In what is probably some sort of record for unanimity in a fair referendum, the residents of the Falkland Islands voted this week, entirely as expected, to remain a British overseas territory. On a turnout of more than 90%, the vote was 1,513 in favor and three against, or a 99.8% “yes” vote.
The Argentinian government, which claims the islands under the name of Islas Malvinas, was predictably unimpressed. So were a range of commentators who have pointed out that the referendum adds nothing to anyone’s understanding of the dispute. We already knew that the islanders were overwhelmingly in favor of staying British; if everyone agreed that that was all that matters, there would be nothing to disagree about.
So why should anything else matter? As I said only yesterday, “there’s no real substitute for self-determination.” The Falklands government quotes prominently on its website the words that I’ve often quoted before from the charter of the United Nations: “friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples”.
For the islanders, and somewhat less fervently for the British government, the self-determination of the Falklands trumps any Argentinian claim. If self-determination isn’t applicable, then rights to the islands become a much more complicated question, involving French, Spanish, Argentinian and British claims and settlements from 1690 to 1833. (Those who would like to study it could start with the relevant Wikipedia article and the copious references cited there.)
The question is, who counts as a “people” for the purpose of the right of self-determination? The straightforward cases – such as the Kurds, discussed in yesterday’s post – involve distinct ethnic groups for whom the territory is their homeland, and who have been there for many centuries, or at least as long as any rival claimant.
Colonists are in a somewhat different position. No-one thinks that I can walk, metaphorically or literally, into your backyard and then claim it as my sovereign territory. When a settlement has a recent origin in the occupation of someone else’s land, talk of self-determination misses the point. Hence the international community rightly recognises the illegitimacy of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank: the interests of the settlers should not be ignored, but their rights cannot be set up to defeat the claims of the rightful owners of the land.
But there comes a time, at least after a lapse of several generations, when the “facts on the ground” demand recognition. Consider, for example, the case of Australia, occupied by European settlers against the wishes (or at least without any explicit consent) of its indigenous inhabitants. No doubt justice requires, even now, that recompense of some sort should be made to the indigenous people, but do they really retain the right of ownership? Do the wishes of the millions of non-indigenous residents, some of whose families have been here for more than two centuries, count for nothing?
Yet if self-determination for the Falklands means nothing and they rightfully belong to Argentina, then surely Australia rightfully belongs to the Aborigines. (Note that the converse is not true: denying self-determination to colonists does not necessarily mean the Argentinians have a better right to the Falklands, since their claim is colonial in origin as well.)
Whatever the rights or wrongs of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Falklanders are there now, and have been for a long time. Certainly they should aim for reconciliation with Argentina as much as is possible, but Argentina should also start by recognising that the rights of the inhabitants cannot just be imagined away.
We were all colonists, or immigrants, of one sort or another once. Time confers rights, and the distant past must ultimately yield to the present. If the Falklanders want to stay British, their voice has to be heard.