Britain remains staunchly committed to upholding the right of the Falkland Islanders, and of the Falkland Islanders alone, to determine their own future. That was the fundamental principle that was at stake 30 years ago: and that is the principle which we solemnly reaffirm today.
David Cameron’s speech marking the thirtieth anniversary of the conflict over the Malvinas islands reiterates a ‘fundamental principle’ that is not only inapplicable in the case of the Malvinas but is conveniently ignored elsewhere if Britain’s strategic interests require it. The principle of self-determination is well established, but is meant to apply to longstanding inhabitants of a colonised territory. The current inhabitants of the Malvinas arrived after Britain captured the islands from a recently independent Argentina in 1833. The British attack was effectively an act of piracy in a part of the world where piracy was commonly practised by Spain as well as Britain, but the fact that it was commonplace does not make it legitimate. Indeed, Britain had promised not to do any such thing when it signed the Treaty of San Lorenzo with Spain in 1790.
In 2006, yet another UN resolution called for talks between Britain and Argentina over the islands. Before the Special Committee on Decolonisation, the islanders argued for self-determination and against colonisation. The Argentinians explained the history of their administration of the islands before 1833, argued that the current islanders are not a ‘people’ in the sense intended by the principle of self-determination, and furthermore that many thousands of British people have successfully been absorbed into Argentina since independence in 1816 (the Welsh in Patagonia are perhaps the best-known example). A succession of Latin American governments supported Argentina’s position, but Britain didn’t bother to back the islanders’ case.
An illuminating contrast has occasionally been pointed out between the Malvinas and Britain’s leasing out of the island of Diego Garcia in the 1960s to create a US airbase. This resulted in the expulsion of the Chagos islanders, who were without question denied the right of self-determination. (Is this what Cameron meant when he said it was the right ‘of the Falkland Islanders alone’?) The British High Court and Court of Appeal found in the favour of islanders suing for right of abode in the Chagos, but their judgments were overturned by the House of Lords in 2008. In 2010 the Labour government made the seas around the Chagos archipelago into a marine reserve. According to a cable from the US embassy in London published by WikiLeaks:
Establishing a marine reserve might, indeed, as the FCO’s Roberts stated, be the most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands’ former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling.
As in Diego Garcia, Britain’s actions in the Malvinas are based on its strategic interests, but in the South Atlantic the public-spirited protection of the islands’ inhabitants offers a convenient smokescreen.