The Falkland Islands Conflict: in defense of Argentine recourse to force

Argentina’s General Belgrano cruiser sinks after being torpedoed by the British HMS Conqueror submarine on May 1st, 1982. Source: The Atlantic, “30 Years since the Falklands War”

The Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 was met by armed British resistance, which ultimately succeeded in repelling the Argentinian military. The prevalent reaction of the international community was that of sympathy towards the UK, and of condemnation of Argentina’s “act of unprovoked aggression.”(Freedman) The issue, however, is more intricate than the international consensus suggests. There is a strong case to be made in favor of Argentina, and against the British resort to armed resistance. Although I will not claim that Argentina holds complete moral authority in this case, I hope to level the moral playing field between the UK and Argentina. My argument will largely be based off Michael Walzer’s conception of jus ad bellum in his book “Just and Unjust Wars,” and Lawrence Friedman’s account of the conflict in “Britain and the Falkland Islands War.”

Michael Walzer’s Just War Theory parts from the basic precepts of political sovereignty and territorial integrity to construct a moral framework with which we can evaluate armed conflict. According to Walzer, the political sovereignty of a nation arises when its people associate in political communities, and, through their collective rights of self-determination, form institutions of governance and economic sustenance. Territorial integrity is simply an extension of political sovereignty. In Walzer’s words: “the right of a nation or people not to be invaded derives from the common life its members have made on their piece of land.”(Walzer) In other words, territorial integrity guarantees that a community can carry out its natural activities (including economic activity), without external interference.

So how do the ideas of political sovereignty and territorial integrity apply to the Falkland Islands conflict? Initially, one might think that Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands constitutes a violation of the territorial integrity of both the islanders, and the larger political body that claims to represent them: the UK. However, such an evaluation would neglect the substantial and complex historical circumstances that surround the conflict. In 1765 Britain “established its own settlement in West Falkland, with no contact being made with the French [then the formal settlers of East Falkland] and later Spain [which formally acquired the French settlement in 1767].”(Freedman) Then in 1770 Spain, annoyed by British presence, removed the British settlers by force. The British settlement lingered on in the island for four more years, finally abandoning the Falklands in 1774. Thereafter, the islands remained under Spanish control until 1811 when a large portion of Spain’s South American colonies gained independence. The Falklands were then “occupied by the Government of Buenos Aires for the United Provinces, the forerunner of Argentina, in 1816, settled in 1820 and sovereignty was officially claimed in 1829.”(Freedman)

Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, 1982. Source: The Atlantic, “30 Years since the Falklands War”

This historical moment merits some analysis. At this point in time, Argentina has formally claimed sovereignty over the islands, and, perhaps more importantly, has established a settlement. By all accounts Argentina has a right of territorial integrity over the Malvinas (as they were called by the Argentinians), stemming from the political sovereignty not only of the islanders but of the mainland Argentinians as well. The reason why the mainlanders’ right of territorial integrity extends to the islands is a direct application of the concept of self-determination and political sovereignty. Because these concepts encompass the right of political communities to carry out economic activities, and because said activities inevitably involve natural resources including land and maritime terrain, the mainland Argentinians are entitled (chiefly because of their proximity) to use the islands and their surroundings to their economic advantage.

Having established that Argentina was both morally and legally entitled to the islands in 1829, we are now in a position to judge the morality of British actions thereafter. In 1833, Britain “expelled the Argentine presence, … established [the islands] as a crown colony in 1840, and then settled [them] with British subjects shipped there for the purpose.”(Freedman) Clearly, Britain’s actions were an utter violation of Argentina’s rights to political sovereignty and territorial integrity. Without the slightest respect for Argentinians’ rights, Britain usurped the islands, taking advantage of the relative weakness of the fledgling Argentine nation to further its imperialist agenda of the time (which consisted of cementing the naval hegemony of Britain in the South Atlantic). As Freedman succinctly puts it: “the British occupation of 1833 was illegal and remains so.”(Freedman) After 1833, Britain remained in control of the Falklands up until 1982, the year of the conflict.

The UK and the majority of the international community seemed to think that Britain’s aggression of 1833 could simply be ignored after 150 years, at which point, according to their position, the UK was the rightful owner of the islands. Unfortunately for Britain, culpability does not wane over time. Any moral judgment of the situation has to address the illegitimacy of Britain’s acquisition of the islands. This point is, in my opinion, severely understated in discussions of the Falklands War. If we concede that this point is valid, then we can posit with confidence a moral defense for the Argentinian side.

Take the reasoning of Mrs. Jeanne Kirkpatrick, US Ambassador to the United Nations at the time: “The Argentinians have been claiming for 200 years that they own those islands. If they own those islands, then moving troops into them is not armed aggression.”(Freedman) To expand on Mrs. Kirkpatrick’s ideas let’s resort to the domestic analogy that Walzer often uses to bolster his moral arguments. Suppose an intruder comes into a man’s backyard, pitches a tent, and settles there without any justification. The man doesn’t have the means to expel the intruder from his backyard, and so, reluctantly, allows him to stay there for some time. It finally comes a time when the man musters the will and the means to expel the intruder. Is he not justified to reclaim the territory that is rightfully his? Even if the intruder has spent a long time settled there? Even if that piece of backyard is not necessary for the owner’s survival? The intruder has clearly violated the man’s rights to privacy and property, and his right to be “safe from intrusion”(Walzer) in his own home. I cannot image that many people would endorse the intruder’s position in this scenario. Granted, domestic analogies do not evoke all the intricacies present in international disputes, but they are nevertheless useful tools for evaluating the morality of a situation. In the international panorama, the UK clearly plays the part of the intruder, and Argentina plays the role of the house’s owner. British presence in the Falklands (which are only 300 miles from Argentina’s coast) interferes with Argentina’s regular activities in a similar way that the intruder’s presence in the man’s backyard interferes with his daily life.

Argentine soldiers shortly after disembarking on the Falkland Islands on April 13, 1982. Source: The Atlantic, “30 Years since the Falklands War”

The only important objection against Argentina’s invasion is the one concerning the Falklanders themselves. It is true that they had nothing to do with the original British occupation, and that, by 1982, they had established a common life on the islands. But the issue was not with the islanders; Argentina merely wanted to regain sovereignty over the territory. No harm would’ve come to the islanders had the UK decided to give the territory back to Argentina, instead of resorting to military force. Even if the Falklanders expressed their wish to remain under British control, their social and political link with the rest of the UK was weak at best. The fact that the islands are 8000 miles away from the UK brings into question whether such a link could even exist. Moreover, the UK was not very invested in meeting the needs of the Falklanders. As evidenced by Lord Shackleton’s 1976 report on the islands, the economic situation of the Falklands was dire, and “up to the mid-1970s outflows from the islands… from which the United Kingdom extracted a considerable tax revenue, exceeded the inflows of investment and aid.”(Freedman) Not only was the UK neglecting the Falklands economically, but a lot of its high-ranking politicians expressed a blatant indifference towards the islands. Foreign Secretary Anthony Crosland, for instance, said of Lord’s Shackleton’s recommendation to raise expenditure on the islands: “There are more urgent claims from much poorer communities. The right political circumstances do not exist.” If the UK’s political class didn’t care enough about the islanders to ensure their wellbeing, how legitimate was their political connection? Unfortunately for the Falklanders, they got caught in the crosshairs of a dispute between a country whose government neglects them, and a country with which they don’t identify.

A British Hercules plane flies over Port Stanley, 2012. Source: The Atlantic, “30 Years since the Falklands War”

Having considered these arguments it is impossible to dismiss Argentina’s actions as completely unjustified. There is no denying the fact that the British settlers of the Falklands initially settled there without moral justification, in an act of aggression against Argentinians’ collective rights. Argentina’s invasion, while it may seem violent, was really the result of more than a century of frustration. Frustration of the Argentinian people with the alien presence of the British, a longstanding symbol of colonialism and imperialist aggression. Unfortunately for Argentina, the military might of the UK proved too much handle; but a military defeat does not equate to a moral one.


Freedman L. (1988). Britain and the Falkland Islands War. London: Basil Blackwell.

Walzer, M. (1977). Just and Unjust Wars. New York: Basic Books.