In 1816, Argentina declared its independence from Spain and asserted its authority over the Falklands as the successor state to Spain. In 1820, Colonel Jewett took formal possession of the islands on behalf of Buenos Aires. The validity of this possession has since been contested, for example by research cited by the Falkland Islands Association. However, Britain had never relinquished its claim to sovereignty over the Islands, and in 1833, sent a warship to Soledad and expelled the remaining Argentinian military personnel. This followed on from an attempt by an Argentine military garrison to establish sovereignty over the Falkland Islands on 6 October 1832.

According to Thatcher’s biographer David Cannadine, in the 1970s the British government’s preferred solution was a diplomatic one. Lord Carrington, foreign secretary between 1979 and 1982, favoured a ‘leaseback scheme’. The idea was to cede sovereignty to Argentina, in return for which the British government would continue to administer the islands on behalf of the settlers. In 1980 Carrington sent junior foreign minister Nicholas Ridley to present the proposal to the Falkland islanders. However, they rejected the plans. According to Cannadine, a number of the government’s backbenchers also opposed the policy, and the “leaseback scheme was quietly dropped”. When Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher told the House of Commons that the Falkland Islands and their dependencies “remain[ed] British territory” and that “no aggression and no invasion can alter that simple fact”.

While in recent years there has been some agreement between Argentina and the United Kingdom on issues such as the Red Cross mission to identify Argentine soldiers who were killed in the 1982 conflict, and buried in the Islands, there has been no resumption of negotiations on the matter of sovereignty. Both parties maintain their stance on the subject.

3. The continued debate over sovereignty

The Falkland Islands have been on the UN’s list of non-self-governing territories since 1946, and its Special Committee on Decolonisation (C-24) has been considering the Falklands since 1964. On the committee’s recommendation, the UN general assembly adopted resolution 2065 (XX) in 1965, which noted the existence of a sovereignty dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina over the Falkland Islands. The resolution “invite[d] parties to find a peaceful resolution”.

In recent years, the C-24 has adopted on an annual basis a resolution devoted to the Falklands. The 2021 resolution noted that the committee was “distressed” that the dispute had not been settled and requested the governments resume negotiations to find a “peaceful solution”.

The issue is addressed by other international organisations such as the Community of Latin America and Caribbean States (CELAC), the Organisation of American States (OAS), Mercosur (or the Southern Common Market) and the Group of 77 and China. In 2020, CELAC and Mercosur reiterated their support for the legitimate rights of Argentina in the sovereignty dispute. The Group of 77 and China and OAS reaffirmed their view that Argentina and the UK resume negotiations on the issue. The United Kingdom is not a member of these organisations, with the exception of OAS, where it has observer status.

The UK government argues that the statements made by these organisations do not fully reflect the Falkland Islanders’ right to self-determination. The UK maintains this right is enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations and in article 1 of the two international covenants on human rights. Therefore, the UK maintains that “no dialogue on sovereignty [is] possible unless the Islanders so wished”. The UK states that its relationship with its overseas territories is a “modern one based on partnership”. The territories are “internally self-governing”, subject only to the UK retaining powers to “enable it to carry out its obligations under international law”.

Argentina maintains that since its independence from Spain, from which it inherited the Falklands Islands, Argentina has “uninterruptedly exercised its [sovereignty] rights” over the territory. In 2020, the Argentinean Congress unanimously enacted two laws that reaffirmed its sovereignty rights. Argentina told the C-24 in 2021 that the principle of self-determination is not applicable to the inhabitants of the Islands, who had not “been subjected to the alien subjugation, domination or exploitation by a colonial power.” The Argentinean government highlights that the UN general assembly “expressly rejected”, on two occasions in 1985, the proposals by the UK to incorporate the principle of self-determination into a resolution on the question. The Argentinean government has requested the secretary-general to renew their efforts to assist the parties to negotiate a peaceful settlement.

In 2020, the UN general assembly reaffirmed that the question of the Falkland Islands would remain on its agenda for consideration.

The Falkland Islands exercise a large measure of internal self-governance, although supreme authority is vested in the British crown. The present constitution came into operation on 1 January 2009. It was agreed between the UK government and the Falkland Islands government. The right to self-determination is enshrined in the constitution. In a referendum held by the Falklands Government in 2013, 99.8% of the voters did so in favour of remaining an overseas territory of the UK. In 2021, two members of the Falkland Islands Legislative Assembly told the C-24 that the majority of the territory’s residents wanted to remain a British overseas territory.

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This article was updated on 1 August 2022 to clarify ambiguities in section 2.

Cover image: © IWM FKD 2028 (cropped)