The Blog

The Falklands: British Government Hides Behind Engineered Neutrality

As the eldest child of someone born an Argentinian, but who has themselves neither clapped eyes on the place nor made any but the most cursory efforts to learn Spanish, I feel that it's my duty to wade into the fray on the English-speaking side of this debate.

As the eldest child of someone born an Argentinian, but who has themselves neither clapped eyes on the place nor made any but the most cursory efforts to learn Spanish, I feel that it's my duty to wade into the fray on the English-speaking side of this debate. I'm sure the Argentinians are thoroughly immersed in their own spin job, but as I am not there, it's our spin job I'd like to draw your attention to. That the whole shebang touches on fundamental issues of international law also doesn't hurt.

First off, let me begin by pointing out what truly substandard the coverage the media is giving to this issue, including the following Guardianpiece quoting Wikipedia. I would give a first-year student a(n) (admittedly only metaphorical) whack upside the head for citing Wikipedia as a source, so why, for the love of God, is it turning up in newspapers to justify an issue of national importance? The mind boggles.

As the descendant of, it must be pointed out, some pretty lily-white Argentinians, I'm willing to admit that a moral anti-colonialist claim to these bits of rock is a little shaky. The situation in that sense is different than, say, the significantly closer-to-home issue of Northern Ireland. However, there are two basic principles at stake in both of these situations, and many others around the globe:

1) self-determination

2) what our current values in a globalised legal order are

In relation to both the Falklands and Northern Ireland, we often get a litany of all the horrible atrocities committed by mankind over the centuries in an attempt to muddy the waters and let us remember that things were more violent back then, so hey, all's fair in love and war. This is how international law traditionally functioned: if you could take it and hold, it was yours. However, I think we should question whether this is how we want to continue functioning. Territorial conquest is no longer recognised, so the moral authority to hold onto a piece of territory acquired in such a manner, the title to which has been continually disputed, is highly questionable. Recognising this, the UK government usually puts the 'well, everyone was fighting' argument forth as a first-prong only, to make it look like they're being more reasonable when they inevitably backtrack to the second prong argument: self-determination.

General Assembly Resolution 1514, 14 December 1960 essentially ordered all nations to liberate their colonies ASAP, while GA Res 1541 elaborates guiding principles on how said liberation should occur. These mainly involve giving the inhabitants of the territory in question, who are presumed to be "geographically separate" and "ethnically and/or culturally distinct" from the administering territory, a voluntary choice regarding whether they want to separate, integrate, etc. Such a referendum in the Falklands is now, apparently, the preferred outcome of the British government.

This, however, is where things get a little tricky. In the case of the Falklands, the British kicked the Argentinian troops off and settled the place with their own nationals. In the case of Northern Ireland, the British also settled the territory with their own nationals, starved out the locals and then, upon the independence of the Republic of Ireland, drew a line around their own nationals' majority enclaves and are now declaring that to be the sole area where any eventual referendum should be held. They have also set up governments in these artificially constructed enclaves, so that they can claim them as 'self-administering.' Due to this shameless gerrymandering, perhaps the letter of the law is being followed, but the spirit is lying in a gutter somewhere.

We cannot expect to apply principles that were intended for classical colonies (ie large territories in Africa and Asia with comparatively small colonial superstructures) to artificial constructs, such as the Falklands or NI, complete with engineered majorities. That the entity that created that construct and maintains a relationship of dependency with it will enjoy an enormous advantage in any referendum is a foregone conclusion. The situation is manifestly unfair, and situations which are manifestly unfair lack legitimacy and can only be maintained via the use of force or threat thereof.

This is a situation which repeats itself every day: in 50 years will we allow a referendum on whether illegally-built Israeli settlements should be part of Israel or Palestine allowing only those who live in such settlements to vote on the issue? These people might indeed be the most affected, but that is a situation engineered by one power in the game to the detriment of the other and all of the people it represents. The game has long been played and lost.

Every law has loopholes - the loophole of Res. 5514 and 5541 was that they did not account for widespread occupation and settlement, thus allowing great powers like the UK to adopt a position of carefully contrived neutrality after already engineering the outcome of any alleged process of self-determination. The strength of a law depends on the ability of lawmakers to close those loopholes. The issue of artificially-created territories and enclaves of disputed title needs to be reopened, preferably by the UN General Assembly, so that we can move forward on these issues in a manner that truly reflects our current values, including the value of self-determination, instead of bowing to knee-jerk patriotism like so many pawns on a chessboard.