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This isn't self-determination. It's a Ruritanian colonial relic

Seumas Milne
Tuesday 12 March 2013


The vote for British rule in the Falklands referendum dodges the point. It's time for a negotiated settlement with Argentina.


There were no ballots for the people of Hong Kong or the Chagos Islands. There are different rules, it seems, for white people.


Whenever there's a 99.8% yes vote in a referendum, it's a pretty safe bet that something dodgy's going on. And despite David Cameron's insistence that the North Korean-style ballot in the Falkland Islands – or Malvinas as they're known in Argentina – should be treated with "reverence", that rule of thumb clearly fits the bill in this case.


Which is not to suggest that the ballot boxes were stuffed. No doubt 1,514 island residents really did vote in favour of continued British rule. The only surprise was that three islanders dared to spoil the rousing choruses of Land of Hope and Glory by voting against.


It's that the poll was a foregone conclusion and designed to miss the entire point of Britain's dispute with Argentina over the islands – which began 180 years ago when one of Lord Palmerston's gunboats seized them and expelled the Argentine administration.


What other result could conceivably be expected if the future of the islands is put in the hands of the tiny British settler population, most of whom weren't born there but are subsidised to the tune of £44,856 a head to keep them in the Rhodesian retro style to which they are accustomed?


By giving the colonists a veto on any change in the islands' status, the British government is trying to pre-empt the issue at the heart of the conflict. But it won't be recognised by Argentina or Latin America, or Africa, or the UN – which regards this relic of empire as a problem of decolonisation – or the US, which is neutral on the dispute. All call for negotiations on sovereignty, which Britain rejects.


But surely the islanders have the right to self-determination, it's argued, even if they're 300 miles from Argentina and the other side of the world from Britain. They certainly have a right to have their interests and way of life protected, and to self-government. But the right of self-determination depends on who is deciding the future of what territory – and since the dispute is about whether the islands are part of Argentina or not, it's also about who should exercise that right.


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.


In fact, British governments only developed a taste for self-determination after they had been forced to abandon the bulk of their empire and saw a way to hold on to colonised enclaves of dependent populations in places like Gibraltar and Northern Ireland.


But it's always been a pick and mix affair: there were no self-determination ballots for the people of Hong Kong or the Chagos Islands, expelled by Britain four decades ago to make way for an American air base in Diego Garcia. There are different rules, it seems, for white people.


Even so, successive British administrations were quite prepared to negotiate with Argentina over the Falklands-Malvinas – including the islands' sovereignty – from the mid-1960s until 1982. But since the Falklands war, its legacy has entrenched an unsustainable £75m-a-year Ruritanian absurdity in the south Atlantic.


The junta's defeat helped free Argentina from a vicious western-backed dictatorship. But military success was a disaster for Britain, rescuing Margaret Thatcher from the depths of unpopularity to unleash devastating neoliberal shock therapy, and rehabilitating overseas military adventures (complete with little-reported war crimes, such as the killing of Argentinian prisoners).


The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges famously dismissed the war as a "fight between two bald men over a comb". A generation on, the discovery of potentially large oil and gas deposits around the islands, development of fisheries and growing importance of the Antarctic sea lanes have changed the picture.


Received political wisdom has long been that after the 1982 war, in which more than 900 people were killed, no British politician could afford even to hint at compromise on the Falklands. But Argentina's hand is stronger than might appear. To exploit the islands' hydrocarbon deposits on a significant scale would depend on access to the Argentinian mainland – as would serious development of the islands' economy.


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.


The options for compromise have been canvassed for many years, including joint sovereignty, co-administration and leaseback. A negotiated settlement is in the interests of Britain, Argentina – and the islanders. The sooner time is called on the emperor's new clothes saga of the Falklands, the better for all of us.





This meaningless Falklands referendum will resolve nothing.

Richard Norton-Taylor
Saturday 9 March 2013


Falkland Islanders are voting on remaining part of the UK, but it won't solve any of the sovereignty problems with Argentina.


Over the next few days, around 1,600 inhabitants of the Falkland Islands will be asked whether they wish to "retain their current political status as an overseas territory of the United Kingdom".


Never before in British history has the outcome of a referendum been so predictable, its purpose so provocative. The referendum, to be held on Sunday and Monday, will solve nothing. It will exacerbate tired and anachronistic arguments about sovereignty.


The question will be accompanied by an explanation: "Under the Falkland Islands constitution the people of the Falklands Islands have the right to self-determination, which they can exercise at any time".


Explain that to the inhabitants of the Chagos Islands, expelled so that Britain could establish its "Indian Ocean territory" and allow the US to build a base on the archipelago's biggest island, Diego Garcia, from where aircraft have bombed targets in Iraq and Afghanistan, and refuelled CIA aircraft rendering individuals to Guantánamo Bay.


The Falklands executive council, made up of three legislative assembly members, insists the islands are not a "colony" even though the governor is appointed by London and has the power to impose laws on the inhabitants. It describes the islands as "entirely self-governing, except for defence and foreign affairs". It also says that the council "can review its status at any time. This could include full independence."


The referendum, of course, is a device to strengthen the British and Falklands governments' hand as Argentina steps up its calls for negotiations over the sovereignty over the islands.


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."


Britain was prepared to do a deal even with Galtieri's military junta in the years before the 1982 invasion of the islands. Documents recently released at the National Archives under the "30-year rule" showed that the British policy, as Lord Carrington, Thatcher's foreign secretary put it, was one of neglect and hoping for the best, he told a private meeting of the committee set up to look into the circumstances leading up to the 1982 invasion:


"If I may be very frank and rather rude, you had to keep the ball in the air with the Argentines. That was the object. We did not have any cards in our hands."

Carrington added: "There were all sorts of reasons why a settlement was to the advantage of everybody. If you cannot afford to defend a place … the only conceivable thing that you can do is to keep negotiations going as long as possible whether or not you think they are going to be successful."


Referring to a lease-back plan suggested by the Foreign Office a year earlier, he said: "As I recollect, the Argentine conversations did not go too badly and to begin with the Falklands Islanders did not react too strongly, but the House of Commons reacted very strongly." The papers reveal that Thatcher herself was prepared to negotiate with Argentina even after the invasion as the British taskforce was heading for the islands.


Argentina questions the right to self-determination for the inhabitants of the islands as demanded by Britain. They should not have that right, Argentina says, but would continue to enjoy all their human, civil, political, and cultural rights, their way of living, as minorities do in other countries around the world.


UN resolutions on the dispute, of which there have been 40, do not refer to self-determination but to the "interests" of the islanders. Attempts by Britain at the UN to include the phrase have proved unsuccessful. The UN says the dispute over sovereignty must be settled through bilateral negotiations, between Argentina and Britain, not with the islanders.


According to recent figures, the majority of inhabitants were not born on the Falklands. For the first time last year, says Argentina, the census did not provide information about people born on the islands. However, the inhabitants were asked what they considered their national identity to be. A majority said "Falklanders". On his visit to London last month, Hector Timerman, the Argentinian foreign minister, said there was no such thing as a "Falklander".


The inhabitants of the islands are British, says Argentina, but the territory is not. It is a matter of territorial integrity. A visitor from Mars would be astonished if anyone argued otherwise. A settlement that enshrined fundamental rights – political, human, social, economic, cultural – protected by law, would bring much healthier and more practical benefits for the inhabitants of the Falklands than a sterile dispute over sovereignty. This is a concept that in any case has been eroded over the years as nations – including Britain – agreed to be bound by the rules and obligations, as well as the benefits, of international military, economic and trading alliances.


So, as the countries of the region, through their Union of South American Nations (Unasur), have already made clear, the coming Falklands referendum is all but meaningless.


• This article was amended on 11 March 2013 to correct the date of the Duke of Wellington's comment about sovereignty of the Falkland Islands from 1929 to 1829.



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