Our Islands! Overcoming the Falklands War Political Football
EspañolThirty two yeas after the Falklands War — the armed conflict that erupted between Argentina and England for sovereignty over the Falkland Islands — we have interviewed Ricardo Manuel Rojas for a legal and historical perspective on the matter.
Rojas is a judge in a criminal court of Buenos Aires, holds a PhD in economic history, and is a professor in the Master in Law and Economics program at the University of Buenos Aires. He wrote the book Fundamental Rights and the Legal and Institutional Order in Cuba (in Spanish), which won him the International Sir Antony Fisher Prize of the Friedrich A. von Hayek Foundation.
Another anniversary of the conflict has passed. Why does Argentina claim sovereignty over the islands? In your opinion, is Argentina’s government right to do so?
The Argentinean claims of sovereignty over the islands have a long history. Let’s not forget that the islands were occupied by communities of fishermen for a very long time. In fact, the name “Malvinas” comes from maluinos, as the inhabitants of the French port of Saint Maló in France, where the fishing and seal hunting expeditions that arrived in the islands every year came from, were referred to. They settled there during the months of optimal wheather. Successively, camps from several European countries, including England, were established.
In 1820, when Juan Manuel de Rosas was governor of Buenos Aires, he established a government outpost of that city in the islands, which was then evacuated by the British navy in 1833, citing its previous occupation of the territory.
It is since then that there has been a conflict. On the one hand, Argentina maintains that the islands are Argentinean because they are within the territorial sea claimed by the country, and because there was an Argentinean provisional government that was evicted by force.
On the other hand, England claims sovereignty because it holds that before the interim government, there were already British homesteading communities on the islands. Also, ever since the date of occupation until today, there has been a British or British-descendent population continiously living there for almost two centuries, and these people themselves express their willingness to live under British sovereignty.
I think that having been so long since the last British occupation of the island, the ideal solution would be to find a negotiated settlement of the conflict. The population there is clearly hostile to Argentina’s claim of sovereignty, and at this point it cannot be said that these people were “planted” there — several generations of native islanders have been living on the islands, so it makes little sense to continue the conflict.
How would you explain to a foreigner the causes and consequences of the war of 1982?
The military occupation of the islands, which triggered the war in 1982, had no rational justification. By that time, the Falklands had strong trade relationships with Argentina; they primarily bought fuel and supplies from us. The islands represented a problem for England, because being so far away from Britain, both trade and remote administration became complicated.
Perhaps back then there were better chances for a negotiated solution that would have allowed both countries to solve the problem without admitting that they were resigning sovereignty. After the war, the issue became almost an emblem of nationalism, and finding a negotiated solution is now much more complicated.
It is not far fetched to say that the decision to occupy the islands could have been mainly due to the political needs of a military government going through a crisis, which found in the Falklands invasion a reason to consolidate its power. It is important to remember that on March 31, 1982, there were violent protests against the government in Plaza de Mayo, mainly carried out by worker unions, which ended with deaths, injuries, and brutal repression. And two days later, on April 2, Plaza de Mayo was bustling with people again, but this time praising General Galtieri for his decision to “reclaim” the Falklands.
The issue was also a challenge for Thatcher. Her government was in trouble, and the decision to respond firmly by sending the best of the British fleet towards the south was not exempt from short-term political motivations.
The world was in the midst of the Cold War, and President Galtieri mistakenly assumed that the United States would support the Argentinean claim. This was a mistake for several reasons: it was an unjustified, armed invasion, provoked by a military de facto government, against the United States’ main ally in NATO.
The consequences of the war were disastrous: beyond the large number of deaths, injuries, and people traumatized for life, it badly hurt the possibility of a rational solution to the conflict for a long time.
Do you think the Argentinean claim has any chance of success with the United Nations? How do you see the immediate future of the case?
In the short and medium term, I don’t think Argentina has any chance of achieving a statement from the international community attributing sovereignty over the islands for the country.
I say this for several reasons: for the international community, Argentina is an unreliable country with erratic policies, which flirts with dictators, which is constantly suspected of corruption, and with disastrous administrations.
On the other hand, the inhabitants of the islands are totally against accepting Argentinean sovereignty, and I think this is an important point. The Argentinean government relies on the principles set by the decolonization committee of the United Nations, in the sense that these conflicts must be resolved regardless of the opinion of the inhabitants.
I think this principle is fair when it comes to recent or short occupations, as otherwise it would suffice to occupy a territory by force, populate it with settlers, and then have these settlers refuse the sovereignty of the invaded nation. But when 180 years have passed since the installation of the settlers, when four generations of islanders grew up receiving their property rights by inheritance from parents to children, and consider more than anyone that the territory is theirs, I think their opinion is essential to resolve the conflict.
For that reason, beyond political statements by the most nationalist groups in both countries, the fact is that any solution to the conflict through diplomatic sovereignty claims, is and will be blocked for a long time.
Is there a project to overcome this binational problem?
I think the problem could be solved wisely and pragmatically, but for this, the discussion on sovereignty should be set aside for a long time.
The truth is that today, beyond their submission to the British Government, and its controls and legislation, the administration of the islands is carried out by the islanders themselves.
So maybe discussions on sovereignty of the islands could be suspended, say, for a 100 years, during which the islanders would self-administer the territory, establish relations with the countries they choose, and they wouldn’t have to submit to sovereignty decisions of Great Britain or Argentina.
This would decompress the conflict. It could even lead to agreements between British and Argentinean companies to exploit the oil and fishing resources in the area, generating a substantial income for the islanders that could pave the way towards significant economic development.
After the 100-year period, discussions could start regarding whether the situation of the islands remains unchanged, whether they become independent, or whether considerations of sovereignty may be taken into account again. By then, I don’t think anyone would consider the latter to be a reasonable option.
Has this scheme ever been implemented before anywhere in the world?
There have been conflicts in the world where discussions over the sovereignty of a given territory lead to its independence. We have a case very close from home, which is Uruguay, a territory disputed by Argentina and Brazil which led to a war that ended with the recognition of the independence of the region.
On the other hand, there have been territories that have been ceded for the development of cities and regions. Perhaps the cases of Hong Kong and Singapore are the most famous ones, but there are others. For example, the state of Pennsylvania in the United States was originally a territory ceded as property by the King of England to William Penn, as payment for services provided by his father for the Crown. Penn organized the territory under clear rules that promoted freedom and respect for property, and this was the base from which the United States emerged.
These types of agreements, for the development of regions, have been known as charter cities, and there are numerous examples of them in history.
More recently, there has been a lot of talk about a concept that goes a step beyond, that of free cities. The idea consists of releasing certain territories of their attachment to the laws and sovereignty of a country, allowing them to organize their own rules, looking for ways of promoting economic growth and improving the welfare of its inhabitants. In Honduras, there was an initiative in this sense launched in 2010, which involved a constitutional reform and the design of a legal framework, but today it is paralyzed for political reasons.*
Nothing would prevent the Falkland Islands from organizing as a free city upon the suspension of sovereignty discussions among the disputing countries.
What do you think is the biggest flaw of the government regarding the Falklands?
I think that since 1982 the case of the Falklands has been used as a political banner, as an instrument for firing up nationalist sentiments, but not a single government has tried to find a rational solution to the problem.
That is characteristic of this government, but also that of Alfonsín, Menem, and de la Rúa.
Ricardo Manuel Rojas has designed a proposal that could be the starting point for a negotiated solution to this issue:
* Editor’s note: the Honduran startup city idea — the ZEDEs — is back running again and looks set to have its first specific zone identified this year.