Falkland Islanders: Still fighting for their right to exist

In the 40 years since the end of the Falklands War, the Falklands has become a different place. The population has doubled, the extension of the fishing waters has created a strong economy, and, per capita, its GDP is among the highest in the world.


Craig Brewin

5/31/20224 min read

In the 40 years since the end of the Falklands War, the Falklands has become a different place. The population has doubled, the extension of the fishing waters has created a strong economy, and, per capita, its GDP is among the highest in the world. The islands still have their remarkable biodiversity, and the islanders their indefatigability.

The Falkland Islands also have a far higher profile in international relations than they used to, partly due to the UN refusing to recognise the right of Overseas Territories to exist as Overseas Territories. To the Argentinian government, the sovereignty dispute is between itself and the UK over ownership of the land and sea. To them, the Falkland Islanders are British settlers who should have no independent voice in determining their future.

Argentina's constitution includes the Falklands as part of its territory, and its claim is relentlessly propagandised at home and abroad. In May this year, at the UN regional decolonisation seminar in St Lucia, Argentina again pushed its position. There are "only two parties to the dispute" it said, the UK and Argentina, and the voice of the Islanders is irrelevant. “The right to self-determination is not applicable to the Malvinas question." Argentina’s position was explicitly supported by Indonesia, Mexico, Venezuela, Syria, Antigua and Barbuda, and Cuba.

The UN has never said that the territorial dispute overrides the Falkland Islanders' right to self-determination, but it has also never said it does not. As long as the Falkland Islands has a British civil servant as Governor, its constitutional status will contravene the UN declaration against colonialism. The Falklands will continue to be seen as non-self-governing and will remain the subject of the reports on decolonisation presented to the UN General Assembly each year.

This will happen despite the lack of desire among the Falkland Islands, and several other OTs, to adopt any of the models of decolonisation that the UN recognises. Argentina sees the constitutional status of the islands as legitimising its claim to be opposing western colonialism, and it garners international support on that basis. That challenges the very existence of the Falkland Islanders as a community and puts them at the centre of many global issues.

Tasmin Barkman, the Chair of the Falkland's Legislative Assembly, said of Argentina recently: "You go round the world saying that we are an implanted population, that we do not have the right to self-determination…because you do not recognise us as interlocutors, as people, violating our human rights. What you are asking the international community is that the people of the Falklands have no voice in their future nor be seated in the negotiation. It is all designed to the fact that we don't exist. ….Why should Islanders with ten generations here in the Islands not have the right to choose? It is to ignore the reality of the situation: we have descendants of those who arrived in 1833 who still live here in the Islands. That is the only relevant part. So, you can pick the history version you wish, but the argument falls. You shouldn't say that a certain people should not exist; you should not say that our history is not real. That is something a democracy which respects human rights does not do."

The UN's refusal to unequivocally reject Argentina's objection to the Falkland Islanders' right to self-determination encourages other expansionist regimes. After the invasion of Ukraine, Argentina's Vice President denounced the UK's "double standards", saying the UK, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, should not condemn some invasions when it has supported those that are in its interests. This subsequently led the Russians, clearly looking for an ally, to make a statement echoing the Argentinian position.

The spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, said that UK's refusal to negotiate with Argentina was a "blatant disregard of the opinion expressed by the world community" and "does not do justice to a permanent member of the UN Security Council." Russia has a short term aim of assuring its access to minerals mined in South America, but the framing of the Falklands Issue as a colonial dispute allows it to draw parallels with its own land grab.

China has presented itself as the global leader of anti-colonial struggles for a long time, and framing the Falklands issue as a colonial struggle suits it. China and Argentina already provide reciprocal support for each other's sovereignty claims: over Taiwan in China's case. Last year, a Chinese diplomat at the United Nations called for an end to "Western colonialism" in the south Atlantic. This was followed up a few days later in the Global Times, where a Chinese think tank official was quoted as saying: "London claims countries should abide by international law and follow the rules-based order" but does not apply this when it comes to the Falklands.

Argentina's position, and the UN's indulgence of it, is increasingly putting a small island community at the heart of global tensions. As Tamsin Barkman said: This is "not only is wrong, but cruel." She added: "At the end of the day, we are talking about people. The fact that my child, who is six years old, has to grow up grappling with all these arguments about why his home should not exist, always bullied by a country with its version of history." "Maybe Argentina can…mature and realise that its attitude towards the Islands is inconsistent with what a democracy should be doing."

But this not going to happen. Writing in the Guardian in April, Santiago Cafiero is the Argentine foreign minister said “ No Argentine government will cease in its pursuit of our sovereign claim.” He went on the say that it had been a live issue for many years before the war started and it would be a “dangerous precedent” if it was widely accepted that war could resolve genuine territorial disputes recognised by the international community.

The UK has said it will explore ways in which the OTs can maintain international support in countering hostile sovereignty claims and has said that it would support requests for the removal of a Territory from the UN's list of Non-Self-Governing Territories. In the case of the Falklands, Argentina and its allies will oppose that, and there is a longstanding UN resolution calling for a negotiated settlement that would be impossible to overturn.

But while the Falklands remains defined by the UN as a colony, it remains covered by to the principle of self-determination. Maybe the UN should occasionally remind the world of that fact. Argentina's dispute is fundamentally with the Falkland Islanders, and is about their right to exist.