The world watches with profound sadness and disappointment as fighting escalates in the Falkland Islands. Though Britain has moral principle and international law on its side, there cannot but be concern that peaceful diplomacy has momentarily given way to further resort to military force. The risk is that the bitterness and anger generated as hostilities intensify and casualties mount will make it all the more difficult to negotiate a just settlement.
Negotiate the parties inevitably must. UN Secretary General Javier Perez de Cuellar is to be lauded for his quiet peace effort. The United Nations would still seem to offer the best forum for finding a diplomatic solution, for it alone can provide the kind of international imprimatur under which both parties can more easily make concessions and save face.
The Security Council is effectively immobilized at the moment, of course, for both the Soviet Union and Britain have the power of veto over council actions. No solution can emerge before Argentina and Britain decide to come to terms. But Mr. Perez de Cuellar can act as the diplomatic weathervane, watching to see what course the fighting takes and letting the council know when the time is propitious for giving him a formal mandate to try his hand again. The United States, Peru, and other countries meantime will want to exert every influence they can to bring the disputants around.
The frustrating fact is that Britain and Argentina already have agreed on a good deal. They both accepted the overall principles put forth by Mr. Perez de Cuellar: departure of armed forces from the Falklands, an interim UN administration, and negotiations over ultimate control of the islands. Some of the differences are over relatively minor issues and could be resolved -- Britain's legitimate insistence, for instance, that the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands are not negotiable.
But the crux of the dispute is still the issue of sovereignty. Secretary General Perez de Cuellar took the position that no settlement would be possible unless both sides compromised on this crucial point. His carefully devised strategy was in effect to take away the claim of sovereignty from both Britain and Argentina and leave the matter to be negotiated. Argentina is reported to have given in on this key question but Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, perhaps for domestic political reasons, subsequently appeared to stiffen the British position -- partly by reintroducing the sovereignty issue in a way to ensure the British claim. Argentina then toughened its stand. The UN mediation failed.
People may argue that the battlefield is the only way out of the impasse. Perhaps so. But all humanity suffers in a sense when civilized nations take up arms to settle their disputes just as it is ennobled when they put their weight on the side of reasonable compromise and conciliation. The tragic thing in this instance is that there is no basic conflict over the substance of the issue; Britain has been prepared for nigh 20 years to turn over the Falklands to Argentina. Surely enough has been achieved diplomatically to believe that Britain and Argentina can ultimately go the extra mile needed to reach agreement. If they can do so ultimately, they ought to be able to do so sooner.
The prayers of everyone must be that distrust, nationalism, pride, fear -- all the passions which seem to heighten in the heat of battle -- will not keep them from such a course.