By Michael Maclay

"You know Tony, you deserve the Garter for this . . ." The voice of Ambassador Oleg Troyanovsky, grandest of Soviet apparatchiks, cut across the hubbub of the Security Council to offer Sir Anthony Parsons, British Permanent Representative at the UN, his most perceptive bouquet of the day. Who could have expected an old communist to show such detailed knowledge of British orders of chivalry? Security Council Resolution 502, demanding immediate withdrawal of all Argentine forces from the Falkland Islands, had been adopted, with mandatory force.

Most UN resolutions matter little, and many not at all. This one was an exception. For a British government reeling from its failure to foresee the invasion, humiliated by the Argentine coup de main, it was a lifeline. More important, it provided the moral, legal and diplomatic bedrock for British military action in the months that followed. Britain's allies in the European Community, the US and the Commonwealth did not share the British position on sovereignty. But if diplomatic efforts failed, the resolution offered a platform for Britain to take back the islands within a framework of international law and general acceptance - if not enthusiasm.

Troyanovsky, of all the members of the Security Council, understood this. He sat to Parsons' right, according to the alphabetical order of the delegations - this was then the USSR. To Parsons' left was Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the US representative, whose record of mischievous cultivation of Argentine officers made her a less than enthusiastic colleague. Neither she, nor the new-ish French representative, who should have been the natural allies of Parsons in the Council, had quite understood the significance of events as they unfolded. But Troyanovsky knew.

The problem at the UN was that a majority of the Security Council delegations favoured the Argentine position on sovereignty - there were numerous General Assembly resolutions spelling out the UN orthodoxy that this was a residual colonial problem and implying that it must be settled speedily in favour of Argentina. The two arguments that played best in the UK were therefore of no use in New York: we might be clear and unequivocal about our own sovereignty claim, and we could also be eloquent about the right to self-determination of the Islanders ("Paramount," according to Mrs Thatcher, only slightly misquoting the UN Charter). But we in the UN delegation knew these arguments would cut no ice in the formal proceedings of the Council. The only argument that would hold water there was that one party to a recognised dispute had tried to settle things by force.

When Parsons first received the intelligence that an Argentine force was on the point of taking the islands, he saw with brilliant clarity the only way this local diplomatic war could be won. Somewhat frustrated for much of his time in New York, he became through the Falklands crisis the old fashioned hero whom his favourite author, Conrad, would have invented: the man prepared by his whole previous life for his personal moment of truth.

Parsons went for a high-risk strategy of leadership from the front. With the support of the Foreign Office, he called a formal meeting of the Security Council even before it had been confirmed that the Argentines were on their way ("We'll look a bit funny if they are lost in the fog between Buenos Aires and Stanley," he observed on the way to the Council).

He got a unanimous statement out of the Council, telling each of the parties to exercise restraint in the South Atlantic. This represented a last-ditch attempt to persuade the Argentines back from the brink - their UN diplomats were still finding it difficult to believe that their own government would do anything so reckless as invading. But by now the die was cast. We embarked on a diplomatic campaign by turns sober and dramatic, disciplined and improvised.

The Argentine strategy was clear. To delay action in the Council so that their occupation of the islands became an irreversible fact, with the British too demoralised and isolated to be able to respond. The US was agnostic at the top (President Reagan described the islands as "just a bunch of rocks"), and badly split further down (Secretary of State Haig emotionally backing the British but significant players such as Jeanne Kirkpatrick, also a cabinet member, and Thomas Enders, Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs, seen by many in the State Department as essentially pro-Argentine). The Europeans were unprepared. The non-aligned group which then dominated the UN did not much like the Argentines, but their collective instinct was anti-colonial.

While the Argentines aimed to defer discussion till the arrival of their Foreign Minister, Nicanor Costa-Méndez, Parsons forced the pace. Brushing aside the suggestion that he wait until a minister could be dispatched from London, he immediately circulated a short draft resolution which was moderately worded but contained the crucial points that the Argentines should withdraw, and that there had been a breach of the peace, making this a Chapter 7 resolution relating to international peace and security, not a Chapter 6 draft on peaceful settlement of disputes. This was critical, ultimately giving the resolution mandatory status rather than establishing it as a starting-point for endless negotiation.

There followed 72 hours in which Parsons and his team hardly slept. Regaling the Council with his choicest rhetoric, he excoriated the Argentines for their brutality and their braggadocio. His evident sincerity and eloquence had a strikingly persuasive effect on all audiences that mattered, from cynical UN diplomats and hardened Secretariat officials to the British politicians watching at home, and to a fascinated US public opinion. This was the start of what turned out to be the first round-the-clock television war, as CNN had only just been launched.

We needed nine votes in the Council. We could rely on the US, we had to assume, notwithstanding Mrs Kirkpatrick's personal position. We hoped for French support, not knowing at first that President Mitterrand was going to do us proud - France still held a number of overseas possessions which could be jeopardised if this crisis came out wrong, and he seemed to take a chivalrous delight in doing justice to his old foe Margaret Thatcher. We had the bad luck that the only two other European nations with which Britain had territorial disputes - Ireland and Spain - were serving that year on the Council. We had by good fortune one Latin American on our side - Guyana, which felt threatened by one of its neighbours in another residual territorial dispute. But we could write off Panama, China, the Soviet Union and Poland. That meant we needed at least four votes and possibly five from a mixed group of pacifist Japan; Jordan - friendly but bruised by fresh violence in Lebanon; and three anti-colonial but pragmatic African countries - Togo, Uganda and Zaire.

The battle between the Argentines and their proxies and ourselves for those votes, in New York, in capitals and at Non-Aligned caucus meetings, almost deserves a monograph for each of the countries above. My most melodramatic memory is of how the Jordanian vote swung minute by minute from positive to negative then possible abstention, as Ambassador Hazem Nuseibeh in New York appeared to recommend in favour, the Foreign Minister overruled him and then seemed to instruct him to vote against. In one of the most breathtaking procedural coups imaginable, Parsons demanded and secured a brief delay before the vote was taken - in the first instance so that the draft resolution could be reprinted with the bracketed words (Islas Malvinas) added to the title of the Resolution "Question of the Falklands." The real reason was to gain time for Mrs Thatcher to talk to King Hussein.

Unfortunately communications had broken down between Amman and New York, and I found myself conducting a reluctant Dr Nuseibeh up and down obscure staircases in the winding passages of the UN Secretariat to get him to a phone to hear directly what his government had decided. Unknown to me, the usual connecting doors were shut as it was a Saturday. We raced around in circles until I found myself perched on a chute in the UN car park as a heavily perspiring Dr Nuseibeh begged for a brief time out, lit up a cheroot in his magnificent gold cigarette-holder, and chuckled that this was beginning to feel like a real-life James Bond movie.

In the event - as far as we could see - Amman never gave him the final confirmation of instructions that he was seeking. But when the Council reconvened, ten arms went up in favour of the resolution, including Jordan, Ireland, Japan, and each of the three African delegations. Panama voted against and there were abstentions from Spain, China and Poland. Most crucially, the Soviet Union abstained.

Britain had its mandatory resolution. SCR 502 was as important as Parsons foresaw in protecting our position in the subsequent negotiations under UN Secretary-General Pérez de Cuéllar, and in making it possible for the Pentagon to supply the hardware Britain so desperately needed when, after the failure of negotiation, it came to war.

There were momentous stories to follow, in the military feats, the tragic human cost of the conflict, and the wider implications for what happened to Argentina and Latin America in the course of the 1980s. But Ambassador Troyanovsky never spoke a truer diplomatic word than in his old-fashioned compliment to Sir Anthony Parsons that day.

(Michael Maclay was serving at the British mission to the UN at the time of the Argentine invasion of the Falkand Islands.)



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