Falklands: a matter of law

It will be a pity if nationalistic emotion and pride are permitted to dominate reason in the aftermath of seizure of the Falkland Islands by Argentina. The need now -- whatever the mistakes of the past -- is to bring diplomacy to bear quickly on a peaceful settlement of the territorial dispute.The United States and all nations that value a world community governed by the rule of law should bend their efforts toward a negotiated solution.

There is no question the military government in Buenos Aires offended civilized international behavior. The use of force for territorial acquisition only adds to the image of Argentina as an authoritarian nation oblivious to human rights and to the rules which nations have agreed to live by. Argentines may feel a surge of virility because of their government's audacious act, but they cannot expect the world to sympathize with the repressions they themselves suffer when they are unwilling to accord the same respect for other people's rights.

Does Britain have a right to retake the islands by force? Morally and legally, it does have the right and duty to protect its nationals. This is not a case, after all, of indigenous inhabitants rebelling against a colonial power. The 1,800 people in the Falklands are and want to continue to be British subjects. Certainly Britain cannot be faulted for standing by its principle that it will not turn a people over to another country against their will.

At the same time it is obvious that the best solution would be one which avoided resort to force. That means negotiation or arbitration of the territorial dispute. It is impossible for a layman to know whether Argentina's claim to sovereignty is legitimate. On the face of it, Britain's control of the islands for 150 years would seem to provide a good case for British sovereignty. But this is a matter for international lawyers to thrash out. The International Court of Justice might play a role, for instance, as it did when Nicaragua invaded Honduras in 1957. On that occasion the Organization of American States persuaded the parties to submit their 50-year-old border dispute for arbitration. The court decided the issue, setting an important precedent for resolving conflicts in the Western hemisphere.

Unfortunately, Argentina unlike Britain does not accept the ''compulsory jurisdiction'' of the court. Both parties would have to give consent to submitting the case for arbitration. Also, it would be necessary to define what issue of international law the court would be asked to rule on. These matters would need to be worked out.

In any case, the parties should be pressed to negotiate. Britons are outraged at this blow to their national pride but they are realistic enough to recognize the cost of defending the islands. Many favor a diplomatic solution which would protect the islanders' way of life and assure that Britain would not be in constant confrontation with Argentina.

As the British fleet steams toward the Falklands and emotions are given time to cool down, President Reagan might reflect on how dubious an ally Argentina has turned out to be. Not only has it demonstrated its scorn for international law. It has diverted the formidable naval forces of a major ally from more significant purposes, caused a political crisis for the Thatcher government, and precip-itated the resignation of Lord Carrington, one of Europe's most able diplomats. The price is indeed high.

If the whole matter were not so serious, it would be comic. But with other, even larger territorial disputes tempting leaders to the use of force -- the West Bank and Northern Ireland, to name but two -- it is important that the Falklands takeover not become an internationally accepted fait accompli.

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