x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Falkland Islands' future in residents' hands, despite Argentina's claims

Residents of the Falkland Islands go to the polls this month to decide whether to remain under British control. The vote is predicted to be overwhelmingly in favour, sending a strong message to the world, but the long sovereignty battle with Argentina is unlikely to end any time soon.

More than three decades after Argentina invaded and briefly occupied the Falkland Islands, Buenos Aires continues to claim sovereignty. Daniel Garcia / AFP
More than three decades after Argentina invaded and briefly occupied the Falkland Islands, Buenos Aires continues to claim sovereignty. Daniel Garcia / AFP

Some 13,000 kilometres of open sea lie between the Falkland Islands and its protector state of the United Kingdom. Yet, since the brief but bitter conflict in 1982, when Argentina was roundly defeated and expelled by a British expeditionary force after the South American nation exercised its territorial claim over the Falklands by way of a military invasion, this group of southern Atlantic islands has occupied an emblematic place within the British establishment. As Victor Bulmer-Thomas, a Latin America expert at the London-based think tank, Chatham House, told Arab News in January: "In Britain, you mess with the Falklands at your peril. Any government seen as being weak on the issue will pay a very heavy political penalty."

Thirty-one years on from that 74-day war, which claimed the lives of 655 Argentine and 255 British servicemen, another altogether more constitutional shot is about to be fired from the Falkland Islands - and, this time, by the islanders themselves.

On March 10 and 11, some 1,500 eligible voters of this isolated territory's 3,000 population will go to the polls to answer the following question: "Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom?"

The sovereignty of the Falkland Islands - itself made up of two main islands, East Falkland and West Falkland, and some 200 smaller islands and islets - has been raised several times in the past two years by the Argentine president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who has repeatedly accused Britain of blatant colonialism. The referendum may be expected to decisively rebuff Buenos Aires' sovereignty claims over Las Malvinas, but with Argentina's foreign minister comparing the islanders to illegal Israeli settlers in the West Bank, and asserting that his nation will run the Falklands within 20 years, the wrangling is likely to continue unabated.

"For a long time and particularly since the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War in April last year, there's been increasing tension between the Falkland Islands, the Argentine government and the UK," says Alasdair Pinkerton, a lecturer in geography and geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London. "Particularly over the last 12 months, there has been a ratcheting up of those tensions - the Argentine government has, for example, used various internationally recognised celebrities, such as Sean Penn, to try and press their case on the international stage; on top of that they've made various appeals to the UN."

And, before the London Olympics last year, provocative ads broadcast across Argentina portraying an Argentine athlete training secretly at sites in the Falklands only served to expose the simmering hostility between the parties, says Pinkerton.

"That ratcheted up pressure on the Falklands, because, in a sense, what the [ads] did were to show that the Argentines were prepared, in a really odd way, to infiltrate the islands again without the knowledge of Falkland islanders."

Several historical powers have laid claim to the Falklands since an Englishman, Captain John Strong, made the first recorded landing there in 1690. Over the centuries, France and Spain, as well as Britain and Argentina, established settlements on this almost treeless territory. In support of its right of sovereignty, Argentina maintains that it inherited the islands from the Spanish crown in the early 1800s, and that their proximity to the South American mainland is almost reason enough for its claims. Britain, on the other hand, continues to base its current jurisdiction on its long-term governance of the Falklands as well as on the self-determining will of the islanders themselves, the majority of whom are British by birth or descent.

"There are historical arguments for both claims that have been gone over again and again," says 37-year-old Falklander Ben Cockwell of a dispute that also centres on Argentina's claim that the British ejected a group of its settlers in the 1830s, but which the official British record asserts that London enjoys a prior claim, having occupied the islands in the 18th century.

"What is consistent is the denial of our rights by Argentina and the defence of our rights by the UK. We, the Falkland islanders, have the right to define our own political future and we are the ones who have built, work in and live in the Falklands. Argentina's claim is to deny us that right in the place that we have defined and that which defines us. We are the Falkland islanders and we are the ones who decide the future of the Falklands."

While some islanders, says Cockwell, see the forthcoming referendum as somewhat unnecessary - "we are having to do this to try to get other nations to understand that we do have the choice of our own political future" - others see the chance to vote on the future of their home as something to be positively welcomed.

Roxanne King, the owner of a local crafts business, Heart of the Falklands, is one such islander.

"Being British is an important part of the Falklands and there is absolutely no reason for it to change, ever," says the 26-year-old. "We are incredibly grateful to Britain for providing defence from Argentina and standing up for our right to self-determination. We are self-sufficient and self-governing. We contribute what we can to our defence. We also contribute to Britain's economy by buying the majority of our groceries, building materials, vehicles, clothes and so on from Britain. When extraction of our oil begins, Britain will benefit both directly and indirectly more than ever before. I am looking forward to having the opportunity to vote in the referendum and officially declare my allegiance to Britain. I think it will be an incredibly important part of our history. I have no doubt that when the results are announced it will be an overriding 'yes' for Britain."

The pro-British sentiments emanating from the Falklands apart, the manner in which Kirchner has been pushing her nation's claims indicates to many observers that her convictions are genuine.

"There's an awful lot of bluster going on, but I don't actually share the view of many people that this is her creating a popular nationalist diversion from domestic woes," says Falklander-turned-London resident Graham Bound, author of Fortress Falklands and the founding editor of the island's iconic newspaper, the Penguin News.

"[Argentina] has bad inflation, they have international debt, which looks like they may not be able to service, lots of strife and things are not going well in Argentina, as periodically happens. But this is [not] diversionary stuff. Cristina Kirchner and her [late president] husband before her, have been treating this issue as an absolutely sacred cause in foreign policy since he came to power in 2003 - and in those days things were pretty good and they didn't need any diversion."

While the poll looks certain to reflect the islanders' clear wish to remain under British rule - as it has done for 180 years - Argentina's claim is unlikely to be dampened.

"This vote is not being done for the benefit of Argentina at all," says Pinkerton, who asserts that Argentina's claim is driven by the country's political elite rather than the general public.

"I think it is being done in full anticipation that this will not close down Argentina's claim - it's being done very much as an international statement … it's a reminder to Britain and the UN that the Falkland islanders can determine their own future. But, this will be yet another mark in the sand - it may very well spell a new phase in this debate, it will not spell the end of it."

Alasdair Soussi is a freelance journalist, covering the Middle East and Scottish politics.