On Tuesday, the results of the British Referendum on the Falkland/Malvinas Islands came in. According to the BBC, out of the 1,517 votes cast in the referendum, representing 90 percent of eligible voters on the island, all but three of them voted for having the islands remain territory of the U.K. As the British government must have realized before holding the poll, this is not surprising. Despite the relative proximity of the islands to the Argentine mainland, their inhabitants of the island have very few ties to Argentina: they are descendants of British colonizers, they speak English and maintain British traditions and citizenship.
An episode that aired Wednesday of the Russia Today TV program “Crosstalk” focused on the question of sovereignty and self-determination of the islands and featured an Argentine researcher, an analyst from the conservative Heritage Foundation, and a British historian who sided with Argentina’s legal claim for sovereignty on the islands.
Among the highlights from the episode is a discussion over whether the claim for the islands is an imperial project of the U.K. or whether the claim is legally legitimate. Luke Coffey, a “Margaret Thatcher Fellow” at the Washington D.C.-based Heritage Foundation, argues [9:40] that the islands are in no way a British colonial project, while British historian, Richard Gott, disagrees [10:07]: “I’m afraid it’s just not true. The British seized the islands in 1833 and subsequently settled it…”
As Gott and British journalist Richard Norton-Taylor both point out, Britain has always been aware that its claims to the islands may not have been very strong. Norton-Taylor writes:
The dispute over sovereignty has been going on for centuries, and Britain has never been really confident over its claim to the islands. In 1829, the Duke of Wellington observed: “I have perused the papers respecting the Falkland Islands. It is not clear to me that we have ever possessed the sovereignty of all these islands.”
Prior to the 1982 invasion of the islands by the leaders of the bloody Argentine military dictatorship, the two countries had been negotiating potential deals, with options on the table that included a lease-back plan and joint- sovereignty. Newly released British archives show that Margaret Thatcher was in favor of reaching a negotiated deal even after the April 2nd invasion.
Despite the British rhetoric behind this week’s referendum, other British analysts maintain that the 2,932 inhabitants of the islands– who are, by the way, outnumbered 167 to 1 by sheep- do not actually have a right to “self-determination” in this case. As Seumas Milne argues:
Self-determination requires a recognised and viably independent people, which is why the UN has rejected its application to the islands. Clearly the residents of, say, the Wallops in Hampshire, with a similar-sized population to the Falklands-Malvinas, can’t exercise such a right. Nor can forced colonisation of other people’s lands legitimate self-determination – otherwise Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank would have the right to decide the future of Palestinian territory.
Near the end of the Crosstalk episode referred to above, Luke Coffey insists on his position regarding self-determination: [18:20] “There is nothing to discuss here. As far as the U.K. is concerned, as far as the Falkland Islanders are concerned, this matter is settled. The Falkland Islanders voted overwhelmingly to be part of Great Britain. And we should respect that.”
Chuckles from all the other participants on the show follow as Richard Gott answers him: [21:19] “One of the purposes of the referendum is to use it as a propaganda point in the United States and I’m sure Luke, that you will be active in that… in trying to persuade the Americans to side with the British and not with Argentina.”
Something that nobody mentioned is the vested interest that the U.K. Defense Ministry probably has in maintaining control over the island. The Falkland-Malvinas are also home to a British military base, its 1,300 U.K. military personnel, and the various [PDF] artillery, aircraft, and missiles that are also stationed there.
Argentina has unanimous support from regional governments on its claim to the Falkland-Malvinas, as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), and its 33 member countries, made clear in 2011. Part of this support is probably due to the presence of the British military base on the islands, as the region has been increasingly opposed to any foreign military presence in the region, and as can be seen in the cases of Ecuador expelling a U.S. military base from Manta, and the case of the U.S.-Colombia Defense Co-operation Agreement, which was met with disapproval in the region and finally rejected by Colombia’s supreme court.
To add to that, there is the issue of recent speculation over the possibility of oil reserves on the islands. Both of these might be sticking points in any attempts to get a new round of negotiating over the islands.
But as Seumas Milnes points out in his column:
Britain’s refusal to negotiate with a democratic Argentina – when it was happy to talk to the country’s dictators – has no significant international support: least of all in Latin America, which has been booming for a decade, while Britain’s and Europe’s economies are on their backs.