Skip to main content

Was the Falklands War Justified? A Case Study in Just War Theory

I'm on a journey for the good life—a search that leads me to great sources of information, awesome conversations, and happy feelings.

Just War Theory

This article serves as an example of how to apply just war conditions to historical battles. I chose the Falklands War of 1982 because it is relatively "neat" for our purposes, and it isn't horribly depressing, at least I hope it isn't!

On the search for a war that could be just on both sides, I came across the description of the Falkland Wars in Richard Regan’s book, Just War: Principles and Cases. Regan presents this case from a far more objective standpoint then you will find on the internet and even some texts.

There is a high degree of ambiguity as to who is just and whether the war is really justified. Such conundrums often accompany territorial disputes. Regan, however, cites the Falkland Wars as a "classic" example of why contemporary theorists reject going to war for these kinds of territorial disputes (Regan, 61).

Upon closer inspection, I aim to show that Argentina was ultimately unjust in their belligerence while the British maintained a just defensive war.

Jus Ad Bellum Overview

The Falklands War was fought between the Argentines and the British. Although the war began in 1982, the territorial dispute had its roots in over 200 years of history. The Falkland Islands were first reportedly landed on by an Englishmen in 1690.

Interestingly enough, the first recorded settlement was founded by a French navigator on the East Falklands in 1764. The British followed soon after with a recorded settlement on West Falklands in 1765. The Spanish bought the French settlement and drove the British off the islands in 1770, but they later returned West Falklands to the British just a year later.

Perhaps the Spanish saw the struggles of the British and foresaw what was going to happen. As Regan writes: “The British, for reasons of economy, abandoned their settlement in 1774 but left a plaque claiming sovereignty” (Regan, 151).

Spain maintained their settlement until 1811. “In that year, when news of the revolution in Argentina against Spanish rule reached the settlers, the latter abandoned the islands” (Regan, 151). Argentina soon declared its independence from Spain in 1811 and its sovereignty of the Falklands in 1820.

An Argentinean settlement appeared in 1829. Soon after in 1831, a U.S. corvette destroyed the Argentine fort on the islands, displacing most of the settlers. The British removed the remaining settlers from the islands in 1833.

For close to 150 years, the British held unchallenged control of the Falkland Islands. The islands acted as a colony of the crown, and the population of around 1900 individuals were of mainly British descent.

In 1964, the United Nations stepped into the sovereignty debate and passed Resolution 2065, which allowed for peaceful negotiations between the two parties with the interests of the inhabitants in mind. These negotiations were held intermittently over the next 17 years.

The British offered a lease back agreement in which they would be allowed prescriptive rights over the island while recognizing Argentinean sovereignty. However, this failed because the inhabitants would not agree to it.

Finally, the British proposed to freeze the question of sovereignty for 25 years and reconvene then. At the last of U.N. sponsored talks on February 26 and 27 of 1982, Argentina threatened that if negotiations did not come to an expedient solution soon, they would resort to alternative means.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

On April 2, 1982, the day after April Fool’s Day so as not to cause confusion, Argentine forces occupied the islands. This ends the jus ad bellum conditions.

1. Legitimate Authority

There was no official declaration of war on either side. Rather, the commencement of hostilities was the declaration of combat. In this war, it was both morally and legally prudent and just not to declare war.

The scope of the objective was decidedly small. Both nations were vying for sovereignty of the islands. Argentina did not truly wish to have to go to war; they merely thought the British would back down. Declaring war on the British nation would have caused a great deal of international tension and most certainly intervention.

By not directly declaring war, both Argentina and Britain dodged a lengthy and problematic process with far more severe consequences. In this way, I consider both nations to have acted justly in not coinciding with legitimate authority.

2. Just Cause: Argentina

Regan states: “Just-war theory requires that nations resort to war only for just causes” (Regan, 48). Further, that there are two conditions which support just causes, the prevention or rectification of injustice and proportionality of means towards the ends.

Among these considerations, there is the case for ‘vindicating territorial claims’. Regan notes it as one of the most cited causes for war, and he writes, “There is scarcely a region in the world where one nation could not lay claim to a territory presently incorporated in another nation” (Regan, 60).

With such an easy façade for just cause leading to egregious modern warfare, the contemporary setting does not approve of ‘offensive action’ over territorial claims where offensive action is defined here as “…the use of military force to vindicate territorial claims unconnected with other nations’ current or recent aggression…” (Regan, 59).

Regan also makes another argument in which he states that almost every offensive territorial claim is disproportionate when considering the threat to international peace (Regan, 59). Lastly, Regan points out the similarities of international law to common property rights (Regan, 60-61). Once a person or nation has owned something for a certain amount of time, it becomes their property.

At the very least, they maintain certain rights over it. While a specified amount of time has not been agreed upon, Britain held unchallenged authority over the Islands for 150 years. Argentina seems to fit the bill for unjust offensive action.

Regan does note one instance in which territorial disputes may be justified, and it is when the nation has a plausible claim of being coerced to sign a treaty over the disputed property (Regan, 60). As stated above, neither the territorial claims of the islands nor the treaties made by Spain were in the interest of the Argentinean people.

The Argentines held no legal status until their fight for independence in 1820 which allowed them to rectify territories. Their constitution included the sovereignty of the islands. This was subsequently ignored by the British. Argentina also attended 17 years of unfruitful negotiations and the possibility of a 25 year postponement of the issue.

Regan also notes that Argentina believed Britain to calculate the costs of the war and relinquish the Falkland Islands, thus negating many of the evils of war (Regan, 158). So they did conclude that there was a reasonable chance for success.

Argentina falls short on one important level, however. On April third of that year, the Security Council passed Resolution 502 which called for all hostilities to cease and for forces to be withdrawn (Regan, 153). The Argentines would only agree to the proposals offered by U.S. ambassadors of their forces being withdrawn if the British forces were withdrawn as well.

The British refused. Argentina continued belligerence against the behest of the international community. On top of this, Argentina did not take true considerations of the neutral parties, the people of the Falkland Islands, who did not want to be subjects of Argentine sovereignty.

Furthermore, the loss of life that could have incurred, even the loss of life that could have been projected at the time, was not proportional to the cause. Ultimately, these situations undermine the just cause of Argentina, leading their cause to be unjust.

2. Just Cause: Britain

Regan notes that nations have a prima facie just cause to defend themselves and their citizens from armed attack and “This right of national self-defense includes a right to defend colonial dependencies as long as the indigenous peoples accept colonial status or at least prefer it to another nation’s rule” (Regan, 48-49).

Although the justice of the defense “…presupposes that the attacked nation has at least a prescriptive right to rule the territory attacked, and that the attacking nation has no just cause to attack…” (Regan, 49). Britain did have the right to rule this island as a colony and was accepted as authority for the majority of the inhabitants.

On the surface, the British have just cause for defensive war. However, the full spectrum of just cause will be taken into consideration with right intention and jus in bello.

3. Right Intention: Argentina

Regan defines the objective roles of legitimate authority and just cause along with the subjective role of right intention as follows:

Just-war theory requires that those who make decisions to wage war should be constitutionally and legally authorized to do so, and that wars should be waged only for proportionately just causes…[and] involves a subjective criterion, right intention, and right intention concerns the subjective intentions of war-decision makers (84).

Regan further argues that a nation has right intention if and only if they follow the tenets of just war theory. While some have stated that Argentina went to war in order to divert their peoples’ attention from problems at home, I will ignore such speculation.

However, given the condition of allowing ‘the belligerent to the pursuit of the avowed just cause’ (O’Brien), i.e. reclaiming the Islands, Argentina acted in accordance. Unfortunately, their cause was not entirely just or proportional to the losses possible. Thus, Argentina did not have right intention because right intention relies so heavily on just case.

Right Intention: Britain

Regan includes the stated intention of the British war effort as, “Mrs. Thatcher gave two reasons for the prospective military action: (1) to show that aggression does not pay; (2) to vindicate the islanders’ right of self-determination” (Regan, 153).

However, given the projected costs of war and threat to international peace, the proportions of war do not appear to be even. The Island is quite small in comparison, and the population is hardly 2,000 individuals versus whatever loss of life could come from modern warfare.

This seems vastly disproportionate to a simple territorial claim. The importance of the island itself may be small, but it is the message which would likely bring far more peace in the future.

The British have multiple colonial dependencies, i.e. Gibraltar in Spain, Hong Kong in China. By showing ‘aggression does not pay,’ the British are attempting to preemptively halt future acts of aggression on other dependencies. This fight is not only for the population who prefer British rule but for the sake of peace for the future as well. It is in this case that the costs of war may be justified for the British.

They also denied an armistice with Argentina, but this was due to the pragmatics of defense. Winter was on its way, and the cold ocean would greatly hamper the navy’s efforts. The Islands would face a far greater threat on land. The British would only withdraw if Argentina also withdrew unconditionally. They did not. Overall, the British had the right intention.

Jus in Bello Overview

After an Argentinean force of about 150 men occupied South Georgia, an island in Falklands, the British set a 200 nautical mile exclusion zone in which any Argentine naval vessels would be attacked. The British reoccupied South Georgia at the end of April.

On May 2, the British sunk the Argentine naval ship the Belgrano. Argentina claimed it was outside the exclusion zone, and the British claimed the opposite. As for how this will affect just war considerations, I will assume a neutral stance while noting the casualties of 321 Argentine lives.

From May 1 to the 21, there was a heavy air and naval battle. The British suffered air and naval casualties while the Argentines suffered ‘crippling’ air losses. On June 14, Argentina surrendered.

Any POWs were returned by June 19. About 700 Argentines were killed and 255 British combatants were killed. Only 3 Falklanders were reported killed in the course of the war. The total monetary cost for the British amounted to a hefty sum.

At the minimum, one vessel sunk was estimated at $145 million. After this, the British declared it would fortify the Islands spending 75 million pounds ($117,345,000) on defenses and to develop potential offshore fisheries. It would also spend 35 million pounds ($54,761,000) to aid tourism, agriculture, and fisheries.

4. Principle of Proportionality

The principle of proportionality deals with the killing of civilians and to what justifiable extent it may occur. The military ends must be greater, and hopefully far greater, than the gruesome means with which they are reached. Thankfully, both nations never put themselves in a position in which such a difficult decision needed to be made. The overwhelming number of deaths were of combatants.

5. Principle of Discrimination

The principle of discrimination prohibits direct and intentional attacks on noncombatants and nonmilitary targets (O’Brien). Both sides in this war, by the record, show a remarkable level of discrimination. No mass bombings or reported assassinations of nationals occurred.


While the jus in bello warfare directly harmed almost no civilians, the loss of life in proportion to the cause is not justified. Almost 1,000 combatants died for the sake of the Islands, not to mention the economic costs.

Britain would not be justified even for its defense if it were not for the overarching principle of defending dependencies and the rights of its subjects. In summation, Argentina entered war under unjust pretenses but fought justly, and Britain was just overall.

Case Study Comments

I hope the reader understands the great difficulty, ambiguity, and overall headaches that come from analyzing the ethics of a war in detail. Even in a "neat" example, the blood of the people make every decision seem murky at best.

You may think, "who are you to judge these people and this war." You may think, "who am I to judge?" While I agree, and I believe every sane person should ask these questions when dealing with this subject, we must ask. If we do not try, apathy will reign.


© 2012 Elliott Ploutz


Joseph Guzman on December 16, 2018:

Written by an Anglo that ignored the island beign in the continental platform of Argentina. The inhabitants were planted by England to use as excuse for occupation. Also to have claims to areas that belongs to a sovereign country

Ed Schofield from Nova Scotia, Canada on February 09, 2017:

Didn't the UN declare after WWII that borders were not to be altered by force? If this is the case, why would it be such a struggle to evaluate? The Argentinians behaved in a way that the UN did not approve. Nor did they approve when Iraq marched into Kuwait. If the immorality of this behavior doesn't slap you in the face, then people aren't moral to begin with. The Russians are currently behaving immorally in the Crimea, (with soldiers who are 'on vacation' from Russia) and the world does nothing. That also is immoral. If you won't go to war over 10 square kilometers, but you will for 10,000, then we know to only take 10 at a time.

CJ Kelly from the PNW on April 15, 2013:

This is one of the best breakdowns of the conflict that I've seen in quite a while and hope more people read it. Great job.

Elliott Ploutz (author) from Las Vegas, Nevada on June 26, 2012:

Thank you :)

This is a restructured college essay, so it served a dual purpose!

Deborah from Las Vegas on June 26, 2012:

War ethics are a battle in themselves. I understand completely. This hub is quite an undertaking. Thanks for all your hard work.

Related Articles