Falkland Islands Referendum For The Future

Falklands referendum, 10-11 March

March 7, 2013
Published by Leigh Turner,General Consul UK,in Istanbul Turkey

Stanley from Mt Tumbledown, Falklands

In June 2012 the Falkland Islands announced their intention to hold a referendum in order to give the Falkland Islanders their say on the future.

The referendum will take place on 10-11 March. Some background is here, including the full question which will be put (which includes the notably clear text: Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom? YES or NO).

This is fascinating and important stuff. I worked on British Overseas Territories a few years ago and had the privilege of visiting the Islands, and meeting the islanders – an outstanding group of people. Just under a year ago I wrote a blog about the Falklands. Here is the text of that blog (for Turkish version see link above):

The Falklands: a way forward?

I’m sitting next to a senior diplomat from a respected European country at dinner when conversation turns to the Falkland Islands, known to Spanish speakers as the Malvinas. “A key fact,” I say, “is that the 3,000 people who live in the Islands want to remain British.”

“Ah,” says the top diplomat. “But how do you know that? Opinion surveys can always be manipulated.”

This comment surprises me. I ask whether the diplomat knows from which country the people who live in the Falkland Islands originate or what language they speak; has ever spoken to a Falkland Islander; or has ever been to the Islands. The answer in every case is no.

In a way, it’s not surprising that, 30 years after the Argentine invasion and occupation of the Falkland Islands and South Georgia led to the tragic loss of 255 British and 649 Argentine military personnel, even some top diplomats don’t know much about the Falklands. The Islands are a long way from most places – including over 1500km from Buenos Aires. It’s easy to imagine that they fit neatly into some kind of post-colonial template, with an indigenous population straining under the yoke of colonial masters.

In fact the Falkland Islands are known as the Islas Malvinas in Spanish because the first people to establish a colony on the Islands were French people from the Breton port of Saint-Malo in 1764 (the French called the Islands the Iles Malouines). Before this there was no indigenous population on the Islands. The British arrived in 1765 and claimed sovereignty. At this time, Argentina did not exist – the Argentinean Declaration of Independence was issued by the Congress of Tucuman in 1816.

In 1767 Spain arrived in the Islands and gradually built up its presence. In 1776 the British left, leaving behind a plaque asserting continued sovereignty. Spain continued to rule the Islands from Buenos Aires until 1811, when they too departed, also leaving a plaque. The following years saw various people come and go, including the United States and numerous whaling ships. There was no Argentine claim to sovereignty until 1832, when Argentina, now independent, set up a short-lived settlement. This was followed by a return of the British in 1833 who again asserted British sovereignty. The Islands have remained British ever since, with the exception of the 74 days after the Argentine invasion on 2 April 1982.

For the next century or so, there was no dispute between the United Kingdom and Argentina about the sovereignty of the Islands. Indeed, in 1850 the two countries ratified a convention for the settlement of existing differences, thus acknowledging that there was no territorial dispute between them. During those years many people, most from the United Kingdom, came to live in the Falklands.

In the late 20th Century, at a time when democracy in Argentina was weak, the country began to reassert its sovereignty over the Falklands. This culminated in 1982 in Argentine forces invading and occupying the Islands; and in the British action to recover them. The Argentine government does not now assert that the invasion was right: on the contrary, it states that the invasion was a tragic mistake made by a military dictatorship which cost the lives of many conscript soldiers.

In 1994, Argentina incorporated its claim to the Islands in the Argentine Constitution, stating that this claim should be pursued in a manner “respectful of the way of life of the Islanders and according to the principles of international law.”

Since then, Argentine policies towards the Falklands have varied. In the 1990s, perceiving that the Islanders were suspicious of Argentine intentions after the 1982 invasion, the Argentine government pursued a policy of seeking to gain the Islanders’ trust, for example by making travel to and from the Islands easier and by launching discussions with the United Kingdom about management of fish and squid stocks (squid, having no sense of national boundaries, migrate annually between Argentine and Falkland territorial waters).

In the past decade, however, Argentina appears to have abandoned its policy of trying to win the trust of the Islanders and to have developed a policy of making life as difficult for them as possible. This has included making it hard for cargo ships to travel between the South American mainland and the Falklands; preventing cruise ships which have docked in the Falklands from visiting Argentina; taking action against businesses involved in oil exploration in the Falklands; and so on. The policy seems designed to put economic pressure on the Islanders in the hope this will make them want to negotiate about sovereignty.

These policies have not helped to build trust in Argentine intentions on the Islands. This is unfortunate because the most important fact governing the future of the Islands is the principle and right of self-determination enshrined in Article 1 of the Charter of the United Nations. This means that, if the people of the Falklands wish to remain British, there is no question of the British Government forcing them to be anything else. This is why the UK has said that it will only talk to Argentina about the future of the Islands if the people of the Falklands wish this to happen.

What could happen next? The people of the Falkland Islands are keen to trade and have people-to-people links with Argentina and the rest of South America, as happened frequently before 1982 (when some Argentines, for example, lived on the Islands as Spanish teachers). In a 21st century interconnected world, open trade and improved communications benefit everyone. I’ve been to the Falklands and met many of the Islanders. Their main goal is to get on with their lives.

I’ve also been to Buenos Aires. I have no doubt of the strength of feeling amongst ordinary Argentineans about the Argentine claim to sovereignty. This is not surprising, since the Argentine claim is part of the school syllabus in Argentina and the subject is a mainstay of political discourse there. But, as we all know, strength of feeling does not necessarily have a direct relationship with being right or wrong. The key question is what could be done to move the process forwards.

How could relations between Argentina and the Islands be normalised? One suggestion often put forward would be for Argentina to stop trying to put pressure on the Islanders and instead to be nice to them – in other words, to recognise their democratically expressed views. The events of the last 30 years mean it will not be easy to rebuild trust. But rebuilding trust is vital if there is to be any long-term normalisation of the relationship between the Islands and the South American mainland. That does not mean the Islanders will automatically start wanting to talk about sovereignty – I could see no sign of that at all when I visited the Islands a couple of years ago. But history shows that charm offensives with no pre-determined outcomes are almost always a better way to win friends and influence people than the reverse.


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