25 Feb 2010

How tough talk at the UN may have eased Falkland tensions

Sarah Smith blogs from New York on how Jorge Taiana’s meeting at the United Nations may offer a pause from Argentina’s strong language over the Falkland Islands.

NEW YORK, USA Jorge Taiana, the Argentine Foreign Minister, came to New York to try to bring the dispute over the oil exploration around the Falkland Islands into the international arena at the United Nations. And Channel 4 News was there to meet him.

As soon as he came out of his meeting with the UN secretary-general I asked him: “When the population of the Falklands are adamant they want to remain British why is Argentina content to let them decide their own sovereignty?”

He replied that, “because the Islands are part of the Argentinian territory and I don’t think that in any country you can take a special part of the country and let them decide where they want to be.”

There are many people in many parts of the world who fundamentally disagree with that philosophy. And it was a surprising answer because it wasn’t what the Argentinians usually say when asked about the self determination of the Falkland Islanders.

Normally they respond that those British citizens who live there now are the descendants of colonial aggressors who stole the islands from Argentina, so they don’t have the right to decide their won nationality.

Mr Taiana went on to explain he had come to New York to ask the UN Secretary General to use his “good offices” to stress to Britain the need to abstain from further unilateral acts and try to start discussions or negotiations between Argentina and Britain over the issue of the Falkland islands.

But Ban Ki-moon’s staff made very clear that he can only help to mediate in any dispute if both sides are happy to come to the table – and it’s very clear that Britain is not volunteering to take part in any kind of talks with Argentina

After his meeting, the Foreign Minister said that Ban Ki-moon “is not happy to learn that the situation is worsening”, but anyone who was expecting the foreign minister’s visit to significantly worsen the diplomatic mood over the Falklands was surprised. He was not nearly as bellicose or insistent as many expected him to be.

British diplomats who had dropped by to hear Taian’s statement were pleasantly surprised they didn’t have to immediately draft a strongly worded response and escalate the war of words.

In the end Sir Mark Lyall Grant, Britain’s Ambassador to the UN, said: “As British ministers have made clear, the UK has no doubt about its sovereignty over the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands . . . We are also clear that the Falkland Islands Government is entitled to develop a hydrocarbons industry within its waters, and we support this legitimate business in Falklands’ territory.”

He is pleased that it doesn’t look as though the Argentinians are about to try and get a new resolution passed through the General Assembly condemning Britain’s actions.

Nor do they seem ready to try to take the issue to the Security Council.

Argentina does have the support of all the 32 Latin American and Caribbean nations that make up the Rio group of countries. President Lula da Silva of Brazil has spoken out loudly in their favour and condemned the UN for not taking more action against Britain. And Hugo Chavez has made his idiosyncratic support for Buenos Aires clear.

Britain is still casting around looking for diplomatic allies on this issue. And the US are making it very clear they will not be drawn into this dispute which the Obama administration says is strictly a bi-lateral issue.

So the UK may be very relieved that they don’t have to start looking for friends at the UN who would be prepared to back their right to drill for oil in these disputed waters.