Friday, 22 March 2013

Self-determination in the Falklands

BBC News:
The people of the Falkland Islands have voted overwhelmingly in favour of remaining a UK overseas territory.

Of 1,517 votes cast in the two-day referendum - on a turnout of more than 90% - 1,513 were in favour, while just three votes were against.

Referendum results don't get much more decisive than that. 99.74% of Falkland Islanders want to remain British - even more than the 98.48% who made that choice in Gibraltar in 2002.

Argentina's response?
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has maintained that the Falkland islanders' wishes are not relevant in what is a territorial issue.
So far, so predictable. But what about the response from a government that claims to respect the principle of democratic self-determination?
we take note of the results of the recent democratic referendum in the islands, where the residents voted to retain the islands’ current political status as a British overseas territory. The residents have clearly expressed their preference for a continued relationship with the United Kingdom. That said, we obviously recognize that there are competing claims. Our formal position has not changed. We recognize the de facto U.K. Administration of the islands, but we take no position on sovereignty claims.
That's Victoria Nuland, speaking on behalf of US Secretary of State John Kerry. The full transcript and video is available here.

The US has no qualms about taking a position on sovereignty claims elsewhere, in situations where the wishes of the local residents are far less clear-cut.

Nevertheless, as @GittleBos notes, the US position seems consistent with their Monroe Doctrine, established in 1823:
The occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.
We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintained it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.
It is of course right for nation states to look after their own peace and safety.  Indeed, I would prefer if they did that and little else.  But it is 6361 miles from Port Stanley to Washington DC - far more than the 3663 miles from London or the 351 miles from Toronto.  If the British Empire posed a threat to the peace and safety of the United States, an attack from islands in the South Atlantic was unlikely.  Today it is inconceivable that the United Kingdom would mount an unprovoked attack on the US, but if it did, a nuclear submarine off the US coast would provide a better attack platform than RAF Mount Pleasant.

The British Government has never 'oppressed' the inhabitants of the Falkland Islands, nor sought to control their destiny against their will.  A British expedition reached Port Egmont, West Falkland, in 1765 and "took formal possession of it and of 'all the neighbouring islands' for King George III", apparently unaware of an existing French settlement, Port Louis, on East Falkland at Berkeley Sound.  The French settlement was handed over to Spain in 1767 and renamed Puerto Soledad.  In 1770, Spain attacked Port Egmont with a force of with five armed ships and 1400 soldiers, forcing the British settlers to withdraw.  The attack risked war with Britain, and lacking French support the Spanish consented to the re-establishment of the British settlement in 1771.  Without good economic reasons to stay, the British and Spanish withdrew from their settlements in 1776 and 1811 respectively, but neither party relinquished their claims to the islands.

In 1816 the state that was to become Argentina, The United Provinces of the River Plate, declared independence from Spain. In 1820 they laid a claim to the islands, but it wasn't until 1823 that they made any attempt at settlement. Their chosen man, Luis Vernet was a merchant from Hamburg with purely commercial interests, and he sought British permission for his venture from the outset. Vernet's claim to a monopoly on seal hunting, however, was disputed by both Britain and America. In 1831 Vernet attempted to enforce his monopoly by seizing American ships, prompting a raid by the USS Lexington that destroyed the settlement. In 1833 Britain reasserted sovereignty, and the islands have been in British hands for 180 years (except for 74 days in 1982). Such are the facts as I've been able to determine them from Wikipedia.

The British settlements from 1833 onwards did not represent the "future colonization" opposed by Monroe's 1823 declaration. It's not at all clear, from what I've been able to discover, that the newly independent Argentina could rightfully inherit Spain's claim to the islands, but that claim was disputed in any case.

In practice, the Monroe Doctrine has less to do with the benevolence of the American people towards the "free and independent" nations of South America, and more to do with the interests of a powerful minority of US citizens who benefit from the right of unilateral intervention within their "sphere of influence".

Even so, considering how little influence Britain gains from possession of The Falklands, I doubt the Americans feel their interests are directly threatened. It is true that the US has a large hispanic population, but they care more about Cuba, Mexico, and Puerto Rico than Argentina. Most likely, America's refusal to acknowledge Britain's sovereignty is based on a desire to appease South American governments, who represent potential markets far larger than our own.

The notion of self-determination is an interesting one, which I will have to return to in a future post. How long does a population need to be established before competing claims are dismissed. Where are the boundaries drawn? Later in this century, if a combination of immigration and procreation pushes certain British cities to a Muslim majority, would they be entitled to declare independence? What about the rights of the large minority who may wish to remain British? All interesting questions.

But this post has focused on the Falklands and the US attitude towards them. The most interesting question here is why Tony Blair supported George W's "war for democracy" in Iraq without first securing recognition of the rights of the British inhabitants of the Falkland Islands.

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