Falklands/Argentina: Implementing the 2016 Joint Communiqués: Progress?

President Macri promised a new relationship with the UK and a less confrontational approach on matters relating to the Falkland Islands when he was elected in 2015. The Joint Communiqués of September and December 2016 started the process towards his aim of gradual rapprochement. Fulfilment of the humanitarian project, led by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), to identify the remains of unidentified Argentine war dead buried in the cemetery near Darwin, which culminated in the visit of Argentine relatives on 26 March 2018, has been a significant step forward. But what of the other commitments made in the Communiqués? Progress has been slower but there are signs of movement behind the scenes on some issues. Popular sensitivities on these are likely, however, to remain in both Argentina and the Falkland Islands.

Argentine War Dead

The conclusion of the ICRC project to identify by DNA testing the remains of unknown Argentine combatants buried in the cemetery near Darwin culminated in a moving ceremony there on 26 March attended by over 200 Argentine relatives of the fallen, who travelled in (and out on the same day) on two specially chartered aircraft  – see separate more detailed report. The ICRC had managed to identify 90 bodies from the 121 graves with unidentified remains; each now has a new plaque with details of the person concerned, so that relatives can grieve properly. Not all Argentine families had given DNA samples for comparisons to be made; so further work to encourage others to do so will be made. Equally some who had done so did not get a match. The task is therefore not yet fully complete.

This humanitarian gesture was welcomed by all involved and the organisation of the ceremony and associated logistics was acknowledged to have been a great success. The Argentine Government made much of the occasion. Retired UK Colonel Geoffrey Cardozo, who as a Captain in the aftermath of the conflict was given the task of burying the Argentine dead, was lauded for his work; his detailed records informed much of the work of the ICRC’s forensic specialists. Argentine Foreign Minister, Jorge Faurie, claimed that the visit was the result of the new relationship of dialogue with the UK Government. The Falkland Islands Government (FIG), which had worked closely with the Argentine Families Commission on the arrangements, concluded that "This visit by the relatives…shows what can be achieved with goodwill on both sides.”

The visit has led to pressure from Argentine families for further, though smaller, organised visits using chartered aircraft to avoid the week-long stay if using the LATAM flight. This may loosen the Argentine ban on chartered aircraft flying to and from the Falklands, imposed by President Nestor Kirchner in 2005. If so, it will be a significant move.

Separately, at least one of the Argentine families has called for the repatriation of their loved one. This would undoubtedly be welcomed and facilitated by Falkland Islanders (and had been offered by the UK Government immediately after the Argentine surrender) but it runs counter to the Argentine Government’s policy that the Argentine war dead are buried in Argentina; so they are likely to resist the family’s plea. Foreign Minister Faurie made it clear to the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee that the Argentine Government would never give up its sovereignty claim and that the Argentine military who rested in the Islands were an ‘element which sustains our claim’.

Second Commercial Flight

The September 2016 Communiqué agreed that ‘further air links between the Falkland islands and third countries would be established’ with two stops in Argentina (i.e. one in each direction) per month as with the current LATAM flight to/from Punta Arenas, Chile via Rio Gallegos. The December 2016 Communiqué reported that a process for setting up an additional air service had been agreed.

In early February this year, joint letters from the UK and Argentine Governments were handed over to the Governments of Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay inviting their assistance in encouraging commercial airline operators to communicate interest in operating a second commercial flight. In mid-February, FIG announced a deadline of 31 March for this and reported that Aviation Economics had been appointed to oversee the evaluation process, which they hoped to conclude by the end of April. The intent is that the second flight should be operational by October 2018. In testimony to the Argentine Senate Foreign Affairs Committee on 21 March, Foreign Minister Faurie indicated that seven airlines had registered their interest – 3 from Brazil, 2 from Chile and 2 from Uruguay.

This looks like progress. FIG has long sought a second airlink to the region both to increase access to the Islands and strengthen links to international markets. The Falkland Islands Chamber of Commerce has been a strong supporter of a second link. But Faurie came under criticism from Senators for not insisting on a direct scheduled flight by an Argentine carrier to and from Buenos Aires. This has been matched by a body of concern within the Falkland Islands about another air link to Argentina; memories of the time when Argentina controlled all communication links with the Islands die hard. There are fears that, once the second flight was operational, Argentina would undercut the LATAM flight to the disadvantage of the Islands. Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) have given public reassurances that they would not agree to a stopover in Buenos Aires and have rebutted suggestions that they are bowing to pressure from the UK Government to compromise on this.

Fisheries Conservation

The December 2016 Communiqué agreed on the importance of data exchange in relation to fish stocks in the South West Atlantic and proposed further discussion on the reactivation of the South Atlantic Fisheries Commission (SAFC) and the possibility of setting up an international fisheries conservation body for the region.

The SAFC, established under President Menem in the 1990s, had worked effectively on fisheries conservation until the Kirchners came into power. The Kirchners withdrew co-operation in 2005; Cristina de Kirchner allowed high catches by the Argentine fishing fleet, seriously depleting fish stocks, particularly of migratory species, to the detriment of the Falklands fisheries. It is an unfortunate result of the disagreement over sovereignty of the Falkland Islands that the SW Atlantic is the only significant fishing zone not regulated by an international body. Both the Falkland Islands and Argentine Governments are concerned at the level of fishing on the high seas just outside their respective 200 mile zones - Uruguay provides a base for the transhipment of these catches.

In March, FIG issued a press release saying that FIG had been working closely with the UK Government to progress discussions with Argentina on shared fish and squid stocks in the SW Atlantic with a view to reviving the practice of exchanging scientific data, previously carried out by the SAFC’s scientific sub-committee. FIG expressed cautious optimism that an initial meeting could be held by the middle of this year. Argentine Foreign Minister Faurie went further in his report to the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee by saying that the meeting would be held in May.

Removal of Trade Sanctions

The Kirchner administration made it illegal for any Argentine company or international businesses operating in Argentina to have commercial links with the Falkland Islands without Argentine permits. By pressing other South American states to follow suit, they sought to impose an economic blockade against the Falkland Islands.

The December 2016 Communiqué under Macri undertook to remove all obstacles limiting the economic growth and sustainable development of the Falkland Islands, including in trade, fishing, shipping and hydrocarbons.

But progress on any of this has been absent, since it will require the repeal of legislation – and Macri does not command a full majority in Congress (either in the Senate or the House of Deputies). Interestingly, Faurie downplayed the prospect of oil development in the Falklands, saying that it was not profitable on current prices and unlikely in the near future.

Sovereignty

Argentina remains firm in its commitment to its sovereignty claim over the Falkland Islands, even though Macri’s administration is often criticised in Argentina for soft-pedalling on the issue. His comments on the anniversary of the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands on 2 April, usually an opportunity for hostile rhetoric under the Kirchners, were decidedly low-key. His attitude is that Argentina must gain the trust of the international community (and Islanders) as a reputable nation before there can be any hope of a change of attitude in the Falklands.

The Islanders remain firmly committed, however, to their wish to remain a British Overseas Territory and Prime Minister May made it clear in her Christmas message to the Islanders that the UK Government would continue to support their right to self-determination.