On Monday, Argentinean President Cristina Kirchner used an audience with the newly elected Argentinean-born Pope Francis to request his intervention in the ongoing dispute with Britain over the Falkland Islands/Malvinas. Both Argentina and Britain claim sovereignty over the islands, which have been under British control since 1833, in a dispute dating back decades. During her private audience with the pope, Kirchner called on him to help "achieve a dialogue with the United Kingdom over Malvinas," a position which Argentina has consistently advocated. The request comes in the wake of the recent referendum in which 98.8% of the island’s 1,672 eligible voters, who are British citizens, voted to remain a self-governing British territory.
Despite the British government’s continued rejection of negotiations over the status of the island, Argentina has continued to push for them, with Kirchner’s request to Pope Francis an attempt to utilize his influence to put pressure on the British. The move comes as no surprise given the importance of the issue to Argentineans. If Pope Francis were to agree to Kirchner’s request, it would not be radically out of keeping with the actions of past popes who have also spoken out on a variety of political issues.
Following the recent referendum, British Prime Minister David Cameron urged the pope and world leaders to respect the results of the vote. The position of the British government is that the fate of the islands should be in the hands of its inhabitants, and given that they voted to remain British that should be the end of the debate. However, as Alicia Castro pointed out in the Guardian, the dispute is more complex than this.
“It is a referendum organised by British people, for British people, with the purpose of asserting that the territory has to be British.” Castro goes on to highlight that Argentinean call for dialogue is consistent with “the United Nations resolutions, which define the Malvinas/Falkland question as a 'special colonial situation' involving a sovereignty dispute between Argentina and the United Kingdom that must be settled through negotiations between both parties, taking into consideration the interests of the inhabitants of the islands.”
Kirchner and Pope Francis have had a strained relationship, with Pope Francis having a history of confrontation with Kirchner and her late husband and former President Nestor Kirchner. Most recently the pair clashed over Francis’ (then Cardinal Bergoglio) opposition to same-sex marriage, which Kirchner’s government legalized in 2010. The Falklands/Malvinas issue, however, is one that is close to the heart of Argentineans. Pope Francis himself has previously argued that Britain “usurped” the islands and in 2009 urged followers to go “and kiss this land which is ours, and seems to us far away.”
It is not known how Pope Francis responded to Kirchner’s request, but according to papal historian Michael Walsh it is unlikely that Pope Francis will involve himself in the dispute. Some have claimed that Kirchner’s focus on the dispute is simply an attempt to distract Argentinean’s from economic problems at home. These claims, however, ignore the fact that the issue of the Malvinas has “never been far from the public arena (albeit somewhat more muted at times), both before and since” the 1982 war between Argentina and Britain over the islands.
While it remains to be seen how Pope Francis will respond, previous popes have spoken out on a variety of political issues. Pope John Paul II famously spoke out strongly against communism and is credited with having played a pivotal role in undermining Communist rule in the former Soviet Union. Pope Benedict XVI spoke in support of workers’ rights and environmental protection, and against the inequality produced by capitalism. Moreover, he also urged Israelis and Palestinians to negotiate a peaceful settlement to their conflict.
Were Pope Francis to respond positively to Kirchner’s request and seek to facilitate dialogue, he would not be advocating a radical position. Many international bodies, the majority of countries in the world, including the United States, and over 40 United Nations resolutions, all call for the settlement of the dispute through negotiations. He would not even necessarily be advocating that the islands be returned to Argentina, simply that Britain agree to enter negotiations. Although it is accurate to say that Pope Francis now has broader responsibilities, representing Catholics rather than just Argentineans, advocating dialogue over an international dispute hardly seems out of keeping with his new position.
If he did speak in favour of dialogue, the question then becomes whether this would have any impact. Given that Britain has to date successfully ignored the widespread support for dialogue from around the world, it seems unlikely that the addition of Pope Francis’ voice would change this.