40 years after the Beagle conflict


The long-lasting dispute over the islands Picton, Nueva and Lennox were submitted to an Arbitral Award by an agreement signed between Presidents Alejandro Lanusse and Salvador Allende in 1971. The ruling of the Award was issued in 1977 and, one year later, as a result of its effects on maritime territories that had not been foreseen, led to a serious conflict between Argentina and Chile. The agreement was finally reached thanks to the invaluable mediation of John Paul II supported by Cardinal Antonio Samoré. A warlike confrontation that would have been disastrous for both countries was avoided, but it was also clear that the disposition of a defensive apparatus in support of diplomacy made it possible to minimize a maritime loss that otherwise, from the Arbitral Award could not have been avoided.

The Treaty of Limits between Chile and Argentina signed in 1881 said: “All the islands south of the Beagle Channel up to Cape Horn and those to the west of Tierra del Fuego belong to Chile.” The difficulty, of interpreting something that seems so clear, was agreeing on the layout of the Beagle Channel. In the first years after the Treaty, Argentina recognized in its cartography the belonging to Chile of the three islands. However, when the depths of the cape were studied, it was observed that the course of the channel turned southward from the islands leaving them in Argentina’s territory.

The governments of both countries tried to resolve this issue. In 1960, Presidents Arturo Frondizi and Jorge Alessandri signed an arbitration protocol for the International Court of Justice in The Hague. This document granted prematurely the island Lennox to Chile and the islets Becasses to Argentina. This generated resistances in both countries and the process stopped.

The search for an arbitration was resumed in October 1964 but again frustrated due to conflicts at border points that strained relations. Another unsuccessful attempt occurred in 1967, finally, in July 1971 Presidents Lanusse and Allende signed the Agreement on Arbitration. The determination of the Argentine-Chilean limits in the Beagle Channel and the adjudication to one country or the other of the Picton, Nueva and Lennox Islands and adjacent islets were requested. Her Majesty’s Government was the arbitrator, but it was needed to appoint an Arbitral Tribunal of five judges of the International Court of Justice. This provision was intended to cover Argentina from any influence caused by the conflict with the British Crown over the Malvinas Islands (Falklands).

Those responsible for the Argentine government did not imagine the consequences that the result of that arbitration could have on the maritime projection formally claimed by Chile. Until then, the accepted Chilean possession of the islands located south of the three in conflict had not motivated any claims for its projection on the Atlantic.

The Arbitral Award issued on May 2, 1977, ruled that the Picton, Nueva and Lennox Islands, as well as the adjacent islets, belonged to Chile. The Snipe islet was granted to Chile and Gable Island and the Becasses Islands were granted to Argentina. It wasn’t strictly the disposition of the Award that caused the Argentine reaction, but the immediate action of the Chilean government defining and approving by law the maritime limits (straight baselines) around the archipelago up to Cape Horn and based on them the maritime projection up to 200 miles. Chile defined its exclusive economic area from the meeting point of the Beagle Channel with the Atlantic Ocean, defined by the Arbitral Award, tracing a straight line equidistant from the coasts of both countries in a southeasterly direction. This line ran for 200 miles, as established by international law and thus determined a large maritime triangle in the Atlantic that would remain in possession of Chile. Argentina would lose its Antarctic projection and it would have to cross Chilean waters in any maritime route to the south.

Although both countries in 1971 had formally committed to respect the Award, the Argentine government immediately expressed reservations to the arbitration decision. It was a case where issues of maritime sovereignty of the greatest importance were at stake. Its acceptance would have a high cost, although it would also have the rupture of an international commitment formally assumed. Argentina could argue that when the Treaty of Limits was signed in 1881, maritime jurisdiction was recognized up to two miles and that therefore the cession of the islands south of the Beagle did not generate significant maritime rights. The bi-oceanic principle “Chile in the Pacific, Argentina in the Atlantic” established as a complement in the 1893 Protocol, to specify the limits in the continental, sector was also alleged.

The Argentine government advanced its rejection of the arbitration ruling and its willingness to initiate a political negotiation. In a first meeting in Mendoza between the presidents Jorge Rafael Videla and Augusto Pinochet, the latter asked up to what extent Argentina would be willing to defend its position. President Videla replied, as far as necessary. A few days later, on January 25, 1978, the Argentine government declared the nullity of the Award, while Chile maintained its position of giving it as fully valid, and upholding its legal effects with respect to maritime projections. A second meeting of the presidents in Puerto Montt defined a negotiation process in three stages that would extend throughout the year 1978. The most important was the second one: the negotiation itself. For that, the Mixed Commission No. 2 was established, led by General Ricardo Etcheverry Boneo for Argentina, and Francisco Orrego for Chile. The author of this article participated in that Commission on behalf of the Argentine Ministry of Economy to address the issue of physical integration and economic complementation in the area of conflict, which formed part of the agreed agenda.

Argentina’s willingness to use its military potential was manifested during that year through declarations and concrete acts carried out by high officials and units of the armed forces. So a group called “Hawks” emerged those who could genuinely force military actions, if an agreement to avoid such an important loss of the Argentinean sea, was not reached. There were also “Pigeons”. This was permanently investigated by Chilean intelligence. The evaluation of the Chilean negotiators on the predominance of hawks over pigeons was a determining factor in the advance or setback in the achievement of an agreement acceptable to Argentina. At the time Argentinian military force exceeded the Chilean.

The negotiations did not reach an agreement within the established period. The Argentine representation aspired to have markers in the peripheral Atlantic islands to ensure without future risk its maritime projection. The Chilean delegation had set as a limit the recognition of its full sovereignty in all the islands, in accordance with the Treaty of 1881. The absence of an agreement put the two countries in the prelude to the use of their armed forces in the previous days of Christmas 1978. President Videla and General Army Commander Roberto Viola belonged to the pigeon sector, however, there was a mobilization of forces. Both countries understood that any war action could have consequences that nobody wanted. It was like those who insult themselves in the street but give time for others to prevent them from starting a fist fight. In this case that “other” was Pope John Paul II who three months earlier, on September 20, 1978, had sent a letter to the episcopates of both countries requesting them to intervene to avoid a warlike confrontation. The channels operated quickly in both directions. The two governments accepted the papal mediation and desisted from any military action. The negotiations were redirected with the invaluable contribution of Cardinal Antonio Samoré.

The papal ruling was issued two years later, on December 12, 1980, after intense negotiations in Rome that allowed finding the spaces for an approximation between the parties. It proposed a limited exclusive economic maritime zone for Chile and a limit on the waters, that to the south resumed the meridian of Cape Horn. It also established itineraries of free navigation for both countries. Argentina had managed to avoid what really affected it and Chile maintained its sovereignty over the islands it traditionally occupied.

With a long delay, the agreement was submitted to a referendum and voted favorably in the beginning of the government of Raúl Alfonsín. Finally, both countries signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship on November 29, 1984.

This story should not be understood as an apology for militarism or war. By definition, diplomacy is the instrument of nations to carry international relations in peace and with respect for their own sovereignties. Supported only in its professionalism, diplomacy can achieve agreements of mutual convenience between countries. Also, diplomacy alone can resolve disputes when the economic, social or political consequences for a country are limited. But the importance of the economic and military potential of nations in the interplay of international relations cannot be ignored when matters of greater gravitation or territorial issues are being discussed. In these cases, diplomacy alone may lack the necessary strength when the objective requires deterrence or pressure.

An unarmed country is an incomplete State and it is only conceivable if it is protected by another with greater military power or if all the other countries with which it interacts are also disarmed. Neither of these two situations is observed in the case of Argentina, however, it is currently unarmed. Although there has not been a formal and explicit decision to do so, the reduction of the budget that the armed forces were subjected to after 1983 managed to almost completely nullify their military capacity. Since then the armament has not been replaced and almost 90 percent of the military budget goes to salaries and current expenses. It should also be remembered that the army hardware lost in the Malvinas war in 1982, was not reinstate nor recovered.

What can be sure is that if the Arbitral Award of the Beagle had been issued in 2017 with an Argentina without military capacity, Chile would have asserted all its aspirations and Argentina would have lost jurisdiction over 75,000 square km of sea, and today would lack projection Antarctica.

Written by: Manuel Solanet, Director of Public Policies, Freedom and Progress