Self-determination in the South Atlantic

In what is probably some sort of record for unanimity in a fair referendum, the residents of the Falkland Islands voted this week, entirely as expected, to remain a British overseas territory. On a turnout of more than 90%, the vote was 1,513 in favor and three against, or a 99.8% “yes” vote.

The Argentinian government, which claims the islands under the name of Islas Malvinas, was predictably unimpressed. So were a range of commentators who have pointed out that the referendum adds nothing to anyone’s understanding of the dispute. We already knew that the islanders were overwhelmingly in favor of staying British; if everyone agreed that that was all that matters, there would be nothing to disagree about.

So why should anything else matter? As I said only yesterday, “there’s no real substitute for self-determination.” The Falklands government quotes prominently on its website the words that I’ve often quoted before from the charter of the United Nations: “friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples”.

For the islanders, and somewhat less fervently for the British government, the self-determination of the Falklands trumps any Argentinian claim. If self-determination isn’t applicable, then rights to the islands become a much more complicated question, involving French, Spanish, Argentinian and British claims and settlements from 1690 to 1833. (Those who would like to study it could start with the relevant Wikipedia article and the copious references cited there.)

The question is, who counts as a “people” for the purpose of the right of self-determination? The straightforward cases – such as the Kurds, discussed in yesterday’s post – involve distinct ethnic groups for whom the territory is their homeland, and who have been there for many centuries, or at least as long as any rival claimant.

Colonists are in a somewhat different position. No-one thinks that I can walk, metaphorically or literally, into your backyard and then claim it as my sovereign territory. When a settlement has a recent origin in the occupation of someone else’s land, talk of self-determination misses the point. Hence the international community rightly recognises the illegitimacy of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank: the interests of the settlers should not be ignored, but their rights cannot be set up to defeat the claims of the rightful owners of the land.

But there comes a time, at least after a lapse of several generations, when the “facts on the ground” demand recognition. Consider, for example, the case of Australia, occupied by European settlers against the wishes (or at least without any explicit consent) of its indigenous inhabitants. No doubt justice requires, even now, that recompense of some sort should be made to the indigenous people, but do they really retain the right of ownership? Do the wishes of the millions of non-indigenous residents, some of whose families have been here for more than two centuries, count for nothing?

Yet if self-determination for the Falklands means nothing and they rightfully belong to Argentina, then surely Australia rightfully belongs to the Aborigines. (Note that the converse is not true: denying self-determination to colonists does not necessarily mean the Argentinians have a better right to the Falklands, since their claim is colonial in origin as well.)

Whatever the rights or wrongs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Falklanders are there now, and have been for a long time. Certainly they should aim for reconciliation with Argentina as much as is possible, but Argentina should also start by recognising that the rights of the inhabitants cannot just be imagined away.

We were all colonists, or immigrants, of one sort or another once. Time confers rights, and the distant past must ultimately yield to the present. If the Falklanders want to stay British, their voice has to be heard.


7 thoughts on “Self-determination in the South Atlantic

  1. Agreed, although I would go slightly further. If the Falklands belong to Argentina Australia belongs, not so much to the Aborigines, but to Indonesia. Argentina’s claim rests on being the nearest nation, roughly the same distance as Indonesia is from Darwin. Yes they have certain historical claims, but they are no better than those of Britain.

    The fact that some people in Australia support Argentina on this is an indication of how unwilling they are do to any actual thinking, prefering to simply grab at the idea that every dispute is between colonisers (bad) and others (good) and since the UK can automatically be assumed to be the colonisers their opposition must be the good guys.


  2. Anyone with the least sympathy for the Argentinian case (whatever it is) ought to have heard the Argentine Ambassador’s embarrassing gabble when speaking to Walid Ali earlier this week on Radio National. That he represents a once proud prosperous nation is cause for real sympathy.

    Mind you Argentinians ought to be grateful to Margaret Thatcher for giving them a chance to restart the democratic engine even if they have not yet proved good drivers or mechanics.

    A stray thought Charles. Couldn’t someone sell to the Chinese the idea of their leaders speaking to them as a great nation which doesn’t have to boast or bully or pretend to achievements that are at best contestable and, in the course of saying “we are a great and dignified nation that looks forward to setting the best example to the world compared to any great power or empire there has ever been” it presents itself as the reasonable solver of territorial disputes. Where there is no absolute and generally acceptable legal judgment to be made there should be compromise. In the case of the Falklands/Malvinas a good starting point would surely be an agreement between Argentina and the UK that the economic zone around the Falklands should benefit Argentina and the UK equally….. If only it could then speak to Chinese nationalists [small N definitely as well as big N] about the greatness of China in not seeking to enforce its contested claims in the seas to its east by sheer weight of population, wealth or arms, but to show itself to be a pacific neighbour by offering to share…. It could, if it did that, also reasonably request that the US would respect its interest in not having displays of force in waters close to it. But it would probably then have to give a bit more assurance that Taiwan simply won’t be taken by force…


  3. Stephen: Thanks for that. A little unfair to the Argentinians; the Falklands are at least on the same continent, and I think the geographical argument is supposed to complement the historical one. But although I didn’t want to wade into it, fundamentally I agree that Argentina’s claim is far from clear even if you ignore self-determination.

    Warren: Yes, at some point I’d like to write more about the effect of the war on Argentina as well as the Falklands; it’s an interesting topic. As for encouraging China to behave more like a responsible global citizen, I think that’s a tremendously important goal. Perhaps that would be a way into it: try to draw China into partnership in helping to solve disputes in which it has no possible vested interests, in the hope of ultimately committing it to support for some general principles, especially the idea of solving territorial issues peacefully. But of course China’s not the only offender on that score.


  4. In Australia there is no existing political authority of the former indigenous inhabitants, or from Indonesia,claiming Australia back to them. And indigenous inhabitants are CITIZENS of Australia, so in a sense, their self determination is being respected. Same thing in Argentina, our indians were part of independence wars and there’s no political entity claiming back Argentina for the indians. The Falkland/Malvinas islands on the other hand, were inhabitated by 200 argentines in 1833 and they were expulsed by british invaders by force, nobody cared for THEIR self determination. So, self determination of current british islaners is ILLEGAL because it was built on the expulsion by force of the previous inhabitants, whose descendents HAVE a political entity called ARGENTINA who claims the islands back. Martin from Buenos Aires.


  5. Conclusion: Argentina existed as a STATE whose citizens were expulsed by force from the islands in 1833, which are 800 Km off our coast and 13,000 Km from Britain, who forcefully implanted their citizens there and now claims for their “self determination”. And what about the self determination of the 200 argentines (which included gauchos mestizos, europeans and negros) expulsed in 1833 from the islands? Only blonde, English speaking, white-anglo-saxon-protestants deserve self determination? For UK government, everybody is equal but “some (british) are more equal than others” (argentines).


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