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Self Determination and the Falklands. By James Raymond

by on March 7, 2012

The issue of sovereignty over the Falkland Islands is getting everyone a bit hot under the collar, be forewarned, this article will only make those necks hotter. Tempers are flaring: from Tory backbench sabre rattling, daring Argentina to take another military pot-shot at the islands; to the un-Olympic like spirit displayed by the Argentinian Olympic team in threatening to raise the flag of Las Malvinas over their London training HQ.

One of those raising the temperature is of course Mr Sean Penn, the esteemed Ambassador-at-large for Haiti. Whilst many of Mr Penn’s political views are laudable, his record in the countries to the immediate south of the US leaves little to be desired, from the calling for the arrest of those who refer to Hugo Chavez as a dictator, to his standing silently by Mr Chavez while he supported the Assad regime in Syria. Then he waded into the Falklands dispute, it was never going to end well.

Sean Penn in his various tirades against British sovereignty over the Falklands seems to be forgetting many inconvenient truths, the most prominent being that he is Californian. Mr Penn was born in Santa Monica in 1960, and apparently needs to be reminded of California’s history. In 1821 Mexico gained independence from Spain, obtaining sovereignty over modern day California.  In 1846 the USA went to war with Mexico. By 1848 the USA annexed California from Mexico – a mere 8 years after the British decided to establish a permanent colony in the Falklands.

Could Sean Penn please educate us as to why the displacement of thousands upon thousands of Mexicans from California is a more acceptable colonial legacy than the occupation of an empty island? Maybe he should simply regain some credibility by being consistent in his views and call for California to be given back to Mexico?

There is also the matter of one little phrase in the American Constitution that Mr Penn is again ignoring; Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”. This intriguing little phrase makes the simple but, in the context of the Falklands, overlooked point that people should be able to choose their rulers. Again, could Mr Penn explain why this principle cannot be extended to the Falkland Islanders? Why, out of all of the peoples of the world, does he believe that they should not have their democratic rights respected?

As we know, this is also the position adopted by the Argentinian President Christina Fernandez de Kirchner. In 2008 her then Foreign Minister Jorge Taiana stated, in reference to Kosovo’s declaration of independence: “If we were to recognize Kosovo, which has declared its independence unilaterally, without agreement with Serbia, we would set a dangerous precedent that would seriously threaten our chances of a political settlement in the case of the Falklands Islands”.

I have to pause here to take a deep breath: the Argentinean government decided to take a stance against independence in Kosovo, despite the many atrocities committed there by Milosevic and his cronies, and refute their right to self-determination, because such a principle would hurt their own sovereignty claims. It may just be me, but siding with an authoritarian and murderous regime in principle is surely more damaging to the credibility of Argentina’s sovereignty arguments than supporting Kosovo and the right to self-determination.

However, I will suspend my incredulity over these stances on self-determination, so I can briefly address the often discussed issue of geographical proximity. As anyone who has ever looked at a globe will point out, the Falklands really could not be any further away from Britain. Many in the Las Malvinas camp point to this as certifiable proof that the islands should be under Argentinean administration, so is geography the be all and end all when it comes to claims of sovereignty? If this is the case I think we need a bit of global restructuring: Alaska will of course become either Canadian or Russian; lucky Canada will also gain sovereignty over Greenland; Indian provinces such as Assam, Nagaland and Mizoram will need to be handed over to Burma and Bangladesh; and who knows what on earth would happen in the Pilipino, Malaysian and Indonesian islands. Perhaps this argument will hold more weight in the Falklands dispute when the likes of Mr Penn and President Fernandez de Kirchner call for the Canadian right to rule Alaska and Greenland alongside Argentina’s claim to rule the Falklands.

I hope these arguments have sufficiently warmed people’s collars further; there are interesting debates to be had concerning the sovereignty of the Falklands which will help define how the world defines the very concept of sovereignty. As ever if anyone wishes to comment please feel free to tweet me @jamesdavidraymo.

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From → Foreign Affairs

  1. Spyros Kouvoussis permalink

    Good arguments but impossible to apply for a country like Britain. When did Britain respected self determination? When Greece was invaded by the British Army to help restore the government which during the WWII had flew over to Egypt and left the people starve and was hated by the people? I have members of my family executed by the British Red berets because they fought for a democratic and independent Greece. When Britain executed 18y year old kids in Cyprus because they wanted their freedom? When they set the colonial rule in India? When perhaps Britain invaded Iraq to take over the oil supplies?

    Britain was the colonial empire of the past two centuries and never respected the self determination of any people. The people living in the Islands at the moment cannot bare the consequences of such policies implemented by the British Crown and today by British governments. But if Britain wants to keep having these islands it should come up with better arguments.

    • James Raymond permalink

      Of course Britain’s colonial legacies cannot and should not be defended, especially in the contexts that you have mentioned! However even accepting the point that Britain does not itself respect self-determination, why does that mean that Argentina should also lower herself to such a position? Surely such an argument could go further to justify another military intervention by Argentina, considering that is Britain’s track record? I don’t think a perceived copy-cat foreign policy can be justified, considering the derision given by Argentina to Britain’s actions in Iraq. In recent history Britain has always maintained the principle of self-determination, whilst Britain’s motivations in the Iraq war can indeed be considered dubious, Britain did however respect Iraqi’s right to self-determination, Saddam was not elected, their present government is. This is however a digression, and like you say the islanders themselves shouldn’t bare responsibility for Britain’s track record, I would ask what you think the solution should be? should the islanders be removed against their will and replaced with Argentinians? Or should they be subjected to rule by a government that they don’t want? I accept that similar situations occur on a day to day basis across the world, but is that really a legitimate reason to subjugate the Falklanders?

    • Castr permalink

      Britain respects and promotes “self-determination” only when ethnic British groups are involved, otherwise those principles become nothing more than pieces in a war of economic and political interests …

  2. Spyros Kouvoussis permalink

    Up to now, I have only heard your point of view and I have read the history of the islands, which by the way doesn’t follow your approach in the article. I find it hard to agree with you though when you use issues of “self-determination”. It’s easy to say “if you did A to us, it’s fair if someone else does A to you” but it is not right. The islanders are not responsible for the crimes of the British government. The question of course is what can be done now since the issue was not resolved when it should. I believe that some kind of restricted sovereignty over the islands would be a good start. The argument that you might use for the Mediterranean is no valid since the countries that have islands in the Mediterranean have their main land around the Sea. Imagine the US asking to keep an island in the Mediterranean, due to its empire status; it would be absurd.

    I am not aware about the elections in Iraq therefore I will not argue. It is certain though that the people of that country did not invited the US or the UK to invade and take over their country and their oil supplies. There was no respect to self determination in that case. Also, it is possible to imagine that a people under occupation is not exactly free to choose. In Greece, where similar elections took place in the 1940’s, the left-wing opposition was outlawed, tortured, executed and terrorized by the Greek government of that time, along with the British and American army and intelligence services. Britain doesn’t seem to respect self determination. Therefore I cannot take into consideration arguments having to do with “self determination” when we speak about Britain. It’s like the PRC talking about human rights or freedom of speech.

    • James Raymond permalink

      It will certainly depend which history you read, there are many versions, but in none can it realistically be claimed that Argentina had a prior claim to the UK, Spain might have, and Argentina claim to have inherited this claim, this is however another digression and unhelpful in the modern context. Self-determination in the context of the build up to invasion of Iraq is a rather moot point, like I said I am in no-way defending the Iraq war, however claiming that Iraqis self-determination would have been better served under Saddam is strange, especially considering that he himself came from an ethnic minority which was oppressing the majority in Iraq. Britain’s record can in no-way be equated to that of China, and arguments about sovereignty should really be constrained to recent history. The sins of the father argument is rather tired, a man can be ashamed that his great grandfather was a murderer, but he is not by inheritance also a murderer. In the same vein the present generation of Britain’s did not perpetuate the colonial atrocities being cited as evidence against Britain being able to defend self-determination, we can be ashamed of a prior legacy of our country, but we ourselves did not commit these crimes. To use them to simply dismiss any argument supporting self-determination is consigning a generation of Britons who never had anything to do with any of these aforementioned crimes to academic oblivion, never being able to make a point because of something they never did. Arguments of sovereignty should rest in the here and now, and in the here and now there is one solid empirical truth, that the people of the Falklands do not want to be ruled by Argentina.

      • Castr permalink

        Can you imagine sometime in the future the people of Bradford and Birmingham wanting to be ruled by Asian nations? Will you support their “right to self-determination” if they decide Birmingham and Pakistani territory and should be under their sovereignty? I doubt you would.

      • James Raymond permalink

        I don’t like the implication from this question that the Asian people of Bradford and Birmingham somehow aren’t considered as being British, however it is a hypothetically good question.

        And in principle yes I would support such an instance of self-determination, it is however so unlikely and unrealistic to be farcical. Such a case would pose huge problems under international law, and greatly challenge the declarative and constitutive legal theories of state formation, as to make such a situation nearly technically impossible. This does not however mean that somehow the rights of these people should not be respected, and there should be a substantial effort to respect their wishes.

        This is however despite the fact that neither Bradford or Birmingham have an Asian population that is any where near even half of the population of either city, and that lumping a community as ‘Asian’ is a gross simplification. There is also no appetite for such a move, in the Bradford West by-election today for example there is no ‘Pakistani Separatist Party’ candidate standing.

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