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Boundaries: South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands

Tiny and remote, South Georgia and the South Sandwich islands would seem unlikely candidates for a territorial dispute.

Perched like small dots in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean between South America, Africa, and the continent of Antarctica, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands have limited territory and a tiny population. South Georgia is only 100 miles long and 20 miles wide, with snow perpetually covering most of the island. Only about thirty people, most of them scientists and support staff for the British Antarctic Survey Stations, live on the island. Nevertheless, the two governments of the United Kingdom and Argentina both claim ownership over this territory.


What Began the Conflict?

In order to understand the conflict, it is important to know that the island of South Georgia was first claimed by the United Kingdom in 1775 following the voyages of Captain James Cook, who was the first English sailor to discover New Zealand and the Hawaiian Island chain. The United Kingdom then claimed the South Sandwich Islands for their own in 1908, and annexed both territories at that time.


However, Argentina also claims sovereignty over this same territory. In 1904, the Compañía Argentina de Pesca, a whaling company out of Argentina run by the Norwegian Carl Anton Larsen, set up operations on the island of South Georgia. The employees of the Compañía Argentina de Pesca became the island’s first permanent residents.


The United Kingdom’s Response

When the United Kingdom annexed both South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, the CAP began to use British whaling licenses and establish leases over the land in a few key points necessary for the operation of their business. The CAP also wished to start expanding into the South Sandwich Islands.


Around that time, when the government of Norway began pressing the British to clarity with greater precision who owned what in that remote area, the United Kingdom claimed that South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands were theirs as part of the area they called the Falkland Islands Dependencies. However, the government of Argentina disputed the United Kingdom’s claim. The United Kingdom offered at least four times to have the issue decided in The Hague by the International Court of Justice, but each time, the Argentinian government declined the offer.


What Was the Falklands War?

The tensions between the United Kingdom and Argentina began to worsen over time. In 1976, the Argentinians established a secret military base on Thule Island, one of the islands far south in the South Sandwich Islands. When the base was discovered, the British protested and sent in troops to protect the islands from invasion.


For a brief time, Argentina controlled the islands. The ultimate goal of the Argentinian forces was to annex the South Sandwich Islands, South Georgia, and the Falklands. Despite these plans, however, the British moved in to re-take the territory, and on June 20, 1982, the British were successful in defeating the invading Argentine forces. By 1985, both South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands were no longer regarded as Falkland Island Dependencies, but became considered separate British overseas territory.


The Situation Now

Since that time, Argentina has continued to claim sovereignty over both territories of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. Argentina regards the islands as part of the territory of the Tierra Del Fuego and also lays claim to the Falkland Islands as well, disputing the claims of the United Kingdom. Outspoken Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez demanded in 2010 that Queen Elizabeth give the territory to Argentina, but as of this date, the Queen has declined to accept Mr. Chavez’ suggestion.

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