Friday 9 March 2012

The Falklands – UK caught on the wrong side of the past

Sam Storr

Falklands under cloud from the west. Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC.
The remote, only recently populated islands 300 miles east of the coast of Argentina invoke mixed feelings within the United Kingdom. Some take pride in the defence of the islands against an Argentine military junta in 1982, others deplore the violence which accompanied Margaret Thatcher’s concurrent realisation of popularity, and a few express shame at the continued existence of what appears to be a fortified British colony. Opinions are clearer in Argentina, where it is widely assumed that the islands should be Argentinean, even if not everyone supports a takeover. The intent to (re)gain possession of the Falklands (or Maldives) was even written into the constitution in 1994. With the Falklands being an embedded source of Argentine nationalism, it is of little surprise that the freeze in the dispute imposed since 1982 is looking unstable.

Amongst longstanding fishing and environmental disputes, the 30th anniversary of the Falklands war and impending oil extraction have led to the re-emergence of tensions. The deployment of the HMS Dauntless, which the UK claims is routine, has led Argentina to protest a threat to national security at the UN. President Cristina Kirchner now regularly accuses the UK of colonialism, stealing resources and militarising the Atlantic whilst making some petty reprisals. The UK has been all too glad to respond in kind. David Cameron sticks to the position that sovereignty is ‘non-negotiable’ and totally dependent on the wishes of the overwhelmingly pro-British Falklanders, stirring further outrage by returning the accusation of colonialism. 

The legal background is lost in contested histories and technical interpretations of obsolete colonial laws. It is therefore uncertain whether the Falklands will come under the aegis of UN Resolution 1514, granting independence to former colonies. Although required by the UN to hold discussions, both sides have a very poor record of being willing to negotiate, with the UK being totally rigid on the key issue of sovereignty since 1982. There have been no signs of a return to the tentative concessions being negotiated in 1980, such as a lease-back process in the model of Hong Kong. 

Argentina is claiming the land as inherited from the Spanish empire. Their foreign office claims that the Spanish first made use of the waters surrounding the Falklands, later maintaining colonies and repelling expeditions from France and Britain. Argentina says that they maintained Puerto Soledad and kept a governor in the 1820s, until the US razed the port following a fishing dispute, and the newly-interested Great Britain took the opportunity to expel the Argentines in the ‘act of force’ of 1833.

Volveremos: We will return. AP.
Britain claims the first landing on the Falklands in 1690, and that they left for economic reasons in 1774, followed by the Spanish in 1811, neither relinquishing a claim. According to the UK foreign office, an American acting on behalf of the government of Buenos Aires made a token landing to claim possession in 1816, when the government was yet to be formally recognised, and failed to occupy or govern the islands. Argentine attempts to claim the islands in 1829 and 1830 were protested by Britain, and in 1833 a British warship finally expelled the small garrison.

Geographical realities suggest that if the Falklands must belong to someone, it should be the Argentines, who can lay claim to resources within their continental shelf. However, this leaves the question of the Falklanders themselves. The islanders reject the idea that they are a colony, and Britain defends their right to self determination as the first established population. The Argentine demand that they should be denied this right as a non-indigenous population seems morally repugnant, and there is a definite argument that an acceptance of historical reality would be the lesser of two evils.

Yet the Falklands do resemble a foreign settlement. Immigration policies have always been tough, and Argentines were totally barred during the period of greatest growth following 1982. As of 2006, only 29 residents were born in Argentina, compared to 1339 from the Falklands and 838 from the UK. The only Latin American country with a significant representation is Chile, sourcing 161 residents. The islanders may wish to preserve the little-England paradise they inhabit, but a rising population and the striking of oil are likely to sully the dream before too long. 

Although Britain can legally and perhaps morally fight the Argentine challenge, the current spat demonstrates that the Falklands cannot remain as they are indefinitely. However, the posturing on both sides suggests that neither is really interested in achieving an outcome. As commonly observed, both sides have used the Falklands to bolster domestic support in times of crisis, in accordance with diversionary theories of conflict. Although there are signs of a mild intellectual backlash in Argentina, it is unlikely that Cameron has as much to gain from an angry foreign policy in this conflict-weary nation. 

Given Argentine determination and their supporters in Latin America, the Falklands will increasingly appear an expensively fortified British settlement. Though the Falklands would likely contribute to their defence should oil be exploited, this would only spur the Argentines further. The UK should observe the mood in the Americas, and realise that the Falklands shall remain a symbol of Britain’s sordid colonial past so long as they are so stiffly defended. The insistence on maintaining a strong defence will only raise tensions in the region.

It is of course correct to defend the right to self determination, and the precedent of Gibraltar suggests that the UK lacks the authority to relinquish sovereignty against the wishes of the people of an overseas territory. Yet it is unfeasible for the islands to remain so isolated from the continent. It would be in the best interests of the UK and the Falklands if British politicians resisted the temptation to respond with fearful jingoism, and sought to undo the last three decades so that the islands can open up to their neighbours. Argentina is no longer a dictatorship in distress. A good start would be calling their bluff and allowing the demilitarisation of the Falklands, as Argentina is obligated to refrain from invading under international law.

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