The Falklands Crisis: Britain's Justifications for its Resort to Military Force through the Example of a Speech by Margaret Thatcher

Term Paper, 2006

21 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Topical Introduction: Historical and Political Background

3. Content of the Speech

4. Critical Analysis of the Justifications Given for the British Engagement in Military Conflict
4.1 Sovereignty over the Islands
4.2 Enforcement of Law
4.2.1 Pacific Settlement of Disputes
4.2.2 The Principle of Self-Determination
4.2.3 Liberation of the Falkland Islanders
4.3 Just War Theory
4.3.1 The Principle of Proportionality
4.3.2 The Principle of Last Resort
4.4 Further British Motivations Not Mentioned in the Speech
4.4.1 Increase of International Prestige
4.4.2 Domestic Factors

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

7. Appendix
7.1 Margaret Thatcher: Speech to the Conservative Women's Conference

1. Introduction

“Most wars throughout history have not been contests between right and wrong, but clashes ‘between one half-right that was too wilful and another half-right that was too proud.’”[1]

Despite the truth this interpretation holds, for the respective belligerents of course it will not be acceptable, as to every nation the cause it went to war over will be the morally right one – and if it is not, it will at least be presented as such in public.

The speech, laid down as the basis of this paper, is a good example of this kind of governmental conduct, with Thatcher defending Britain’s actions as righteous and even imperative. This paper seeks to examine the Prime minister’s reasoning and to apply a balanced analysis to it. It does so in three respects: first, by critically looking at the question of sovereignty over the islands, which is the basic conflict underlying the struggle, and by evaluating the aspect of law enforcement, which Britain brought forward as the cause for the war; second, through an exploration of Thatcher’s attempt to refute objections to the war, which is closely linked to the criteria of Just War theory[2] ; and third, by reflecting on two factors, commonly viewed as contributory to the British decision to go war, but – and with good reason – not mentioned in Thatcher’s speech. A conclusion will then be presented, briefly assessing the findings of the preceding chapters.

To provide a context for this analysis, however, I will first of all review the conflict’s antecedents and consequences, focusing on the build-up to the war rather than on the course of it, then summarise the content of Thatcher’s speech.

2. Topical Introduction: Historical and Political Background

To understand Thatcher’s speech and in particular to assess the British claim for the Falkland Islands, it is vital knowing the context to the wrangling, which dates back to the 16th century.

At that time, various French, British and Spanish expeditions discovered the uninhabited islands. Yet, it was not until 1763 that the first settlement was founded by the French, whom the Spanish evicted in 1767. Another four years later the territory once more changed hands, when Spain yielded the islands to Britain, only to see them deserted by the British settlers in 1774. What Britain did not surrender, though, was its claim to sovereignty over the land. So, after Argentina took possession of it in 1820, Britain (albeit more than a decade later) invaded in 1833 and retook the Falklands.

Constantly since that year, successive Argentine governments have demanded sovereignty over the islands. In 1982, however, General Leopoldo Galtieri’s military junta, governing Argentina at that time, gave up negotiations over the issue, which had been running since 1965, and decided to launch a military invasion of the islands. On April 2 1982, Argentine soldiers invaded the Falklands, overcoming the small garrison of British marines stationed there. In response, Britain sent out a naval unit and, after diplomatic efforts by both the UN and the US had failed, started to forcibly retake the islands. After combat resulting in the deaths of about 700 Argentine and 250 British soldiers, Britain ultimately prevailed, forcing Argentina to surrender on June 14.

In the aftermath of the war, Argentina’s humiliating defeat led to the re-establishment of civilian rule in that country. There, even before the invasion, civil unrest against the repressive junta had been growing, but during the war was defused by a resurgent national pride.

At present and by choice of the Falklanders, the islands are a self-governing[3] British overseas territory, with Britain recently having reiterated its sovereignty and turned down Argentina’s plea for negotiations. While still maintaining claims to the islands, the present Argentine government has pledged never to invade again and clearly condemned the actions of Galtieri’s regime.

3. Content of the Speech

The address this paper is based on was delivered to the Conservative Women’s Conference on May 26 1982 by Margaret Thatcher.

For major parts of her speech, Thatcher justifies her government’s decision to use military force, starting off with a recap of the course of events from Argentina’s invasion. It has been the lack of Argentine cooperation, she claims, which – despite British diplomatic endeavours – has prevented a peaceful settlement. Above all, Thatcher wants the audience to keep in mind that the current events have resulted from the Argentine aggression, with Britain h h aving tried hard to avert military action.

Yet, to bring back democracy to the islands, ultimately there has been no choice but to employ force. Other possible reactions, such as deliberately delaying the British response, according to the Prime Minister, have been no alternative, since allowing force to dominate over law would mean giving in to anarchy and rewarding the invaders.

After briefly laying out the reasons which Britain bases its claim to the territory on, Thatcher refutes a number of objections to the war. Firstly, she dismisses doubts about the importance of the issue, reminding the audience of Britain’s close relationship to the Falkland Islands and arguing that an action’s legitimacy does not depend on the number of people involved. Using a similar reasoning, she rejects economical concerns. Secondly, Thatcher indicates that ignoring the violation of law in the current case would set a dangerous precedent, encouraging further infringements elsewhere. Thirdly, by referring to the British belief in self-determination and the release of numerous colonies, she denies Britain’s reluctance to accept the end of the colonial age.

4. Critical Analysis of the Justifications Given for the British Engagement in Military Conflict

4.1 Sovereignty over theIslands

Fundamentally, the Falklands War is a dispute about sovereignty, with both belligerents basing their actions' legitimacy on the lawful possession of the islands. To understand their claims, I will briefly derive the most important arguments from the historical background, without however expanding on the complex legal tangle underlying them in depth.

Firstly, the British case for sovereignty now usually centres on past-1833 criteria: According to the principle of prescription, the constant and effective British occupation for 149 years would entitle Britain to sovereignty. This principle will even apply, if the original seizure has been illegal – which under present international law is the case, as the British takeover in 1833 "was clearly an act of aggression"[4], forcefully taking away the islands from Argentina. Yet, prescription is not a commonly acknowledged principle of law[5], and further weakened by the fact that Argentina continuously protested against the British rule from the invasion till today[6].

Secondly, Argentina makes two additional arguments: Succeeding from Spain, it has the right to territory, originally given to Spain by papal bulls of 1493. This point is rather tenuous. Not only does the principle of succession remain under controversy[7], but also the validity of a document nearly 500 years old is questionable. Argentina's other argument refers to the principle of contiguity, according to which the Falklands belong to the nation closest to them, being Argentina. However, this principle also has no foundation in international law[8].


[1] Coll, Alberto R., ‘Philosophical and Legal Dimensions of the Use of Force in the Falklands War’ in: Coll, Alberto R., Arend, Anthony C. (eds.), The Falklands War – Lessons for Strategy, Diplomacy and International Law, (Boston: Allen & Unwin, 1985), p. 34, quoted from: Butterfield, Herbert.

[2] "Just War theory is the attempt to distinguish between justifiable and unjustifiable uses of organized armed forces." It is comprised of a set of criteria, which need to be fulfilled to make a war acceptable by Just War theory (, Accessed May 23 2006). In her speech Thatcher touches on a number of these criteria, without explicitly describing them as such. I will discuss the two most evident of them, although some other justifications could also be viewed as attempts to fulfil certain Just War criteria (for instance, law enforcement as a Right Intention or sovereignty as a Just Cause).

[3] Yet, foreign affairs and defence matters are handled by the British government.

[4] Bluth, Christoph, 'The British Resort to Force in the Falklands/Malvinas Conflict 1982: International Law and Just War Theory' in: Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 24, No. 1, (March 1987), p. 7.

[5] Ibid.

[6] The only period without Argentine protests was the time between 1849 and 1884. It is controversial, whether those 35 years can be interpreted as a sufficient sign of Argentina having abandoned its claims and ceded the islands to Britain.

[7] Bluth, p.7

[8] As stated in the Islands of Palmas Arbitration of 1928.

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The Falklands Crisis: Britain's Justifications for its Resort to Military Force through the Example of a Speech by Margaret Thatcher
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falklands, crisis, britain, justifications, resort, military, force, example, speech, margaret, thatcher
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Nadine Theiler (Author), 2006, The Falklands Crisis: Britain's Justifications for its Resort to Military Force through the Example of a Speech by Margaret Thatcher, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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