Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Falkland Islands Are British

This is not a political blog. I see it primarily as a forum for me to talk about my particular interests in history and alternate history and as a way to communicate with the readers of my books. That being said, I do have very pronounced political opinions about many issues. I don't feel constrained from mentioning them every now and then, as I did when I shared my thoughts about Scotland's independence referendum and my belief that the District of Columbia deserves congressional representation. So today, I've decided I'm going to throw in my two cents about the Falkland Islands, the British territory in the South Atlantic that has long been claimed by Argentina.

Last week, Jeremy Corbyn, the leftist leader of the opposition Labour Party in the United Kingdom, suggested in an interview that the United Kingdom should reach some sort of unspecified "accommodation" with Argentina over the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. According to today's issue of The Guardian newspaper, Corbyn has told the ongoing Argentinian ambassador to the UK that he wants a power-sharing deal in the Falklands. Needless to say, these comments have sparked enormous controversy in Britain.

Now, I'm neither British nor Argentinian, so one might say that I have no real dog in this fight. But this is an international dispute with deep roots in history and one in which I have always taken a peculiar interest. Allow me to lay out the facts for those who might not be well-versed in the dispute.

The Falkland Islands are a small, rocky, largely barren archipelago in the South Atlantic, a few hundred miles east of Argentina. They are sparsely populated, with only about three thousand people living on them, mostly engaged in sheep farming. They were uninhabited until French and English settlers arrived independently of one another in the 1760s. For decades thereafter, the islands were claimed and abandoned successively by France, Britain, and Spain. For most of this time, however, nobody particularly cared about the islands and few if any permanent settlers attempted to establish themselves on them.

When Argentina achieved independence from Spain in the 1820s, it staked a vague claim to the islands, though the British had never given up their claim of sovereignty. A German descended from French Huguenots, Luis Vernet, was commissioned by Argentina to establish a colony on the islands. He was careful to request permission from the British before setting out in in 1829. When Argentina officially declared Vernet to be the governor of the islands, the British objected, reminding all concerned that the British claim to the islands had never been rescinded, and firmly reestablished British control in 1833. When Argentina and the United Kingdom signed the Arana-Southern Treaty in 1849, intended to settle various disputes in the South Atlantic, the Argentinians made no protest over British control of the Falklands, tacitly accepting British sovereignty there.

For the next century-and-a-half, the islands constituted a coaling and repair station for ships sailing around Cape Horn between the South Atlantic and the Pacific. Their only brush with history was the Battle of the Falkland Islands in late 1914. A small fleet of German ships which had been stationed in the Pacific at the outbreak of the First World War was attempting to return to Germany and decided to destroy the coaling station along the way. Confronted by a more powerful Royal Navy squadron that they had not suspected was there, the German ships were destroyed.

History continued to pass the Falkland Islands by as the bulk of the British Empire was disestablished in the latter half of the 20th Century. That is, until April of 1982, when Argentina abruptly invaded the islands and took them over. The military junta then in power in Argentina was facing increasing domestic and economic troubles and, ignoring the lessons of history, thought that a foreign war would be just the thing to distract the people away from their failures. In doing so, they badly underestimated British resolve. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government was able to put together a Royal Navy task force and, displaying the courage and improvisation skills that have so often marked British military endeavors, took the islands back in a dramatic 74-day war. In reclaiming the Falkland Islands for Britain, 255 British servicemen gave their lives. 649 Argentinians, most of them poorly trained conscripts, died as well.

Since then, the British have taken the matter of defending the Falkland Islands much more seriously, posting a garrison there sufficient to deter another Argentinian invasion. The Argentine military, by contrast, has shrunk to the point where it's doubtful they could mount another invasion even if the islands were undefended. Argentina has never abandoned its claim to the Falkland Islands and the dispute has been a thorn in the side of diplomatic relations between Argentina and the United Kingdom.

People can argue over claims of sovereignty, dates of settlement, who had the right to do what, and so forth until doomsday. It seems to me that Britain clearly has the superior claim. The British claim dates back to the 1760s, long before Argentina even existed. Technically speaking, the Argentinian efforts to establish a colony on the islands between 1829 and 1833 (which never amounted to much of anything) constituted illegal trespassing on British territory. Spain and France both had much stronger claims to the Falklands than Argentina and both have long since given them up. Some seem to think that Spain's claim to the islands devolved upon Argentina when the latter achieved independence, but there is no reason for this to be the case. Argentina cannot be a "successor state" to Spain for the simple reason that Spain still exists.

Setting aside the matter of competing claims, the fact remains that the present inhabitants of the Falkland Islands are British and overwhelmingly desire to remain British. In 2013, a referendum was put to the islanders asking if they wanted to remain a British territory. A whopping 99.8% of the people voted yes, which is about as close to unanimous as is possible to get. International observers testified that there was no fraud involved in the referendum and that the result was completely valid. As far as the people who live there are concerned, the Falkland Islands are as British as London or Liverpool. Anyone who argues differently is being willfully ignorant or has a contempt for democracy.

I have heard some people suggest that the Falklands should belong to Argentina simply because the islands are located near to the country. One person with whom I debated the question asserted that it "simply makes geographic sense". This is absurd. Taking this argument to its logical conclusion, the United States should claim sovereignty over the Bahamas. The political status of any territory should be determined by the democratically expressed will of the people who live there. Nothing else really matters.

I was rather upset with President Obama in the spring of 2014 when he made a statement suggesting that some sort of negotiation between Argentina and the United Kingdom should take place to resolve the dispute over the Falkland Islands. I would much rather have seen my president affirm the right of the Falkland Islanders to decide the question of sovereignty for themselves and support their decision to remain British. The United States has no greater friend than the United Kingdom, after all. In an increasingly uncertain world, our two countries need to stand by one another now more than ever.

Argentina is officially designated a "Major Non-NATO Ally" (MNNA) of the United States. This allows Argentina a number of special military privileges not given to most other nations, including the provision of specialized training and priority access to American military hardware. I think that the United States should lean on Argentina to stop this childish nonsense of claiming a British territory that never belonged to Argentina and officially recognize that the Falkland Islands are British. If they refuse to do so, perhaps it would be a good idea to revoke their MNNA status.

After all, if we expect the United Kingdom to stand with us, then we need to stand with them.

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