It’s pretty uncontroversial to suggest that imperialism was, and continues to be, morally wrong. Forcible acquisition of territory, and the suppression of peoples against their will in the name of glory and self-interest - these are hardly things conducive to upstanding state behaviour. If you follow this line of thought, you likely believe that the UK (and any other former colonial power) would be right to relinquish control of its colonial outposts, as has happened in all but 14 remaining British Overseas Territories. But what should be done when a native population doesn’t want to be decolonised? Such is the case of the Falkland Islands.
Britain has controlled the Falklands since 1833, but Argentina, who refers to the islands as Las Islas Malvinas, disputes British ownership. It maintains that when the Spanish gave up their colonial interest in the islands in the 19th century, the land fell within the jurisdiction of the nascent Argentinian state, both by dint of succession to the Spanish claim, as well as by proximity to their mainland borders. The British have always held that they were there first, and that their possession is legal. They also often refer to the islanders’ own interests in remaining British, although this fact would not prove a legal claim. In reality, as White draws attention to, neither side can unquestionably defend the legal validity of their claim to the South Atlantic archipelago. Neither claim can actually be proven.
If you’re wondering if the locals really do want to remain a British Overseas Territory, the referenda held do show that they wish to be British. Most recently, in 2013, the Falkland Islands voted 1513 to 3, a margin of 99.8% on 92% turnout, to remain so. If you find self-determination, the principle that the Falklanders should be able to govern their own affairs and affiliations, a convincing justification for British possession of the Falklands, this might confirm your position.
But despite the overwhelming majority in this referendum, the persuasiveness of self-determination is arguably muddied by a certain fact: the population of the archipelago is imported, albeit not recently. The islands being uninhabited until colonised, any islanders cannot be called indigenous to the land. Historically, those who live there have ties to Britain, perhaps manipulating the vote. For this reason, the UN Special Committee on Decolonization has taken the stance that self-determination should not be among the primary considerations when discussing the future of the Falklands. Considering the present situation to be a colonial one, the Committee have implored both Argentina and the UK to peacefully negotiate a settlement on the sovereignty of the islands. Furthermore, in 2016, the UN declared Las Islas Malvinas to be within Argentinian waters. The UN’s disapproving tone towards the current situation is practically audible.
From their own perspective, the Falkland Islanders allegedly do not consider themselves a colony, with one representative of the Falklands Legislative Assembly stating they have progressed “well beyond colonial status”. Indeed, there is some truth in this, as the UK is only responsible for the defence and foreign affairs of the islands. It does not otherwise interfere with their legislative processes. By contrast, how the islands would be governed under Argentinian rule is, of course, unknown.
Today, the UK continues to ply both money and armed forces into the region. In 2015, the defence secretary committed to an additional £280 million being spent on it over 10 years, and the ratio of military to native population stood at roughly 1:3 at this time. At least as recently as March 2021, the government have committed to the Falklands’ defence, presumably eyeing the Argentinians evident lack of intention to rescind their claims in the 21st century. The Argentinian foreign affairs department currently finds the issue salient enough to appoint a minister for the Malvinas Islands. Clearly, Argentina still remains intent on decolonising, the UK on defending the islanders’ right to self-determination.
Is this all there is to each country’s claim? Self-determination and decolonisation? Arguably not. It would be remiss to ignore that the Argentinian invasion of 1982, and the subsequent British response, were not entirely fought on these grounds - despite, however, largely being the justifications that each side preferred to employ. In reality, the Argentinian government, looking for credibility and popularity in order to continue ruling, alighted upon territorial acquisition as a way of cementing their legitimacy. Misguidedly, although not naively, believing the UN might support them on grounds of decolonisation, and that the US would remain neutral, the biggest tragedy for their designs was the unexpected and forceful retaliation by the British. Although the initial invasion was, as predicted, hugely popular, the aftermath ultimately ruined their credibility.
In response to the invasion, McCourt suggests Thatcher justified intervention by arguing that international norms had been broken and needed defending. Perhaps more honestly, British pride and reputation were at stake. Britain’s feelings were hurt by being attacked, but could be restored by returning to the state of the world pre-invasion. Indeed, Sanders and Houghton describe the war as “the last gasp of imperialism in retreat”. Moreover, after the war, the nearly £1 billion cost and bloody death toll of the counter-attack would have only added insult to injured British pride if the UK had changed its mind about ownership of the islands - something perhaps summed up well by the soldier who said, “if they’re worth fighting for, they must be worth keeping”.
Consequently, perhaps the current positions of the UK and Argentina on the islands owe at least some allegiance to pride and popularity, respectively. Inevitably, these will be considerations for both governments, but the extent of their importance is up for debate. However, for the average person making a judgement, these may not be an issue, and their opinion determined by the morality of the situation. Ask yourself, is self-determination more important, or relinquishing the islands to South American ownership? Defence of the Falkland Islands, or decolonisation?
British Broadcasting Corporation. (2015) ‘Britain to boost Falklands Islands defences’, BBC News, 24 March, available online at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-32031342, accessed 18 March 2021.
Foreign & Commonwealth Office. (2012) The Overseas Territories: Security, Success and Sustainability, London: The Stationary Office.
McCourt, D. M. (2011) ‘Role-playing and identity affirmation in international politics: Britain's reinvasion of the Falklands, 1982’, Review of International Studies, 37 (4): 1599-1621.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Worship (No date) ‘Secretariat for the Malvinas Islands, Antarctica and the South Atlantic’, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, International Trade and Worship, Argentina, available online at https://cancilleria.gob.ar/en/ministry-foreign-affairs-international-trade-and-worship/secretariat-malvinas-islands-antarctica-and, accessed 18 March 2021.
Sanders, D. and Houghton, D. P. (2017) Losing an Empire, Finding a Role (Second Edition), London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Sheridan, D. (2021) ‘Exclusive: I will use force to defend Falklands, promises Boris Johnson’, Telegraph, 15 March, available online at https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/03/15/will-use-force-defend-falklands-promises-boris-johnson/, accessed 18 March 2021.
United Nations. (2019) ‘Special Committee Approves Draft Resolution Restating Need for Peaceful, Negotiated Settlement to Falkland Islands (Malvinas) Question, Text on Status of Tokelau’, United Nations, 25 June, available online at https://www.un.org/press/en/2019/gacol3338.doc.htm, accessed 18 March 2021.
Weisiger, A. (2013) ‘The Limits on Leaders: The Falklands War and the Franco-Turkish War’, in Logics of War: Explanations for Limited and Unlimited Conflicts, available online at https://cornell-universitypressscholarship-com.bris.idm.oclc.org/view/10.7591/cornell/9780801451867.001.0001/upso-9780801451867-chapter-008?rskey=EvL5vM&result=1, accessed 18 March 2021.
White, N. (2009) ‘Defending the Nation: the Falklands’, in Democracy Goes to War: British Military Deployments Under International Law, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wintour, P., Stewart, H. and Goñi, U. (2016) ‘Commission's ruling on Falkland Islands dismissed by UK’, Guardian, 29 March, available online at https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/mar/29/un-ruling-falkland-islands-dismissed-by-uk-argentina, accessed 18 March 2021.