Monday 12 March 2013 was marked as the final day of a two-day referendum on the disputed Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas in Spanish). The question to the voters was: "Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom?" The Residents of the Falkland Islands voted overwhelmingly to remain a British Overseas Territory. More than 99% of voters said yes, just three people voted no. Turnout was 92%. The referendum was held in an effort to fend off aggressive Argentinian claims over the South Atlantic islands. In this blog I will give a short summary of the history of the disputed Falkland Islands by the United Kingdom (UK) and Argentina and I will conclude with some remarks concerning the Falkland Islands self-autonomy.
The Falkland Islands are an archipelago located in the South Atlantic Ocean on the Patagonian Shelf. The archipelago comprises East Falkland, West Falkland and 776 smaller islands. The Islands, a British Overseas Territory, enjoy a large degree of internal self-government, with the UK guaranteeing good government and taking responsibility for their defense and foreign affairs. The Islands are self-financing, relying on fishing, sheep farming and millions of penguins, a main tourist attraction. Controversy exists over the Falklands' original discovery and subsequent colonization by Europeans. At various times there have been French, British, Spanish, and Argentine settlements. Sovereignty over the Falkland Islands however is disputed between Argentina and the United Kingdom.
Claim of ownership
Argentina claims it has a right to the Malvinas because it inherited the islands from the Spanish crown. The British left the Malvinas in 1774 and "remained silent for over 50 years", only objecting when a newly-independent Argentina made a series of actions in support of their sovereignty in the 1820s. Argentina also based its claim on the islands' proximity to the South American mainland. The Argentine claim is even included in the transitional provisions of the Constitution of Argentina. Britain argues its case on its long-term administration of the Islands and on the principle of self-determination for the residents. It says the Islands have been continuously, peacefully and effectively inhabited and administered by Britain since 1833. Argentina has long disputed this claim of ownership, having been in control of the islands for a brief period prior to 1833. The dispute escalated in 1982, when Argentina invaded the islands, precipitating the Falklands War. The war resulted in the surrender of all Argentine forces and the return of the islands to British administration.
The competing claims re-emerged because of the discovery of access to the oil deposits located in the Falklands/Malvinas seabed. An UK company (Desire Petroleum) began drilling north of the coast. Buenos Aires has accused the UK of breaking an United Nations resolution forbidding unilateral development in disputed waters. According to Dr. Marko Milanovic (interview on BBC News), succession to territorial title provides the basis for the Argentinian claim. Argentina inherited the Islands ownership from Spain. The UK however says, Spain's claim has lapsed, because Spain abandoned its outposts in the islands. "There is therefore both a legal and a factual dispute: first, under what conditions exactly can title over territory be abandoned, and second, did Spain in fact abandon it. Both sides have some good arguments, he says, and if it ever went to court, it is far from clear who would win. International law does not overwhelmingly favor either Argentina or the UK. Unfortunately both states are not willing to submit the case to adjudication." According to Dr. Marko Milanovic neither state would bear the risk of losing the Islands.
The Falkland Islanders have repeatedly made known their wish to remain British. They gained full British citizenship with the British Nationality (Falkland Islands) Act 1983, after the Falklands War. Since the 1982 war, which cost 255 British and 655 Argentinian lives, Falkland officials have bolstered the democratic constitution of the islands, introducing a fully elected Legislative Assembly in 2009. On its official website, the Falklands government rejects the Argentinian government claim that a civilian population was expelled by Britain in 1833 and argues for the inhabitants' right to choose their path. According to the government “The Falkland Islanders are a peaceful, hard-working and resilient people. Our society is thriving and forward-looking. All we ask is to be left in peace to choose our own future, and responsibly develop our home for our children and generations to come. We are not an implanted population. Our community has been formed through voluntary immigration and settlement over the course of nearly 200 years.”
Cristina Kirchner, the president of Argentina, has rejected the referendum in the Falkland Islands. Argentine ambassador Alicia Castro “It’s a referendum organized by the British and for the British with the only purpose of having them saying that the territory must be British. It was neither organized nor approved by the United Nations. We totally understand the Islanders trying to ratify their identity: They are British and so the British law recognizes them. Argentina is not trying to change their identity or their life style, but the territory they live on is not theirs. And there is one right they do not have, and it is the right to decide over the destiny of Argentina’s territory or resolve a sovereignty issue."
The outcome of the referendum was clear. The Residents of the Falkland Islands voted overwhelmingly to remain a British Overseas Territory. The Falklands government would like the Islands to retain their current status and keep the right to self-determination. This may include full independence in the future. But if that will be the case...only the future will tell!
A selection of relevant publications from the Peace Palace Library collection
- Burns, J., The Land that Lost its Heroes: How Argentina lost the Falklands War, London, Bloomsbury, 2012.
- Dodds, K., "Stormy Waters: Britain, the Falkland Islands and UK-Argentine Relations", International Affairs, 88 (2012), No. 4, pp. 683-700.
- Ruzza, A., "The Falkland Islands and the UK v Argentina Oil Dispute: Which Legal Regime?", Goettingen Journal of International Law, 3 (2011), No. 1, pp. 71-99.
- García Quiroga, D., Hors de combat: the Falklands-Malvinas Conflict in Retrospect, Nottingham, CCCP, 2009.
- McManners, H., Forgotten Voices of the Falklands, London, Ebury, 2007.
- Lorenz, F., Las guerras por Malvinas, Buenos Aires, Edhasa, 2006.
- Bicheno, H., Razor's Edge: The Unofficial History of the Falklands War, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006.
- Badsey, S., The Falklands Conflict Twenty Years On: Lessons for the Future, London, Cass, 2005.
- Freedman, L., The Official History of the Falklands Campaign, Vol. 1: The Origins of the Falklands War, London, Routledge, 2005.
- Freedman, L., The Official History of the Falklands Campaign, Vol. 2: War and Diplomacy, London, Routledge, 2005.
- Sala, R., Il conflitto delle Falkland/Malvinas: un'analisi sistemica, Milano, FrancoAngeli, 1996.