Today’s Argentine letter on the Falkland/Las Malvinas islands makes for interesting reading.
Buenos Aires, January 3rd, 2013
Mr Prime Minister David Cameron,
One hundred and eighty years ago on the same date, January 3rd, in a blatant exercise of 19th-century colonialism, Argentina was forcibly stripped of the Malvinas Islands, which are situated 14,000km (8700 miles) away from London.
The Argentines on the Islands were expelled by the Royal Navy and the United Kingdom subsequently began a population implantation process similar to that applied to other territories under colonial rule.
Since then, Britain, the colonial power, has refused to return the territories to the Argentine Republic, thus preventing it from restoring its territorial integrity.
The Question of the Malvinas Islands is also a cause embraced by Latin America and by a vast majority of peoples and governments around the world that reject colonialism.
In 1960, the United Nations proclaimed the necessity of “bringing to an end colonialism in all its forms and manifestations”. In 1965, the General Assembly adopted, with no votes against (not even by the United Kingdom), a resolution considering the Malvinas Islands a colonial case and inviting the two countries to negotiate a solution to the sovereignty dispute between them.
This was followed by many other resolutions to that effect.
In the name of the Argentine people, I reiterate our invitation for us to abide by the resolutions of the United Nations.
Cristina Fernández de Kirchner
President of the Argentine Republic
Cc: Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations
The invocation of territorial integrity is interesting here, as is the use of territory to describe the islands. The idea that there were Argentine civilians there in 1833 is disputed, with the UK claiming that there was only a small military garrison there. In terms of self determination, it’s clear that the existing population wants to remain part of the UK, and the UK government response is naturally to say it will defend their wishes. But while moving populations into occupied land is now illegal in international law – look at Israel’s settlements, and Western Sahara, for instance – as far as I know there was no provision against it 180 years ago. And while the United Provinces had declared independence from Spain earlier in the 19th century, what Argentina was as a state, and its territory, wasn’t decided until later. So, as with many declarations of the importance of territorial integrity, it depends what the territorial integrity is of, as well as how the writer understands territorial integrity. I’ve argued elsewhere – in Terror and Territory and shorter writings – that the term has two main meanings: territorial preservation and territorial sovereignty. Territorial preservation here clearly depends on the side – Argentina claims they are, and have been, part of Argentina, and that for 180 years the UK has violated this territorial arrangement. The UK claims that they are part of it, as a British Overseas Territory, and that the invasion of 1982 was a violation of territorial integrity. In terms of territorial sovereignty it concerns the exercise of political authority, without limits and interference, within that territory. At the Royal Holloway Geopolitics and Security blog, Phil Steinberg discusses Thatcher, sovereignty and the Falklands/Las Malvinas. This is useful in tracking the ways sovereignty has been understood in relation to the islands.
For Argentina’s claim to have validity, it would need to be clearly demonstrated that the islands were part of Argentina in 1833, that they were part of the Spanish colony before, and that at the time of its independence, by the rule of uti possidetis, they should have become part of the newly independent state. But it is not clear that this is indeed the case. Invoking territorial integrity is an interesting one, given the term doesn’t take on importance in international law until after the first World War. The use of the proximity argument is also dubious. 14,000 km seems an awfully long way away, but then they are over 300 miles from Argentina, which renders the Argentine claim somewhat vague – they lie well outside of Argentina’s exclusive economic zone, let alone its territorial sea.
None of this defends the UK government, present or past. It continues to enact the awkward legacy of an unpleasant history. The UK’s recent rather silly declaration of Queen Elizabeth land in the Antarctic shows that a colonial mindset is far from only historical. But from a legal perspective, it is not clear to me what basis the Argentine claim has. None of the above should be taken to say that it wasn’t an act of colonialism. But had the Spanish, French or Argentine claims to the islands in the late eighteenth and early 19th century ended up being the status quo, a similar description of that could undoubtedly be made.