There’s Nothing to Discuss on the Falklands’ Sovereignty
Last week saw the largest anti-British protest in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires since the Falklands War in 1982. The event drew thousands of people onto the streets amid controversy over the UK’s decision to drill for oil in the areas surrounding the islands.
Despite the British having liberated the islands in 1982 after a brief Argentinean occupation, Buenos Aires has always maintained that the Falklands, or Malvinas as they call them, are part of Argentinean territory and under illegal British occupation.
But Argentina’s claim over the islands is weak, and Britain’s is strong. The islands were settled before Argentina existed, and its inhabitants want the islands to stay British. The basic principle of self-determination cannot just be brushed aside.
Some policy analysts in the UK have claimed that it is now time for the UK to consider surrendering the islands to Argentina. They use a number of arguments. After all, as the British naval task force were sailing to the South Atlantic some thirty years ago, the British were in the advanced stages of handing back Hong Kong to China based on the same principles of ‘breaking with the colonial past’. Furthermore, is it really practical to maintain a hugely expensive presence thousands of miles from the UK for the sake of 2500 islanders, who create tension in our trading relations with the thirty two Latin American countries which back Argentina’s claim. And to make matters worse, we have our staunchest ally the US suggesting we negotiate.
However, there are four reasons why I believe such thinking is wrong and there is no room for negotiation on giving up the island’s British status.
Firstly, the islands have always been recognized as British by the UN. They were claimed by Britain in 1765 – before Argentina existed – and they have never been part of Argentina or fully occupied by Argentineans.
The comparison with Hong Kong is also misleading. British rule over Hong Kong was based on a 99 year lease agreement signed by both the British and Chinese governments in 1898, known as the Second Convention of Peking. When the lease expired, Britain was under a legal obligation to hand back the ‘New Territories’ to China. No such agreement is owed to the Argentineans; they have no legal claim to the islands.
Secondly, the people are not colonialist. They have been there for over 200 years. How long does one have to live in a place before being recognized as an inhabitant? Are the Americans still referred to as colonialist in the ‘New World’? Besides, there have never been indigenous inhabitants on those islands except the British.
Thirdly. The fact that they are geographically closer to Argentina is of no consequence. Will the United States hand over Alaska to Russia which is famously visible from Sarah Palin’s house as opposed to over 500 miles from the US mainland? Is the US going to give Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands to the Dominican Republic? Are they going to give Hawaii to Japan? Texas and Florida to Mexico? Guam to the Philippines? American Samoa to New Zealand? What about Taiwan, should that be annexed by China?
Thirdly. The cost is indeed substantial. But British citizens born far away can not and must not ever be measured by their economic worth. As long as they wish to remain British they should enjoy the full protection of Her Majesty’s Forces.
But most importantly, the people on the islands do not want to be part of Argentina with whom they share neither culture nor language. Surely, their opinion and right to choose their own destiny is the most important consideration in this whole debate.
If there are to be any negotiations it should be about reparations from Argentina for starting an unprovoked war by invading sovereign British territory resulting in the deaths of 255 UK citizens.
Azeem Ibrahim is research scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, a board member of the Institute of Social Policy Understanding and the chairman and chief executive of Ibrahim Associates.
This article appeared on the Huffington Post on April 5, 2010.