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 ballots, with 1,513 voting "yes" to confirm their “wish to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom” and three voting "no." This means 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.
Fernández speaks of “force” being used in the early 1830s, but the most serious violence then was not the expulsion of the Argentines from the Falklands but the mutiny on an Argentine ship sent to the islands in late 1832 and the murder of its captain. In those days, that is how territories usually changed hands. Colonial Spain “forcibly” seized control of the Rio de la Plata area to set up the Viceroyalty that the “Argentines” then took by force to make their new nation.
The Falkland Islands were occupied in the nineteenth century with less force than the Argentines used on the mainland for they did not kill any “natives” to take control, while the Argentines did. Argentina set the record on force when they invaded the Falklands in 1982, though Britain then responded in kind. In fact, when I interviewed Leopoldo Galtieri, the general who ordered the invasion of the Falklands—this was twenty years ago and he was under house arrest—even he did not defend his actions to me.
The most irrational Argentine claim is that the Falklanders are a “temporary population.” Of course the islanders were “transplanted” into the Falklands, where there was no native population, but Spain also transplanted Spaniards into the Rio de la Plata area and Argentina later “transplanted” more than six million immigrants.
Indeed, the impact of immigration was so great in Argentina that the country’s greatest writer, Jorge Luis Borges, has remarked that Argentines are more like “inhabitants” rather than “citizens.” Argentine stand-up comic Enrique Pinti, who is famous for his astute political quips, said that one problem with Argentina, even today, is that so many Argentines still see themselves as only “passing through.”
But Falklanders are not just “passing through.” In the end, it would be hard to find a group of people anywhere in the world more suitable for self-determination by any reasonable definition of that term. Falklanders have lived peaceably in a permanent, distinct region for nearly two centuries and have a different language, religion, culture, and set of institutions from Argentines. They are mostly of English and Scottish rather than of Spanish and Italian extraction. Their continuous 180-year history dates back to when the twenty-four-year old Charles Darwin disembarked from the HMS Beagle to look for gauchos and fossils in Argentine and visit the Falkland Islands.
Argentina’s history, in contrast, has been unpredictable and often violent. Looking at just the past fifty years, Argentina has had military dictators and very uneven democratic leaders; terrorism by Trotskyist and Peronist guerrillas; a domestic “dirty war” that left at least 30,000 killed, tortured, and missing; runaway inflation and an economic collapse that brought the largest debt default in world history, which was cheered by the national legislature; and the unprovoked military invasion of the Falklands.
Several of my Argentine friends have asked rhetorically why any sane Falklander would choose to be Argentine if he could be British. Indeed, the referendum did not turn up many who want to change.
A Way Out?
If the kelpers' case is legitimate, as I think it is, the islanders don’t owe Argentina anything. Still, while proximity is no grounds for Argentina taking over the Falklands, the country is a major player in that part of the south Atlantic, and the British and Falklanders would be well advised to find a way to cooperate with Buenos Aires and accommodate at least some of Argentina’s interests.
The minimum formula might be for Britain and the Falklanders to recognize (without acceding to) Argentina’s claim. All parties could then agree to a multi-decade cooling-off period while seriously committing to mutually beneficial cooperation in developing resources. This is essentially what the two sides agreed to do in the October 1989 "Madrid Formula" and the September 1995 "Joint Declaration," the latter calling for cooperation in the exploration and exploitation of hydrocarbons. Both explicitly left the sovereignty issue unresolved. In 2007 Argentina formally renounced the "Declaration" on the grounds that Britain violated its terms with oil exploration in the region
In a recent Belgrano University Public Opinion Centre poll, 70 percent of Argentines said they think the British will never negotiate the island’s sovereignty, and they are correct for the foreseeable future. So capitulation, which is what Argentine politicians want, is not in the cards. Most other Latin American politicians have marched to Argentina’s drum and Washington pragmatically sets integrity aside in recognizing no more than Britain’s de facto control of the islands.
Further, most international organizations, preeminently the UN Special Committee, demonstrate very little interest in self-determination when there is even a whiff of “decolonization” in the air to be exploited. The issues of self-determination, sovereignty, colonialism, and nationalism are not at all trivial in the modern world, but they are often trivialized or even trashed by propagandistic manipulation and the gnarly legalese churned out by armies of indifferent or self-serving politicians and lawyers.
The Falklands legislator’s official statement praised British support and concluded, “it is time that other nations around the world who respect human rights and democracy, and who are not afraid to stand up for justice and freedom, lend us their support too.” Don’t bet on it.
Probably the only way to make progress is by reaching out to reasonable Argentines and encouraging them to get their government to back off. That won’t be easy, but the Belgrano poll and anecdotal evidence from my several years in Argentina suggest that many Argentines are far more reasonable than their politicians.
When I wrote op-eds on this issue on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the war for the International Herald Tribune and the Buenos Aires paper La Nación, I received many messages of support from Argentines. The poll shows that the Argentine people are mixed on the issue: about 60 percent of Argentines think the Malvinas are Argentine, but 18 percent say they are British; 10 percent say they belong to both, and 13 percent don’t know.
The current British governor of the islands recently said what three previous governors have told me on some of my visits to the islands: that many Argentines will be receptive to the Falklanders’ case if they hear it presented objectively. Thus, if the news of the referendum is widely circulated, and British and islanders make sincere gestures of good will toward Argentina, much public opinion may swing in the kelpers’ favor.
Of course, the prospects for moderation will ultimately depend on Argentines stabilizing their political and economic order. For their own good, as well as that of the Falklanders, they must break from their historical record of ups and downs, alternating between prosperity and crisis, which both are caused by and feed political demagoguery and extremism. That may be the greatest challenge of all.
William Ratliff is a research fellow and former curator of the Americas Collection at the Hoover Institution. He is also a research fellow of the Independent Institute. An expert on Latin America, China, and US foreign policy, he has written extensively on how traditional cultures and institutions influence current conditions and on prospects for economic and political development in East/Southeast Asia and Latin America.