Beagle conflict

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Beagle conflict
Two claimed definitions of the west mouth of the Straits of Magellan. The black line is the Chilean view of a single mouth, the yellow line represents the Argentine view which included several channels as part of the Straits for navigation treaty purposes
Result Treaty settlement
Argentina Argentina Chile Chile

The Beagle conflict was a border dispute between Chile and Argentina over the possession of Picton, Lennox and Nueva islands and the scope of the maritime jurisdiction associated with those islands that brought the countries to the brink of war in 1978.

The islands are strategically located off the south edge of Tierra del Fuego and at the east end of the Beagle Channel. The Beagle Channel, the Straits of Magellan and the Drake Passage are the only three waterways between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean in the southern hemisphere.

After refusing to abide by a binding international award giving the islands to Chile, the Argentine junta advanced the nation to war in 1978 in order to produce a boundary consistent with Argentine claims.[1][2]: 6 

The Beagle conflict is seen as the main reason for Chilean support to the United Kingdom during the Falklands War of 1982.[3][4]

The conflict began in 1904 with the first official Argentine claims over the islands that had been under Chilean control ever since southern Patagonia was colonised.[5]: §164  The conflict passed through several phases: since 1881 they were claimed Chilean islands, beginning in 1904 they were disputed islands, followed later by direct negotiations, submission to a binding international tribunal, further direct negotiations, brinkmanship and settlement.

The conflict was resolved through papal mediation and since 1984 Argentina has recognized the islands as Chilean territory. The 1984 treaty also resolves several collateral issues of great importance, including navigation rights, sovereignty over other islands in the Fuegian Archipelago, delimitation of the Straits of Magellan, and maritime boundaries south to Cape Horn and beyond.


For a long time after its first exploration by Europeans, the region of Patagonia and the Tierra del Fuego archipelago remained free from colonial settlements because of its inhospitable climate, harsh conditions and sparse local vegetation. After the disaster of Puerto del Hambre (1584) during the regency of Philip II of Spain no other attempts of settlements were made in the zone.

In 1843 the Chilean government sent an expedition with the appointed task of establishing a permanent settlement on the shores of the Strait of Magellan. The founding act of the settlement of Fuerte Bulnes took place on 21 September 1843. A few years later (1848) the settlement moved to Punta Arenas.

Argentine Ushuaia was founded by English born Thomas Bridges in 1869.

In 1881, Chile and Argentina attempted to definitively resolve their territorial disputes through a comprehensive agreement known as the Boundary treaty of 1881 between Chile and Argentina. This agreement provided that the border between the two countries would follow:

  • (Article I, from north to parallel 52°S) the highest peaks and Drainage divide,
  • (Article II, from 52°S to the Straits of Magellan) mainly the parallel 52°S and
  • (Article III, south of Straits of Magellan) mainly the meridian 68°34 W and the Beagle channel.
Different Argentine Interpretations of the Boundary treaty of 1881. The red line of "La Ilustración Argentina", chronological the first one and the Chilean one, is currently valid. See maps in Beagle Channel cartography since 1881

Until 1887 there was no doubt in Argentina and Chile that the islands Picton, Nueva and Lennox belonged to Chile:

There can be no doubt that in the immediate post-Treaty period, that is to say from 1881 to at least 1887/88, Argentine cartography in general showed the PNL [Picton, Nueva and Lennox] group as Chilean;[5]: §148 

In 1904 the Argentine government solicited Chile to define jointly which was the deepest arm of the Beagle channel in the zone in order to find the demarcation of the border. On the basis of the international cartography of the zone, the descriptions of the discoverer of the channel, and the discourse of the signatories of the 1881 Treaty, Chile initially did not attach importance to the note.[6]

The chief of the Argentine exploring commission of the southern territories, Francisco P. Moreno in a memorandum to the British Ambassador in Buenos Aires, 1918, saw the Argentine claim as baseless:

No atino a explicarme por qué el Gobierno argentino pretende hoy soberanía sobre las islas Picton, Nueva, Lennox, etc., fundándose en los tratados vigentes, es decir, en el de 1881 y en el protocolo de 1893, cuando el primero de ellos lo invalida para tal pretensión y el segundo nada tiene que ver con la demarcación en el canal de Beagle. Insisto: la mención en el Tratado de 1881, con excepción de la isla de los Estados, le hará perder un pleito tan malamente planteado … También repetiré que la excepción que hace el Tratado de 1881 con la isla de los Estados, que reconoce como argentina, no permite poner en duda la propiedad chilena de las tierras situadas tanto al sur de la isla de la Tierra del Fuego como al sur del canal de Beagle.[7]

(Transl.: I can't understand why the Argentine Government claims sovereignty over the islands Picton, Nueva, Lennox, etc., basing its arguments on the 1881 Treaty and the 1893 Protocol, when the first one invalidates its claim and the second one has nothing to do with the demarcation of the Beagle channel. I insist: the phrasing in the 1881 Treaty, ["]except the Isla de los Estados["], will put paid to any such badly planned lawsuit… I repeat that the exception the 1881 Treaty makes for the Isla de los Estados, that stated as Argentine, does not permit any doubt over the Chilean property of territories located south of the Tierra del Fuego and south of the Beagle channel)

The unresolved conflict continued to simmer. During the Snipe incident, Argentine forces destroyed a Chilean lighthouse on the Snipe islet at the entry of the Beagle Channel installed on 1 May 1958, put up their own and landed marines on the islet, provoking a dangerous buildup. Later both countries agreed to pull back military forces and dismantle the lighthouses.[8][9]

Interests of the parties[edit]

Over the years, the growing importance of the Antarctic and issues of navigation routes between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean, the possibility of oil fields in the zone, and fishing rights led both countries to harden their positions, and the conflict was extended to other issues regarding the zone.

Two visions of the maritime boundaries at the eastern entrance to the Strait of Magellan

There was a controversy about the east end of the Straits of Magellan. Both countries agreed about the boundary line, but not about the end of the Straits. The Chilean view was that the Straits ended at the boundary line and eastward continued the Atlantic Ocean and therefore Chile had a "beach" at (and its projection over) the Atlantic Ocean and it enjoyed sole control of the Straits themselves.[10] The Argentine view was that the Straits continued eastward of the border and that the east end of the Straits of Magellan belonged to Argentina. Under this view, it was co proprietor with the right to co-regulate the navigation through the Straits and Chile had no border with the Atlantic Ocean.

Two visions of the west mouth of the Straits of Magellan. The black line is the Chilean view, the yellow line represented the Argentine view

The west end of the Straits of Magellan was also a cause of conflict. Argentina considered the channels and bays part of the straits and demanded free navigation through all waters as stipulated in the Boundary Treaty of 1881 for the Straits.

The map shows the overlapping projection of the countries over the Antarctic

On 14 June 1977, the Chilean Government issued the decree n°416 over the baselines (See Chilean Baselines Map). The decree had two main implications for the controversy. First, it extended the range from which Chile might attempt to project its 12-mile territorial sea and 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone along a continued line from Picton, Nueva, and Lennox Islands as far south as Cape Horn, thus greatly increasing its potential maritime jurisdiction to the east and southeast. Second, it effectively converted all waters enclosed by the baselines into Chilean internal waters where navigational rights for Argentina would exist only through explicit agreements with Chile. The Argentine port of Ushuaia, located on the north shore of the east Beagle Channel, had no direct free way to the Pacific Ocean through Argentine waters. Argentina has so far considered its unfettered use of the waters surrounding the Fuegian Archipelago to be a matter of critical importance for its commercial and military navigation.

The two countries have always linked their Antarctic claims to their continental possessions because the nearness and the projection of the countries over the Antarctic can substantiate a claim over territories.

History of the conflict[edit]

Attempts to clear up the dispute were unsuccessful from 1904 until 1971.


The increasing significance of the region led to various incidents and confrontations between Chile and Argentina around transit and fishing rights, which potentially could lead to full-scale war.[11] The Snipe incident was the most serious incident occurred in the zone.

Beagle Channel Arbitration (1971–1977)[edit]

In 1971 Chile and Argentina signed an agreement formally submitting the Beagle Channel issue to binding arbitration under auspices of the UK's Queen Elizabeth II. The court that was to decide the controversy was composed of five judges selected by Chile and Argentina from the International Court of Justice at The Hague. The court of arbitration's final decision would be submitted to the British Crown, which was then to recommend acceptance or rejection of the award of the court but not to modify it. On 2 May 1977 the court ruled that the islands and all adjacent formations belonged to Chile. See the Report and decision of the Court of Arbitration. In their only meeting in 1974 Juan Perón expressed his wishes to settle the conflict to Augusto Pinochet.[12]

On 25 January 1978 Argentina rejected the ruling, and attempted via military force to challenge the Chilean commitment to defend the territory, and to coerce Chile into negotiating a division of the islands that would produce a boundary consistent with Argentine claims.[1]

Direct negotiations (1977–1978)[edit]

Direct negotiations between Chile and Argentina began after the announcement of the binding arbitration ruling, on 2 May 1977, and ended with the Act of Montevideo, Uruguay, on 9 January 1979, where both countries accepted papal mediation after Argentina aborted Operation Soberanía.

In the interim, both countries deployed military forces, moving to the brink of open warfare in tandem with a frenzy of diplomatic activity. This was the most dangerous phase of the Beagle conflict; open warfare seemed a real possibility[2]: 7 

Operation Soberanía (1978)[edit]

On 22 December 1978 Argentina initiated Operation Soberanía, an attempt via military force to occupy the islands around Cape Horn, intending to judge from Chile's response whether to advance further. However, the operation was aborted within a few hours. Instead of renewing the operation at the next window of opportunity, the junta in Buenos Aires decided to allow the Pope to mediate the dispute through the offices of Cardinal Antonio Samoré, his special envoy.

Papal mediation (1979–1984)[edit]

On 9 January 1979, the Act of Montevideo was signed pledging both sides to a peaceful solution and a return to the military situation of early 1977.

The Pope proposed in 1980 a solution that was accepted by Chile and rejected by Argentina.

The detention of alleged spies on both sides of the border, the following border closure by Argentina on 28 April 1981, and the Argentine repudiation of the General Treaty on the Judicial Settlement of Disputes in January 1982 maintained the danger of war. Six weeks before the Falklands War, Argentina provoked the ARA Gurruchaga incident with Chile at Deceit Island.[13][14]

The Falklands War (1982)[edit]

Anglo-Chilean relations had been deteriorating since the Sheila Cassidy Affair in 1973.[15]

In 1982, Argentina went to war against the United Kingdom in the Falklands War. The Argentine plan included the military occupation of the disputed islands at the Beagle channel after the invasion of the Falklands, as stated by Brigadier Basilio Lami Dozo, chief of the Argentine Air Force during the Falklands war, in an interview with the Argentine magazine Perfil:

L.F. Galtieri said: "[Chile] have to know that what we are doing now, because they will be the next in turn..[16]

In 1982, Argentina still secretly considered Chile an enemy.[17] Chile, perhaps suspecting an Argentine invasion,[18] argued that it was not bound to support Argentina against the UK under the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance because that treaty was defensive in nature, while Argentina was the aggressor in this case and both Chile and Argentina deployed their respective militaries to the border.

The common challenge made the chance of military co-operation between the UK and Chile a distinct possibility, and during the war Chile provided the UK with limited, but significant information.[3] One of the reasons given for the absence of the Argentine Navy and higher numbers of professional soldiers during the Falklands War was that these forces had to be kept in reserve in case they were needed against Chile.[citation needed]

Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1984 between Chile and Argentina[edit]

Tensions between Argentina and Chile did not subside until the democratic government of Raúl Alfonsín took office in Argentina in December 1983. Still isolated diplomatically due to the War, the Alfonsín administration made great efforts to stabilise the border situation. Without the support of the opposition, Alfonsín called for non-binding referendum on 25 November 1984, which produced a result of 82.6% in favour[19] of the second papal proposal. The voting was close only in the territory of Tierra del Fuego, which included the Argentine sector of the disputed Beagle Channel and many military personnel. Even there the vote was narrowly in favour of the treaty. On 29 November 1984, Argentina and Chile signed a protocol of agreement to a treaty in the Vatican City giving the islands to Chile but maritime rights to Argentina.

Cultural impact[edit]


Several books have been written about the conflict, the Operation Soberanía and the comparison of the outcome of the Falklands and the Beagle conflict (see Literature).

Given that the military critical phase of both conflicts occurred within almost 3 years (December 1978 – April 1982), the conflicts have been analysed as a case for the prospect theory[20] or the role of the mass media in the use of force.[21]


The mountain pass of Puyehue was renamed Cardenal Antonio Samoré Pass for Antonio Samoré, one of the mediators from the Vatican state in the conflict.


Leon Gieco created the song "Sólo le pido a Dios"[22] ("I only Ask of God") in 1978 as a response to the warmongering in Argentina. Three years later, during the Falklands War, the Argentine junta used the song against the Falklands War after the invasion.[23]

In 2005 the Chilean movie Mi Mejor Enemigo (English: My Best Enemy) was released. The film recreates the story of a simple recruit in late 1978 when both countries were on the brink of war.

Three TV productions about the conflict (in Spanish) focus on Operation Soberanía:

Economic impact[edit]

The arms race at both sides of the border after the Argentine refusal of the decision of the Court of Arbitration caused huge costs for the economy of the countries, until after the Falklands War:[24]

1976 1977 1978 1979 1980 1981
Defence spending* 487 566 713 951 1,128 949
Percentage of the GNP 3.5 3.5 4.1 4.6 5.2
Defence spending* 2,702 2,225 2,339 2,641 2,126 2,241
Percentage of the GNP 2.2 2.0 2.3 2.5 2.0
* Costs in millions of 1979 United States dollars.


The Beagle conflict was argued in legal and juridical terms, although it was eventually resolved as a political compromise.

During the 1990s, under the presidency of Carlos Menem in Argentina and Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle in Chile, they resolved almost all of their disputes and both countries began to work together both economically and militarily.

A number of prominent public officials in Chile still point to past Argentine treaty repudiations when referring to relations between the two neighbours.[25][26][27][28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Mares, David R (May 2004), Natural Gas Pipelines in the Southern Cone, Baker Institute, archived from the original on 6 April 2013, retrieved 26 August 2008
  2. ^ a b Alejandro Luis Corbacho: Predicting the Probability of War During Brinkmanship Crises: The Beagle and the Malvinas Conflicts, Universidad del CEMA, Argentina, Documento de Trabajo No. 244, September 2003, retrieved 23 September 2008: «…There was a real possibility of open warfare…»
  3. ^ a b The Chilean connection, archived from the original on 30 April 2012, retrieved 26 August 2008
  4. ^ Torrengo, Carlos (5 September 2005), Malvinas: Argentina sabía que Chile espiaría (in Spanish), Río Negro, Argentina: Editorial of Argentine newspaper Rio Negro, archived from the original on 24 July 2012, retrieved 5 September 2005:
    Chile no ignora que la historia suele pegar brincos insólitos. Argentina – por caso – podía salir airosa del conflicto. Ya por una negociación exitosa para sus intereses, ya por derrotar a los británicos. Si esto sucedía, ¿qué le impediría a Leopoldo Galtieri y compañía apoderarse de las islas del Beagle? ¿O qué los condicionaría a tomar iniciativas de esa naturaleza sobre espacios que, en aquel entonces, eran materia de disputa entre Argentina y Chile?
    (Translation:"Chile knows that the history can do a sudden turn. Argentina – hypothetically – could win the war. Throughout a military victory or throughout negotiations. In this case, who would prevent Galtieri & Co. to take over the islands on the Beagle? what would impede them to take such initiatives over disputed regions?")
  5. ^ a b Report and Decision of the Court of Arbitration, retrieved on 26 August 2008
  6. ^ Sergio Gutiérrez Olivos, "Comentarios sobre el tratado de paz y amistad con Argentina", p. 155.
  7. ^ Fabio Vio Valdivieso,La mediación de su S.S. el Papa Juan Pablo II, p. 111
  8. ^ Historia general de las Relaciones Exteriores de la República Argentina (in Spanish), p. Algunas cuestiones con los países vecinos, archived from the original on 17 February 2012, retrieved 24 May 2008:«Las balizas fueron desmanteladas, estableciéndose que éstas en el futuro no serían de ninguno de los dos países, y se retiraron los infantes de marina.»
  9. ^ Chilean newspaper El Mercurio de Valparaíso, A 50 años del incidente del islote Snipe Archived 15 April 2012 at the Wayback Machine, on 17 August 2008, retrieved on 24 September 2008, in Spanish language
  10. ^ Morrs, Michael A. (1989). The Strait of Magallan. Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff. p. 84. ISBN 0-7923-0181-1. [in September 1980] Chile objected to an off-shore oil rig authorized by Argentina in an area near the strait, since it allegedly obstructed navigation and encroached on Chilean sovereignty. Chile first conveyed a warning via warship and then by military helicopter that landed in the heliport of the platform. A somewhat similar incident occurred when Argentine military aircraft warned and then buzzed a Chilean warship proceeding toward the Strait of Magellan from the Falklands islands, because of the lack of prior notification and refusal of the vessel to identify itself once discovered. Chile, for its part, maintained that no advance notification was required, since his warship was navigating within Chile's 200 nautical miles (370 km) zone fronting the strait
  11. ^ David R. Struthers, The Beagle Channel Dispute Between Argentina and Chile: An historical Analysis Archived 25 April 2012 at the Wayback Machine, Master of Science in Strategic Intelligence, May 1985, pp. 63 ff
  12. ^ Ortega, José (2014). "Perón y Chile" (PDF). Encucijada Americana. 6 (2): 67. doi:10.53689/ea.v6i2.67. S2CID 211276031.
  13. ^ Newspaper "Convicción", Buenos Aires, 24 February 1982, pp. 12–13. (Cited in Historia general de las Relaciones Exteriores Argentinas Archived 29 June 2012 at, note 57.)
  14. ^ Formosel, José Luis (6 March 1982), "Pinochet ordena el acuartelamiento de las tropas chilenas por el conflicto con Argentina sobre el canal de Beagle", El País (in Spanish), Madrid, archived from the original on 4 October 2012, retrieved 26 August 2008:
    Los observadores, con quienes coinciden los medios de comunicación social, estiman que la movilización armada se realizó tras comprobarse que la nave de la Armada argentina Francisco de Gurruchaga violó de nuevo la soberanía chilena, desplazándose por el sector de la isla Picton – una de las tres, junto a Nueva y Lennox, que se disputan los dos países en el litigio del Beagle. En esta oportunidad acompañaban al Gurruchaga otras cuatro embarcaciones.
  15. ^ Historical dictionary of Chile of Salvatore Bizzarro, Scarecrow Press, 2005. 937 pp. ISBN 0-8108-4097-9, 3rd edition, p. 749 (or here:
    [after the coup d'état of 1973] the United Kingdom broke off diplomatic relations after the release from prison of a British physician, Sheila Cassidy, who claimed she had been tortured.
  16. ^ D., H. (22 November 2009), Después de Malvinas, iban a atacar a Chile (in Spanish), Buenos Aires: Argentine magazine Perfil, archived from the original on 26 February 2012, retrieved 22 November 2009:"Para colmo, Galtieri dijo en un discurso: 'Que saquen el ejemplo [los chilenos] de lo que estamos haciendo ahora porque después les toca a ellos'. Also Óscar Camilión, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Argentina from 29 March 1981 to 11 December 1981, in his "Memorias Políticas", Editorial Planeta, Buenos Aires, 1999, p. 281 confirms the plan of Argentine military: «Los planes militares eran, en la hipótesis de resolver el caso Malvinas, invadir las islas en disputa en el Beagle. Esa era la decisión de la Armada…» (translation:«The military planning was, with the Falklands in Argentine hand, to invade the disputed islands in the Beagle Channel. That was the determination of the (Argentine) navy…») See also Kalevi Jaakko Holsti, The State, War, and the State of War Cambridge Studies in International Relations, 1996, 271 pp., ISBN 0-521-57790-X. See also here On p. 160: Displaying the mentality of the Argentine military regime in the 1970s, as another example, there was "Plan Rosario" according to which Argentina would attack the Malvinas and then turn to settle the Beagle Channel problem by force. The sequence, according to the plan, could also be reversed. See also article of Manfred Schönfeld in La Prensa (Buenos Aires) on 2. Juni 1982 about the Argentine Course of Action after the War: "Para nosotros no lo estará [terminada la guerra], porque, inmediatamente después de barrido el enemigo de las Malvinas, debe serlo de las Georgias, Sandwich del Sur y de todos los demás archipiélagos australes argentinos, ...". All articles of M. Schönfeld in "La Prensa" from 10. January 1982 to 2. August 1982 are in "La Guerra Austral", Manfred Schönfeld, Desafío Editores S.A., 1982, ISBN 950-02-0500-9
  17. ^ The Informe Rattenbach, an Argentine official investigation over the war, §718 part "a" in es:s:Informe Rattenbach
  18. ^ Urbina, Rafael (11 April 1982), "Chile teme que Argentina pueda repetir una acción de fuerza en el canal de Beagle", El País (in Spanish), Madrid, archived from the original on 5 October 2012, retrieved 26 August 2008
  19. ^ Nohlen, D (2005) Elections in the Americas: A data handbook, Volume II, p78 ISBN 978-0-19-928358-3
  20. ^ Daniel G. Upp Risky invasions: Decisions made by the Argentine Junta regarding disputed islands, 1978–1982 Archived 25 April 2012 at the Wayback Machine, September 2011]
  21. ^ W. Ben Hunt (1997). Getting to War: Predicting International Conflict With Mass Media Indicators. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 978-0-472-10751-3.
  22. ^ Video on YouTube
  23. ^ Una declaración universal (in Spanish), Buenos Aires: Argentine newspaper La Nación, 18 September 2006, archived from the original on 5 October 2012, retrieved 5 October 2012
  24. ^ Distribución de capacidades en el Cono Sur Archived 29 May 2008 at the Wayback Machine, Sabrina Melidoni, Buenos Aires, 2006 (p. 45), retrieved on 26 August 2008.
  25. ^ Senator (not elected but named by the Armed Forces) Jorge Martínez Bush im La Tercera de Santiago de Chile vom 26 Juli 1998, retrieved on 26 August 2008: "El legislador expuso que los chilenos mantienen "muy fresca" en la memoria la situación creada cuando Argentina declaró nulo el arbitraje sobre el canal del Beagle, en 1978."
  26. ^ Chilean Foreign Minister Ignacio Walker Clarin de B.A., 22 July 2005, retrieved on 26 August 2008: "Y está en la retina de los chilenos el laudo de Su Majestad Británica, en el Beagle, que fue declarado insanablemente nulo por la Argentina. Esa impresión todavía está instalada en la sociedad chilena."
  27. ^ Director académico de la Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales Flacso, Francisco Rojas, in Santiago de Chile, in La Nación Archived 3 October 2008 at the Wayback Machine de Buenos Aires vom 26 September 1997, retrieved on 26 August 2008: "Desde la Argentina, cuesta entender el nivel de desconfianza que hoy existe en Chile a propósito de la decisión que tomó en 1978 de declarar nulo el laudo arbitral"
  28. ^ Notes of Chilean Defence Minister Edmundo Pérez Yoma in "Centro Superior de Estudios de la Defensa Nacional del Reino de España", appeared in Argentine newspaper El Cronista Comercial Archived 3 October 2008 at the Wayback Machine, 5 Mai 1997, retrieved on 26 August 2008: ...Y que la Argentina estuvo a punto de llevar a cabo una invasión sobre territorio de Chile en 1978.... These notes were later relativised by the Chilean Government (See "Chile desmintió a su ministro de Defensa". Archived from the original on 3 October 2008. Retrieved 4 August 2008. and "El gobierno hace esfuerzos para evitar una polémica con Chile". Archived from the original on 3 October 2008. Retrieved 4 August 2008.).


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