21 March 2010

Who Owns the Falkland Islands (Malvinas)?

by Noah Tucker
21st Century Socialism
March 5th 2010

In the morning of 2nd April 1982, people in Britain listened to the news with bewilderment. UK territory was being invaded by a foreign power- and, even more astonishing, the invading country was Argentina. How on earth had a third class military power, in the southern hemisphere and on the other side of the Atlantic, managed to land its troops on a part of the British Isles? The experience of Steve Cahill, an Englishman who contributed his memory of that day to a BBC article on its twentieth anniversary, was typical:

"My first thought at the time was 'Where are the Falklands?' Like the majority of my generation at the time, I had never even heard of them. A quick look at an atlas confirmed that they were not just off the coast of Scotland, as I first imagined."

Unlike the people of Argentina, the majority in the UK had no previous awareness that Britain still maintained a remnant of empire off the south east coast of Latin America; but nevertheless within a very few days they were roused to militaristic fervor on behalf of the 1,820 inhabitants of that outpost, who were nearly all of British descent and wanted to remain subjects of Britain, not Argentina.

907 people, most of them very young men, were killed in the war that followed- equivalent to almost half the number of those on whose behalf the war was supposedly fought- a futher 1,965 were injured, many of them permanently disabled. Hundreds more of the combatants have since succumbed to mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction, and suicide, as a result of the psychological scars which they received. A report in the Independent on 25th March 2007 included the following paragraphs:

Mr McNally, then a gunner in the Royal Artillery, is still consumed by the events of 25 years ago on rain-sodden islands 8,000 miles from Britain. As the anniversary of the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands approaches next week, an act that prompted "Maggie's Army" to steam from England to the South Atlantic, Mr McNally lives day and night with the horrors of war. And he is not alone.

"We, like most people, didn't have a clue where the Falkland Islands were," said Mr. McNally. "I assumed they were somewhere off Scotland. We didn't take it seriously because we didn't have a clue what was going on. You are a soldier, but you don't envisage that you would actually have to go to war."

Like thousands of British service personnel who have fought in the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan, he has battled mental health problems for years, triggered by guilt over the moment his missile system malfunctioned and he was unable to prevent the death of his comrades on bombed and blazing ships.

"Soldiers were jumping in the water, their clothes on fire," Mr McNally said. "Many had limbs missing. The ship was in flames. All I could do was watch. I felt ashamed, embarrassed and guilty."

Stephen Rawlins, a proud squaddie, with a happy smile, was another who was never the same after he returned from the Falklands. On Remembrance Day 2000, he attended the memorial service at his local Cenotaph. Then he went home and killed himself. He was 38. His father David, 68, found him hanged at their home in the village of Llanbradach, in south Wales.

"He went to the war as a boy and he came back a man," Mr Rawlins said. "But as a man he thought that all of his emotions could be bottled up. He would not talk to me, but he'd sit up all night confiding in his mother. He would be screaming men's names in his sleep, shouting to them to get out."

More than 300 Falklands veterans have committed suicide since the end of the war. One of them, Charles "Nish" Bruce, an SAS veteran and freefall expert who served in the conflict, plunged 5,000 ft from a plane without a parachute in 2002.

A small minority in Britain opposed the war, arguing that the UK establishment wanted to hang on to the Malvinas / Falklands at least partly for strategic and economic reasons including the possibility of future oil extraction, and that Margaret Thatcher was keen for a military conflict to enhance her Conservative government's electoral prospects. Were the issue truly about the UK's duty to the colonists that they should have the right to be British, then this could be assured by offering them relocation to England, Scotland or Wales- with generous financial compensation terms which, given their small number, would be very affordable to the mother country.

The unprinciple of self-determination

Almost three decades later, new advances in petroleum prospecting and extraction technology have made drilling for oil in the area potentially profitable; the UK's justification for authorising drilling, however, is fundamentally similar to that which was used to win support for the war in 1982: the population of the Falklands (now risen to 3,140 civilian residents, plus 500 British soldiers) regard themselves as British, so the hydrocarbon resouces under the sea bed which surrounds the colony must therefore belong to Britain. Noting the unanimous support for Argentina's position by the 32 counties of South and Central America and the Caribbean at the 'Rio Group' meeting on 24th February, the BBC reported on the British response:

Its [the UK's] minister for the region, Chris Bryant, said that Britain had "no doubt about our sovereignty over the Falkland Islands".

"It is underpinned by the principle of democratic self-determination. Falkland Islanders want to remain British," he added.

Earlier, Argentina had imposed a new requirement for shipping to get permission to go from there to the islands.

This was in response to the start of drilling for oil off the Falklands, within the exclusive economic zone claimed by the Falkland Islands government, with the support of the UK.

Were 'democratic self-determination' a genuine right for the inhabitants of the small but strategically important outposts around the world that Britain managed to retain in the twilight of its empire, one would suppose that it would be accorded universally to those inhabitants by the UK government. The sad fate of the Chagos islanders proves otherwise.

By the mid-1960s, the population of Britain's main remaining colonies were demanding that 'Britain must go'; and it was clear that the UK would have no choice but to allow Mauritius- as with the other countries that it controlled- to achieve independence. So the British government decided to detach the Chagos island archipelago- hitherto a part of Mauritius under the colonial administration- and hold onto it as British territory, insisting that the Mauritians would be allowed to leave the empire only on condition that Britain kept its ownership of the Chagos Islands.

The Chagos Islands became, like the Falkands and a dozen other small remnants of the British Empire around the world, a Crown Colony. (Later, in a terminological manoevre to deal with the fact that the tide of world opinion had turned against colonialism, the British Crown Colonies were re-named by an act of Parliament as the British Dependent Territories; and they were subsequently re-named again as the British Overseas Territories.)

In the process which followed, which was that of the forced expulsion of the population of the Chagos from the islands, the islanders were offered no recourse to self-determination. Dispossesed of their homes and their means of livelihood, the democratic choice offered to the Chagossians was to become slum-dwellers on the Mauritius mainland. For the inconvenience of having to accommodate these refugees, the government of Maurituis was compensated with the princely sum of three million pounds.

Like the Falklanders, the Chagossians were approximately two thousand in number. Unlike the Falklanders, they were dark skinned and not of British ancestry- they were the descendants of the African slaves and Indian workers who had been brought to the islands in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to labour on the coconut and copra plantations; and unlike the Falklanders, the perceived strategic interest of the British state lay not in keeping them in their homes but in expelling them from their homes. In the early 1970s, having accomplished the programme of cleansing the land from its population, Britain made good on a deal which it had negotiated with the United States of America, and the USA began constructing its naval and air force base on the largest of the Chagos islands, Diegio Garcia; by which the United States has since maintained its strategic command of the Indian Ocean.

No property rights

The Chagossians, who call themselves the Ilois people, did not give up their struggle for the right of return; and eventually the English courts agreed that they should be allowed to go back to the Chagos Islands, though not to Diegio Garcia, where most of them and their parents and grandparents had lived. But in 2008, the UK government successfully appealled that decision, persuading the highest lords of the English legal system that, despite the "unattractive aspects" of the dispossession of the Chagossians from their islands, the British financial and political interest, and even more imporantly, the USA's military interest, must prevail. Duncan Campbell noted in the Guardian in July 2008:

Islanders seeking to return to the homes from which they were removed to make way for a US military base nearly 40 years ago have no right to return, the law lords were told yesterday. Allowing the Chagossian islanders to go back to their Indian Ocean homes would be a "precarious and costly" operation, and the United States had said that it would also present an "unacceptable risk" to its base on Diego Garcia, the law lords heard.

The Foreign Office is appealing this week to the House of Lords against earlier judgments which have granted the Chagossians the right to return to the islands in the British Indian Ocean Territory. A group of islanders have arrived from Mauritius, where most of them have lived since being evicted, to hear the final chapter in their legal battle. Both the divisional court and the court of appeal have already found in favour of the Chagossians.

While there were "undeniably unattractive aspects" to what had happened to the islanders in the 1970s, that was no longer what the case was about, Jonathan Crow QC, for the foreign secretary, told lords Bingham, Hoffmann, Rodger, Carswell and Mance.

Democratic rights did not figure in the argument of Jonathan Crow QC, the lawyer representing the British government. Rather, he pointed out that the dispossessed islanders did not possess any property rights. Therefore, to allow these evicted people to return to their homes would be to concede to an act of "mass trespass":

The issue now was whether the government had been entitled in 2004 to issue orders in council forbidding the return of the islanders, he said. Britain took the Chagos islands from France in the Napoleonic wars and, under a 1971 immigration ordinance, removed the inhabitants compulsorily so that the main island in the archipelago, Diego Garcia, could be used as a US base.

Crow said that it had been regarded by the US since 9/11 as a "defence facility of the highest importance ... a linchpin for the UK's allies".

Although the judgments being contested do not grant the islanders the right to return to Diego Garcia itself, repopulation of the other islands would present an "unacceptable risk", the US believed.

"It has financial implications, political implications and defence implications," said Crow. "The Chagossians do not own any territory ... They have no property rights on the islands at all. What is being asserted is a right of mass trespass."

Today, the Chagos Islands have a population of about 3,200, comprising 1,650 US military personnel, 50 British military personnel, and 1,500 privatised military 'civilian contractors'. The name of the USA's military base on Diegio Garcia is Camp Justice.

Marriage of inconvenience

Despite the British government's steadfastness in preventing the return of the Chagossians, and the UK's many other actions in support of the US global strategic interest, there is no quid pro quo from the United States in the form of open endorsement of Britian's claim to the Falkland / Malvinas Islands. In an article entitlted 'Hillary Clinton slaps Britain in the face over the Falklands' in the web edition of the Daily Telegraph on 2nd March, Dr Nile Gardiner cited the following from the transcript of Secretary of State Clinton's joint Press conference with President Kirchner of Argentina, held the previous day:

QUESTION: (In Spanish) And for the Secretary, it’s about the Falklands. The – President Fernandez talked about possible friendly mediation. Would the U.S. be considered – would the U.S. (inaudible) consider some kind of mediation role between the UK and Argentina over the Falklands? Thank you.

PRESIDENT DE KIRCHNER: (Via interpreter) (Inaudible) what we have (inaudible) by both countries as a friendly country of both Argentina and the UK, so as to get both countries to sit down at the table and address these negotiations within the framework of the UN resolutions strictly. We do not want to move away from that in any letter whatsoever, any comma, of what has been stated by dozens of UN resolutions and resolutions by its Decolonization Committee. That’s the only thing we’ve asked for, just to have them sit down at the table and negotiate. I don’t think that’s too much, really, in a very conflicted and controversial world, complex in terms.

SECRETARY CLINTON: And we agree. We would like to see Argentina and the United Kingdom sit down and resolve the issues between them across the table in a peaceful, productive way.

QUESTION: (In Spanish) Interpreter: The journalist was just asking how the U.S. intends to negotiate to get the United Kingdom to sit at the table and address the Malvinas issue.

SECRETARY CLINTON: As to the first point, we want very much to encourage both countries to sit down. Now, we cannot make either one do so, but we think it is the right way to proceed. So we will be saying this publicly, as I have been, and we will continue to encourage exactly the kind of discussion across the table that needs to take place.

Dr Gardiner, who is a true believer in the US-UK special relationship, boiled with rage about the 'betrayal' of the British interest by its US ally:

Hillary Clinton’s statements at this press conference are highly significant, as they demonstrate a clear shift in US policy from neutrality (last week’s position) towards siding with the Argentine position of pressing for negotiations over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands at the United Nations.

The Secretary of State, a highly skilled political operator, knows exactly what she is doing here. She is giving her full support for the official stance of Buenos Aires, despite the fact that Great Britain has made it clear that the sovereignty of the Falklands is non-negotiable. She makes no reference at all to the fact that Argentina recently threatened a blockade of the Falklands, or that its close ally Venezuela has been threatening war against Britain.

Hillary Clinton’s dire performance in Buenos Aires was not only an appalling display of appeasement towards a corrupt and authoritarian anti-American regime, which barely has the support of 20 percent of the Argentinian people. It was also an astonishing betrayal of the United Kingdom by her closest ally, and yet another slap in the face for Britain from the Obama administration.

These inaccurate and immoderate remarks reveal Nile Gardiner's frustration that his idealised concept of the US-UK relationship is revealed as as an illusion as soon as the strategic interests of the United States diverge from those of Britain. The USA, which already finds itself losing political and economic hegemony in the American continent, would succumb to further isolation should it identify itself with the UK's 'non-negotiable' position on the Falklands, because all the countries of South and Central America endorse Argentina's position of a negotiated transfer of sovereignty to Argentina. And beyond pure strategy, there is also history and ideology. The United States won its own independence from Britain, its European colonial ruler, by military means; and after having done so, proclaimed with pride that only itself, to the exclusion of any European power, had the right to interfere in and dominate the affairs of the southern part of the Americas.

Dr Gardiner, who is the Director of the Heritage Foundation's Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, based in Washington, USA, ended his article with a lurid battle-cry:

Clinton has demonstrated, not the first time, strikingly poor judgment as Secretary of State. While currying favour with a third rate kleptocracy in Latin America, she is alienating America’s most loyal and valuable friend at a critically important time. She also underestimates the resolve of the British people, who will never negotiate the future of the Falkland Islands. If the Argentines want the Falklands they will have to fight for them, and if they choose to do so they will be emphatically defeated, just as they were in 1982. Hillary Clinton can cry for Argentina if she wants to, but the Falklands will be forever British.

But the truth is that the British, through their experiences as the USA's special ally in Iraq and Afghanistan, have had enough of war; and the Latin Americans, for their part, intend to persue political and diplomatic, rather than military means.

Hair of the dog

That the Latin Americans unanimously back Argentina in the dispute over the Malvinas is no wonder. For all that the islands were uninhabited by indigenous people when the Europeans- in turns French, British and Spanish- occupied, abandoned, re-took and fought over them during the period of European colonial expansion (though discovered artefacts prove that they had been visited by people from the South American mainland before the Europeans arrived); they are South American islands, not European Islands. When, after1776, the Malvinas were ruled by the Spanish, they were not ruled directly from Spain as a separate entity- they were administered from Buenos Aires as part of the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata. After it won its independence from Spain, the nascent Argentinian state asserted that the Malvinas were part of its territory and established a settlement there; but Britain sent a naval expedition, which seized the islands from the Buenos Aires government in 1833.

Might was right in those days- and to a large extent this is still considered to be the case; the fact that the current inhabitants of the Falklands are descendants of British, rather than Latin American settlers, and therefore assert their 'Britishness', is owed entirely to that invasion of 177 years ago, and the subsequent maintennance of British control by the relatively superior military prowess of the UK; allied to Britain's superior status within the international community, represented by its position as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. MercoPress reported the observations of Brazil's president Lula da Silva on 24th February:

“Our attitude is one of solidarity with Argentina,” said the Brazilian president adding the question: “What is the geographical, political and economic explanation for England to be in the Malvinas?”

“What is the explanation for the United Nations never having that decision? It is not possible that Argentina is not the owner while England is, despite being 14,000 km away.”

For the Brazilian leader the reason this happens is the fact that Britain is a permanent member of the Security Council. He used the occasion to once again call for the admission of more members to the council, increasing its representativeness. Brazil wants to be one of the new members.

“Is it possible that Britain can do everything and while others can do nothing?” Lula da Silva went on. “We need to start pushing so that the UN Secretary reopens this debate.”

UN Security Council members respect international rulings “only when they are functional to their own interests,” he emphasized.

The 33 presidents present in Cancun, including Lula da Silva, signed a document supporting the Argentine position, recognizing Argentina’s sovereignty claim over the Falklands and condemning the current oil drilling round by British companies.

But what about the Falklanders? One would not wish them to suffer a similar fate to that of the Chagossians; and the fact that Britain upholds the 'principle of democratic self-determination' for the inhabitants of its small remaining colonies only when that accords with the UK's economic and strategic interests does not by itself prove that the claim of the people living on the Falklands / Malvinas islands should be given no moral or political credence. But what is that claim? They do not assert that they wish to be an independent nation- what they want is to be British subjects. Following from this, they have no special right which would trump a British decision on what to do with the land on which they live, and the natural resources which surround it- any more than do the people who live in the way of a proposed railway line, airport or power station. Their democratic position is that they, like any other group of a few thousand- or many more- UK citizens, have to accept the decisions of the elected British government.

For sure they have the right to campaign, or to seek recourse through the courts, but in the end they, if they insist on being British, must therefore abide by whatever choice is made by the British people as a whole, through their elected government. Should Britain decide to concede its colony off the coast of Argentina to the Argentinians, those who currently live there could choose to remain on the islands as 'ex-pat' Brits, or to relocate to England, Scotland or Wales with whatever financial compensation terms would be on offer; a small number of them might even decide to apply to become citizens of Argentina. That would be for them to decide, in the context of a negotiated solution.

Is the 60 million strong British bulldog really being wagged by its miniscule Falklands tail- or more precisely a hair on the tail, given that there are only 3,140 Falklanders? In the 21st Century, can a European power hide its colonial claim to the oil resources under the sea bed of South America by sheltering behind the 'rights' of its colonists?

Britain must go, and in the end it will have to go; the issue is one of how and when.