Who respects self-determination, and who opposes colonialism?

On 25 May, UK prime minister David Cameron spoke to Falkland Islanders:

They have this guarantee — that as long as the people of the Falkland Islands want to continue with their current status as a British Overseas Territory, then they will be able to do so.

We will back them, we will support them, we will defend them. We have the Falkland Islands properly defended for a very simple reason — we believe in self-determination, the right of people in the Falkland Islands to determine their future. I think it’s important on this, the 30th anniversary, to reaffirm that and to tell people in the Falkland Islands they have our backing, they have our support. (( “Cameron pays tribute to Falklands’ conflict dead and reaffirms Islanders right to self determination,” MercoPress, 25 May 2012.))

A UK Trafalgar-class “hunter kill” submarine, armed with Tomahawk missiles was reported on its way to the Malvinas Islands (as Argentinians call them) or Falkland Islands (if you are British). (( “UK sends nuclear submarine to Malvinas,” Press TV, 4 February 2012. AP notes, “Argentina said Friday it has information that Britain sent a nuclear-armed submarine to the South Atlantic near the disputed Falkland Islands…” AP, “Argentina: UK sent nuclear sub to Falklands,” Guardian, 11 February 2012.)) (For the sake of impartiality, for the rest of this article, I will refer to the islands as just that; the Islands.)

I have been aware of the generalities of the British-Argentine conflict since it became a war in 1982. The issue is more complex than I initially thought. The first test for me is the eyeball test; it greatly favoured the Argentine claim. Britain is thousands of kilometers away versus Argentina’s 460 km distance from the Islands. I knew there had been a period of Argentine settlement in the Islands, but Britain has been there since 1833, and I knew a majority of the present inhabitants prefer to be under British dominion, just like the people of Gibraltar prefer British dominion. That was the second test.

Normally, I would tend toward the principle of self-determination holding sway, given that there was no known indigenous population.

So what is the Argentinian claim based on? Is it just geographical propinquity?

To put the Argentine claim into a nutshell: the Islands came under Spanish jurisdiction in the last decade of the fifteenth century, predicated on the Papal Bulls and the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, and bolstered by several treaties afterwards. Spanish governors presided there until 1811, when they were transferred to the United Provinces of the River Plate (precursor to Argentina) from Spain by succession of States.

On 10 June 1829, the Argentine Government enacted a decree creating the Political and Military Command of the Malvinas Islands. In November 1829 the United Kingdom objected to that decree, sent a Royal Navy corvette in 1833, expelled the Argentine authorities, and in 1841 colonized the Islands by appointing a governor.

Argentina immediately protested the 1833 “act of force” by Britain.

Argentina notes that several international bodies, including the United Nations, have called for Britain and Argentina to negotiate and resolve the issue. ((For further detail of the Argentinian claim see Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, “Argentina’s Position on Different Aspects of the Question of the Malvinas Islands.” Graham Pascoe and Peter Pepper wrote a refutation: “False Falklands History at the United Nations: How Argentina misled the UN in 1964 – and still does,” 23 May 2012. ))

As for the question of self-determination, Argentina holds that it is invalid given the expulsion and disallowance of return to the settlers.

Chagos and UK Support for Self-determination

Does Britain, which created an empire based on colonialism and imperialism, genuinely care about the self-determination of a people? Did, and do, the British care about the self-determination aspirations of Palestinians?

And how about the Chagossians?

The little known archipelago in the middle of the Indian Ocean went through a series of colonial claims before becoming part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). The Chagos were home to the Chagossians for over a century and a half until the United Kingdom evicted them in the early 1970s to allow the United States to build a military base on Diego Garcia, the largest of the Chagos Islands. The other islands remain deserted.

The British-American expulsion of the Chagossians was ruled illegal by the British High Court in 2000. The ruling has since been subverted by two Orders-in-Council preventing Chagossians from returning home. (( “The story of the island,” Telegraph, 12 May 2006.))

In 2004, UK authorities stripped Chagossians of the right to live on Chagos. However, the R (Bancoult) v Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (No 2) judgment held that the 2004 orders were ultra vires. This was upheld by both the Divisional Court and the Court of Appeal.

Nevertheless, the House of Lords decided that the Queen had the power to exile the entire population of the Chagos archipelago because the BIOT is a ceded and not a settled colony. This decision points to a democratic deficit since the established principle of residuality holds that statute overrides non-statute. ((See Majorie Cohn, “Judicial Review of Non-Statutory Powers after Bancoult: A Unified Anxious Model,” Public Law, 2009: 260-287. Pdf is available for download.))

Since 2010, the European Court of Human Rights has been investigating the case of the Chagossians right of return. ((For further detail see “Timeline” in Eviction from the Chagos Islands: Displacement and Struggle for Identity Against Two World Powers, Sandra J.T.M. Evers and Marry Kooy (Eds.) (Boston, Brill: 2011).))

Is this how British PM Cameron abides by his declaration on behalf of the British people: “we believe in self-determination, the right of people in the … Islands to determine their future”?

The Moral Validity of Argentina’s Claim

Unless one believes in the validity and morality of colonial conquest, then Argentina rightfully belongs to its Original Peoples. Colonial conquest is, as we understand it today, a war crime, a crime against peace, and a crime against humanity. It seems rather disingenuous that a nation based on violent territorial theft from the Original Peoples can lay a credible claim to another territory forcibly acquired by another colonial power. This is especially so when racist state crimes continue against the Original Peoples. (( “Argentina: Indigenous peoples forcibly evicted from their ancestral land,” Forest Peoples Programme, 1 December 2009.))

Yet in making her case for talks on the Islands recently, Argentinian president Cristina Fernandez said, “I’m here to ask for the humanitarian right. Our country is a human rights champion.” (( “Cristina Fernandez calls for an end to colonialism and blast [sic] UN Security Council,” MercoPress, 15 June 2012.))

Fernandez called on the UK “to leave this history of colonialism behind and start building a new history based on dialogue.” (( “Cristina Fernandez calls for an end to colonialism and blast [sic] UN Security Council,” MercoPress, 15 June 2012.))

Should Britain, therefore, step aside for what is, in essence, another form of colonialism?

The “conflict” is quite complicated, and should not be determined by a popularity vote (i.e., backing for Argentina in South Ixachilan/America or backing for Britain in Europe). Given the questionable basis for claims by both sides, in the interest of peaceful relations, a co-dominion between UK and Argentina seems appropriate. ((Secret discussions on co-dominion occurred in the early 1970s according to PM Fernandez. See “Cristina Fernandez calls for an end to colonialism and blast [sic] UN Security Council,” MercoPress, 15 June 2012.))

At the very least, the issue should be decided on facts, principles, and just law.

Kim Petersen is an independent writer. He can be emailed at: kimohp at gmail.com. Read other articles by Kim.