The Falklands: Small Islands, Big Questions

The Falklands: Small Islands, Big Questions

By William Ratliff - March 27, 2013

The most interminable and seemingly intractable international island dispute is over the Falkland Islands in the remote South Atlantic. The islands have been under de facto British control continuously since 1833, even before Victoria became Queen of the United Kingdom.

Thirty-one years ago next month, Argentina invaded the Falklands—which Argentines call the Malvinas—claiming, as they have for 180 years, that the islands are theirs. Great Britain repelled them in ten weeks, but not before the loss of more than 900 lives, much treasure, and good will. Argentina has pledged not to invade again, in large part because Great Britain has fortified defenses in the islands since the war and the Argentine military is more restrained. 

But while shooting is currently out, that doesn’t mean diplomacy is in. Just mention the Falklands anytime in the presence of Argentine and British politicians and they usually shout past each other in monotonous scripted sound bites. What is needed, but seldom found, particularly in Argentina, are cool heads to replace political grandstanding of the sort demonstrated by Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner when she recently visited Rome to lobby the new (Argentine) Pope Francis to support Argentina in the Falklands dispute.

Earlier this month, however, some 92 percent of registered voters on the islands cast 1,513 “yes” votes confirming their “wish to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom.” There were three “no” votes, meaning the level of support was 99.8 percent. A posted message from a member of the Falklands Legislative Assembly said this referendum sends “a strong message to the outside world” that “we are content with our current status . . . and have no wish to be governed by Argentina.” UK Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to “respect and defend” this democratically expressed position.

Unfortunately, the desires of the island residents will likely have no impact on the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonization, which dominates legal actions on the dispute.

The Argentine government has, from the beginning, denounced the referendum as a London-hatched subterfuge intended to legitimize what it considers the remains of the British colonial empire and the militarization of the South Atlantic region. Argentina’s Ambassador to Uruguay put the case bluntly last month when he said that the Falklanders are simply “illegal settlers on Argentine soil.”

Here is the nub of the dispute. Buenos Aires insists that the Islanders are a transient, illegal remnant of British colonialism, while London and the Falklanders insist that the “keplers,” as the latter call themselves, are entitled to the universal right of self-determination supposedly guaranteed by the United Nations Charter.

Before 1982, two-way discussions had been undertaken and led to a 1965 UN declaration, which the Argentines always cite today. But Argentina’s invasion in 1982 was a relationship-changer for it suggested clearly to London that the British responsibility to the Falklanders should be to guarantee self-determination for the islanders rather than to leave them at the mercy of unpredictable and potentially violent Argentine governments that have rejected the democratic rights of the Falkland residents

The Argentine’s Case

The early history of the Falklands is murky, dotted with various claims, occupations, settlements, and forcible ejections. Argentina bases its sovereignty case on four points. First, that when it wrested independence from Spain in 1816, it inherited sovereignty over the Falklands. (Is there not some irony to claiming sovereignty against “colonial” Britain on the basis of rights secured from another colonial master?) Second, Argentina occupied the islands for a couple of years before 1833, though for far fewer years than Britain. Third, there is the alleged “transient” nature of the Falkland population. And the fourth point concerns the islands’ proximity to southern Argentina (about 250 miles).

In January Argentine President Fernández claimed that, in 1833, “Argentina was forcibly stripped of the Malvinas Islands” by Great Britain. She then disingenuously urged unconditional talks with London that included a condition she knew Britain would not accept, namely the exclusion of the Falklanders from the discussion of their fate.  

Stakes in the islands have risen in recent years because of the discovery of apparently substantial and commercially viable hydrocarbon fields in the islands’ “exclusive economic zone.” Today Argentina threatens lawsuits to discourage international companies from even exploring on the grounds that the resources belong to Argentina, not the Falklands. Falklands-flagged ships and other vessels trading with the islands are banned from Argentine ports to the detriment of Falklands trade and tourism.

The UK/Falkland’s Case

London and Stanley, the Falkland capital, argue that the British occupation of the islands flows from claims made before and in 1833 and by positive prescription, meaning recognition derived from uninterrupted, long-term possession and occupation of a property (180 years), a practice that is widely if often reluctantly accepted in the world.

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This article is reprinted with permission from Defining Ideas, a journal of Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

William Ratliff

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