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The Argentina case

The Argentine government bases its claim to the Falkland Islands on two grounds -- proximity, and early settlement.

Let us examine these in turn and consider some of the implications.

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The Falkland Islands at their nearest point to South America lie some 300 miles from the entrance to the Straits of Magellan.

If that degree of proximity justifies a claim to sovereignty, then what about Taiwan which lies only 100 miles off the Chinese coast? Cuba is 90 miles from Key West in Florida. Does that mean the United States has a right to sovereignty over Cuba? The Island of Rhodes, inhabited almost exclusively by Greeks, lies only 15 miles from the Turkish shore. Should Turkey have Rhodes regardless of the wishes of its inhabitants?

There are scores of other cases around the world where recognition of proximity as grounds for conquest would be unsettling. International law does not recognize proximity as being a just reason for invasion and seizure.

Then let us consider early settlement.

The Falkland Islands were first discovered and named by a British Captain, John Strong, in 1690. The first settlement was apparently French, in the early 1760s. Small English and Spanish settlements came next. The French sold out to the Spanish. English and Spanish came and went.

The Spaniards finally pulled out in 1810. For the next 20 years there was no authority in the islands. In 1829 a German got himself a grant to much land and the title of governor from the new Argentine government in Buenos Aires. He was thrown out and his settlement burned by an American warship as punishment for his having seized an American whaler. The British came back in 1833 -- and have been there ever since.

The nominal Argentine settlement of 1829 to 1833 was noncontinuous. It seems to have never numbered more than about 100 persons. The majority were enslaved Indians, there against their will. The leaders were of various nationalities, none of Argentine origin.

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If a four-year settlement of that kind confers sovereignty or a right to seizure 150 years later, then the state of Delaware ought to go back to Sweden; Lousiana and Quebec to the French; Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California to the Mexicans. Under such reasoning the Russians could claim all of northern California down to and including San Francisco. And just think for a moment what the Italians could claim as successors to the Roman Empire.

The plain fact is that the Argentine claims based on proximity and early settlement have no standing in international law or world custom.

The Argentine seizure of the Falkland Islands by armed force was a simple case of a land grab by military aggression which, if allowed to stand, would have disastrously unsettling implications all over the world.

There is no reason I can think of why the British should even consider negotiating. What is there to negotiate about? The islands have been British for a century and a half. The inhabitants are all British.

International law and an enormous mass of supplementary treaties and documents, including the charter of the United Nations, condemn military aggression and the subjugation of a population by force of arms.

If the Falkland Islanders themselves wanted to change from British to Argentine nationality, they would have a right so to do. In theory they could go independent. In practice, of course, they are dependent economically on ties to some larger political entity.

The US is bound by a mass of treaties and international obligations to condemn armed aggression. The US has every reason to support the British demand for the withdrawal of the Argentine garrison from the Falklands. The British are under no obligation even to negotiate over the future sovereignty of the islands. They could give them up voluntarily and would like to do so since the protection of them costs more than any return.

But for the British to surrender their rights, and their obligations to the 1 ,800 British subjects on the islands, would establish an enormously dangerous precedent. Anyone who covets his neighbor's land could take inspiration from the Argentine act of larceny.

If the US favors stability in the world it had best support Britain's duty to rescue its own people from an act of international piracy. Besides, it would help hold the NATO alliance together.

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