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Falkland Islands

Volume 737: debated on Wednesday 13 June 2012


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will repeat a Statement made in another place today.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to inform the House that the Government of the Falkland Islands announced yesterday their intention to hold a referendum on the political status of the islands. The decision, which was taken by the Falkland Islanders themselves through their elected representatives, has the full support of the British Government. The referendum will be organised by the Falkland Island Government and will take place in the first half of 2013. Independent, international observers will be invited to observe the process.

In the past, the Falkland Islanders have made it clear that they wish to remain a self-governing British overseas territory and to continue living in the same peaceful and neighbourly manner which has characterised their long history on the islands, which stretches back some nine generations. They have no interest in becoming a province of Argentina. But, regrettably, not everyone is willing to accept this reality. The Argentine Defence Minister recently accused the UK military of holding the islanders as hostages. The Argentine ambassador to the UK has claimed that the islanders would be quite happy living under Argentine rule on the basis that some of them have been on holidays to Argentina. The islanders regularly rebut these baseless allegations and have embarked on an extensive campaign of public diplomacy around Latin America and more widely to make their views known. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has offered extensive support to them in doing so. Despite this, the Argentine Government continue either to misrepresent their views or to disregard them as irrelevant.

Elsewhere in the region, the islanders are often surprised by the lack of understanding about their wishes and outlook on life. Because of this, the islanders have decided to hold a referendum to eliminate any possible doubt in the eyes of the world as to what future they want. This will provide a legal, fair and decisive means for the people of the Falkland Islands to express their views. The Minister of State responsible for the Falklands, my honourable friend the Member for Taunton, is on the islands at this time and has discussed the matter in detail with the islanders’ elected representatives. They are excited about the prospect of showing the region, and indeed the whole world, what future they want for the islands.

As the House will be aware, tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of the liberation of the Falkland Islands by British forces. Events will be held both on the islands themselves and here in the UK to commemorate the extraordinary series of events which unfolded 30 years ago. We will remember all those who paid the ultimate price in defence of basic freedoms. For the Falkland Islanders, tomorrow will bring mixed emotions: thankfulness to those who fought and won, sorrow for those whose lives were lost, and anger that an attempt should ever have been made to invade their home and deny their basic rights. It is fitting that around the anniversary of their freedoms and rights being restored the islanders should announce their intention to give these freedoms further expression through a referendum. In a region that advocates democracy and human rights, it is entirely appropriate that the islanders can express this fundamental right. The principle of self-determination is a key part of the United Nations charter, as we and the islanders have repeatedly made clear and will continue to make clear.

While the current Argentine Government insist that they will seek to recover the islands only via peaceful means, their behaviour towards the islanders remains aggressive in many other ways. They have placed a ban on charter flights through Argentine airspace to the islands. They have banned Falkland Islands-flagged vessels from their ports and prevented cruise ships which have visited the Falklands from docking in Argentina. They have introduced domestic legislation to penalise companies that wish to do business with the Falkland Islands. They have sent threatening letters to those engaged in the wholly legitimate business of hydrocarbons exploration around the islands, and recently they have attempted to politicise the Olympic Games by screening a deeply offensive television advert showing images of an Argentine athlete training on a war memorial on the islands.

These actions, directed by the Argentine Government towards an innocent population of 3,000 people, are not those of a responsible power on the world stage. While the Argentine Government offer threats and misleading rhetoric, the islanders have responded with dignity and determination. For our part, the British Government will continue to offer unequivocal support to the islanders by maintaining a defensive military posture on the islands, by supporting their growing economy and by protecting their rights and wishes today as we did 30 years ago.

The forthcoming referendum will provide further evidence, were any needed, that the islanders alone will decide their future. It will offer a simple but powerful expression of democracy. I hope that Argentina, and indeed all in the international community, will take note of the islanders’ views. Further details will be announced by the Falkland Islands Government in due course, and I will keep the House informed of developments”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank Minister for repeating the Statement made in the other place earlier today. The first duty of the Opposition on the 30th anniversary, tomorrow, of the liberation of the Falklands is to pay tribute to the British forces who served there and particularly to the 255 British service personnel who lost their lives. For our part, we express deep gratitude for their service.

The principle for which they then fought was the right of self-determination, which is enshrined in the United Nations charter. It is why today we back the right of the Falkland islanders to reaffirm that principle, that right of self-determination, and why a proposal for a referendum appears to the Opposition to be a reasonable response on their part to the very regrettable misrepresentations and provocations from the Argentine Government. For our part, we want good relations with Argentina and good relations between Argentina and the Falkland Islands. That is the best basis for a happy, secure and prosperous future all round.

A decade or so ago, it seemed as though much democratic progress was being made in Argentina. In my capacity as chair of the think tank Policy Network, I remember a progressive governance conference where we welcomed the late President Kirchner alongside President Lula and President Lagos. The hope was that Argentina was joining a democratic and progressive family. We are very concerned about the stepping up of Argentina’s rhetoric on the Falklands issue and about whether it is part of a wider campaign by an Administration who are facing very difficult domestic problems. It is a pattern that we have seen before in Argentina, a country that has great resources and fine people but, too often, dysfunctional politics and policies.

The Falkland Islanders are not alone in having difficulties with the Argentine Government. Spain has been incensed by Argentina’s forcible nationalisation of the Spanish stake in its oil company. We welcome the robust response not only from the Spanish Government but by our noble friend Lady Ashton, in her capacity as EU foreign policy representative, against what Argentina has done in this case. This is the kind of international support that we need to mobilise on the question of the Falklands. Can the Minister indicate what discussions have taken place with Spain and our other EU partners as to how we can get a more sensible attitude from the Argentinian authorities? Has the Foreign Office had discussions with my noble friend Lady Ashton, not just about the Spanish episode but also about the current Falklands situation?

More widely, what efforts are the Government making to establish good relations in Latin America? It is now a key British interest, given that this is one of the areas of spectacular economic growth in the world and an area where Britain has a lot of historic links. How are we planning to leverage up our relationships with other South American countries in order to isolate Argentina in the stance that it is taking on the Falklands?

The final point is our concern as to whether the Government are sending the wrong signals to the Argentinians. Many of us remember the Franks report and what happened 30-odd years ago, and how the then Prime Minister, the late Lord Callaghan, insisted on keeping a patrol vessel down in the south Atlantic despite the economic difficulties that Britain was suffering. However, the Conservative Government under the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, then withdrew that vessel. That was taken as a signal by the Argentinians that we were no longer that bothered. Are we sending a similar signal today, when we have decided that our aircraft carriers should no longer carry aircraft? That seems to me to be a relevant point to ask Her Majesty’s Government.

We want better relations to be established with Argentina, and between Argentina and the Falkland Islands, without conflict. In order to achieve that, the British Government have to have a strategy. I hope that the Minister can give us a glimpse of what it is.

I am very grateful to the noble Lord for the robust support which he, on behalf of his party, has given to this move, and the way in which he roundly and rightly emphasised the need to speak out against the very regrettable misrepresentations by the Argentinian Government of the situation. As the noble Lord said, his party wants good relations with Argentina. Of course, so do we all. It is a country of great potential with which, were it not for this situation, we would be able to work effectively to great benefit of the people of Argentina. That is apparently not the wish of the Argentinian Government, who have persisted with the aggressive attitude that was mentioned by my right honourable friend in his Statement.

As to the international scene, we of course work with all our EU partners, but there is no wish in Her Majesty’s Government to involve other countries in a bilateral relationship on a bilateral issue, which is fully confirmed under international law in accordance with the rights of self-determination which nations across the globe fully recognise. We have made major strides in the past year or so in developing excellent relations with Latin American countries. Latin America is emerging, as are all the great developing nations of this earth, as a major and significant player in world affairs, as a vital new market for our goods and as a source of the generation of wealth and political influence. Both my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, and my honourable friend the Minister of State, Jeremy Browne, have been tireless in their work in that region in establishing—or re-establishing, because this is part of history—very good links with these great and important nations. Work is going on at various international conferences. Some very firm lines have been taken about the need for self-determination. This has been a very robust response, even when Argentinian diplomats have tried to involve other countries in their cause in various ways. That is the situation at present.

The noble Lord talks about a strategy for the future. The strategy rests on the rock of our commitment to the islanders’ wishes and their determination to be a self-governing territory of the United Kingdom. That is what they wish to remain to be, and the referendum will no doubt establish beyond doubt that there is no change in these wishes, and that they are determined to assert their preferences. That is all I have to say on the matter, beyond, again, to thank the noble Lord for his robust support.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that one of the more disturbing developments has been the way in which the Argentine Government have persuaded many other countries in the region, even great friends of ours such as Uruguay and Chile, to deny entry to British naval vessels? Can he reassure us that our embassies in those countries are working hard to refute the unsubstantiated messages put forward by the present government in Argentina? Also, can he agree that as in the case of the Gibraltar referendum a few years ago, a clear message from the people of the Falkland Islands would be most helpful? Will he also be kind enough to convey to the people of the Falkland Islands the fact that we are all fully behind them, especially at this time?

Yes, I will certainly do that, and convey that in clear and simple terms. As to the efforts of Argentine diplomacy to persuade others to support their posture and their claims, I can assure my noble friend that our embassies, our diplomatic machinery and my ministerial colleagues are fully engaged in countering some of the misrepresentations that are being aired around the place. We have had a good response from responsible friends that they are not going to be automatically pushed by Argentina or by claims that go flatly against the basic principle of self-determination for the peoples of the Falkland Islands. This is the 21st century, in which overriding the self-determination of peoples is not the custom or the desirable pattern, or indeed in accordance with full international responsibility. We have made that very clear and will continue to do so.

My Lords, 30 years ago—almost to the day—I sat in some sorrow writing letters to the mothers, wives, siblings and children, of the 22 boys who were killed when my ship was sunk. This task was made a little easier, first because I was very proud of them, and secondly because I felt we had been involved in a just war. I am appalled by the behaviour of the President of Argentina in making outrageous statements about the Falkland islanders purely to distract attention from what is going on in her own country. She seems to forget that the only reason she is there democratically is because we won that war. However, the Minister will be glad to hear that my question does not relate precisely to aircraft carriers and warships but rather as to whether he would join me in agreeing that we owe a huge amount to our merchant marine, 73 of whose vessels were involved in the Falklands War? Does he believe that we have sufficient British merchant mariners today to ensure that if there is trouble globally, we are able to provide the merchant ships, which are so crucial for global operations? They are after all the “fourth service”, as they were referred to by Winston Churchill.

The House will be very grateful to the noble Lord, who speaks to us from the heart of history. He was there and experienced the agonies and challenges of that time, 30 years ago. The country is grateful to him for that as well. As to his question about whether we have the resources to meet global problems, one has to be realistic. If all sorts of crises were to develop on all sorts of fronts—for instance, all the pinch points in the world traffic of oil, gas and energy—no one country could deliver a full Merchant Marine to cover that. Do we have the resources to defend the Falkland Islands against the dreadful, absurd and almost ridiculous prospect of a threat from Argentina again? Yes, we do, but I hope that Argentina will not be stupid enough to do that. We certainly intend to maintain those resources; there can be no doubt at all about that.

However, who knows what great world threats may develop in these troubled times? If they do, we obviously have to act closely with our allies. One could not expect one country alone—perhaps not even the mighty United States—to be able to mobilise adequate resources for all the troubles in the world. There are plenty, not least the piracy on the eastern side of Africa—and, increasingly, on the western side—which now take some of our resources. There are many other problems as well.

The noble Lord has already received what he rightly described as robust support from my noble friend on behalf of the Opposition for the Government’s support for this referendum, and for his justified words in describing the recent behaviour of the Argentinian Government. I think he will get equally robust support universally, throughout the House this afternoon. I hope that he is able to tell the Argentinian ambassador about that personally.

However, I am afraid that the Government cannot escape a wide measure of responsibility for the very bad change in the situation over the past year, particularly in the behaviour of the Argentinians. It was the worst possible signal to send to Argentina when we got rid of our carrier strike capability. We sent a signal that if the Falkland Islands were ever invaded again in the future, next time we would not be able to retake them. That was thoroughly deplorable. In this very unfortunate situation, will the Government consider the possibility of regularly deploying a “Trafalgar”-class or, prospectively, an “Astute”-class submarine in the south Atlantic? It should surface from time to time to leave no doubt in anybody’s mind that it is there.

I cannot comment on the movements of our submarines or on related intelligence matters. I applaud what the noble Lord said at the beginning but completely refute his later sentences. There are forces in the Falklands. We are perfectly well placed to rebut and repel any renewed invasion. Decisions about the strategic defence review, the future of our carriers and so on have no effect whatever on that sustained ability to defend the islanders against another invasion.

My Lords, I express our gratitude to the families of the service personnel who made the ultimate sacrifice. On behalf of others in the House, I say how grateful we are to hear from the noble Lord, Lord West, when he speaks with such passion about the events of 30 years ago.

My question is about the conduct of the referendum. The Falkland Islands Government have obviously been very bold in making this move to demonstrate their confidence in their ability to determine their own future. I note that the Statement says that international observers will be invited to observe the process. I wonder whether my noble friend might suggest to the Falkland Islands Government that it is important to have observers from Latin American countries to demonstrate the rigour of the process. That would be most helpful in countering Argentina’s public relations, which are of course inaccurate.

If I may say so to my noble friend, that is a very interesting thought, which I will certainly pass on to my colleagues. It will be important to establish beyond doubt that whatever emerges from the referendum is absolutely and properly established, and that the whole process is properly conducted. Of course it is undeniably on a very small scale, and therefore the monitoring and checking should be absolutely 100% proof that this is a sensible and precise expression of the wishes of the islanders.

I welcome the Statement by the Minister, and declare an interest in so far as I am the chairman of the South Atlantic Council, a body established after the war to try to improve the triangular relations between the islanders, Argentina and the United Kingdom. The degree of success that we have enjoyed has been variable, but it must be made clear that sabre-rattling by the United Kingdom at this time is irrelevant, because democracy followed the war in Argentina and that, in turn, resulted in the demilitarisation of its economy and the country. The defence cuts of which we are talking this afternoon in the United Kingdom are as nothing compared to what has taken place in Argentina. It is therefore totally unrealistic to talk in terms of a military threat from Argentina. The Malvinas mania going on in Buenos Aires and across the country is concerned primarily with disguising the economic chaos engulfing that country.

We should take Gibraltar as a pointer. When a clear expression of democratic opinion was made, Spain began to think again about how it dealt with the problem of Gibraltar. In the kind of triumphalist rhetoric in which we sometimes indulge regarding the Falklands, it would be unfortunate if we failed to think about what should happen after the referendum. Now, for the first time in several years, there is an ambassador to the Court of St James’s from Argentina. Let us take advantage of that, and start a dialogue rather than just the haranguing which has been carrying on for the last few years. Let us use the opportunity of what I am fairly confident will be a clear expression of the opinion of the people of the islands that they wish to retain the status quo. There are many things—fishing, hydrocarbons, tourism, shipping, flights to the islands—which should be the subject of clear and straightforward negotiation. This could provide us with an opportunity to start afresh after many lost years—largely lost, I have to say, due to Argentine intransigence.

The noble Lord is extremely well informed on this and has followed it very closely. Of course, leaving aside sovereignty and the wishes of the islanders to remain a self-governing territory of the United Kingdom—very clearly expressed, and I am sure they will be again—a whole range of things have been offered to Argentina. There is much talk, of course, about the hydrocarbons explorations around the island. Thirty years ago, when I was involved in some administration of this country on energy matters, one of the files on my desk was concerned with exploration of the hydrocarbons around the Falklands—and that was right at the start of this, in 1980. All along, and increasingly and very specifically in the 1990s, offers were made to the Argentinean people to co-operate very closely and to share the benefits of anything that emerged. That was just one example; the noble Lord gave many others. There is a whole range of areas where there could be extreme benefit to the people of Argentina, but they must not include—and in fact must exclude—the consideration of the sovereignty and the self-determination of the people of the Falkland Islands.

Is my noble friend aware that the Argentine Government have been arguing against the referendum on the basis that those taking part will be settlers, or the children of settlers, on the Falkland Islands? Will it be possible for him to bring to the attention of the Argentine ambassador the fact that she is a settler and the child of settlers, that there is no voter for the President of the Argentine who is not himself or herself a settler, and that if we are talking about settlers we are all in it together?

My noble friend makes a very acute historical point that many of the inhabitants of almost every country on earth are settlers; one thinks, not least, of the United States. I believe that the ancestors of many here were also settlers. Indeed, I often hear divisions between the arriviste Norman settlers who came in in 1066 and those who were here already, so my noble friend makes a very good point. However, I do not intend to pursue it with the Argentine ambassador. I have had the opportunity to meet her and I believe that the view that we should express in this country is not one of tit for tat but a dignified intention that the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands people must be preserved, that we wish Argentina well, and that we would like an end to this distracting quarrel and the restoration of the co-operation and links which we once had with the Argentine.

My Lords, it will be within your Lordships’ knowledge that unfortunately down the years we have not always enjoyed the full support of our American friends with respect to matters relating to the Falklands. The situation is slightly different now. If the reports are accurate, the present American Secretary of State is so disturbed at the irrationality of some of the decisions being made by the Argentine President on a whole range of subjects, a lot of which have nothing whatever to do with the Falkland Islands, that there may well be a change in American attitudes to the situation down there. Therefore, I press on the Minister the desirability of inviting our American friends to give their full support to this referendum and say that it demonstrates that democracy works.

We shall certainly seek to follow that advice. The noble Lord is absolutely right: there are big changes in the region. Not least is that, with the revolution in world gas discoveries and developments, Argentina in due course could be a major beneficiary and have huge reserves of shale gas. This ought to be of benefit to the Argentinian people. That is the path they should follow rather than distracting themselves with complaints and aggression against the Falkland Islands.

My Lords, the Minister said that the Government were not anxious to involve other Governments in the Falklands problem, which I quite understand, but is that altogether wise? The European Union has a treaty obligation to defend trade from EU countries, wherever it occurs. As I understand it, it has taken a very dim view of the Argentine nationalisation of Repsol. I believe that the Foreign Affairs Council met about two weeks ago to decide what the European Union was going to do about it. This is relevant for us because, as the noble Lord quite rightly points out, the Falklands may prove to be a very substantial offshore oil province and if there is any intervention the EU as well as ourselves should be there to defend it. Can he tell the House what the Foreign Affairs Council of the European Union decided with regard to Repsol at its meeting about two weeks ago and whether we are going to involve the European Union in defence of the Falklands offshore hydrocarbon exploration?

I think, from memory, that the Foreign Affairs Council deplored the nationalisation of the Repsol-connected subsidiary in the Argentine. I will check on that to be 100% sure and if I am wrong I will contact the noble Lord. However, he is really making a broader, very profound point that there are all sorts of reasons, as have already been raised this afternoon, why responsible democracies, whether in the EU or elsewhere, should be concerned about the actions of various kinds being taken by the Argentine Government. The nationalisation of the Repsol subsidiary obviously greatly affects Spain. Any other measures interfering with free trade and trade with European Union powers affect them very greatly.

As far as the specific matter of the Falkland Islands’ wish to remain a self-governing territory under the United Kingdom is concerned, that is a bilateral issue. However, it is perfectly sensible that we should work with other EU countries on policy and general matters towards Argentina and towards hydrocarbon development off the coast of Latin America or anywhere else. It is certainly something that would become involved in our discussions. On the specific point of the last FAC meeting, I will check and confirm what I have said.

My Lords, some years ago I had the pleasure of visiting the islands with the South Atlantic Council, under the aegis of the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery. On that visit, there were a number of people from industry and the arts with various connections here. In particular, there were two colleagues of mine from the oil side of the Anglo-Dutch company which I served for many years. They made it very clear that political instability in that area was a real disincentive to exploration. Perhaps the Argentines can be reminded of this, with the things they have been doing recently. There is no great incentive for oil companies to go into areas like this which are difficult enough geologically, but are made worse by political instability. They are probably doing themselves a lot of damage.

My noble friend is entirely correct. This applies not merely to drilling for exploration. As those—including my noble friend—who are familiar with it know, then comes development, which is expensive, and after that production, which is also extremely expensive. Vast sums of money have to be invested and big investors will not move if there is a severe threat of political instability. He is quite right that it therefore affects the prosperity not just of the Falkland Islanders but of the whole area. In various ways it damages the interests of the people of Argentina and we should point that out.