Malvinas/Falklands: a referendum to no end

By Dr Pia Riggirozzi, Politics & International Relations

The population of the Falkland Islands, or Malvinas as they are called in Argentina, went to the polls in a referendum this week on whether to remain a British overseas territory. Predictably, 99.8 per cent of the voters chose to keep the status quo. Predictably, too, Argentina has declared that the Falklands referendum is invalid, not legitimate, and thus will keep using the multilateral fora to put political pressure on London and bilateral negotiations.

The referendum will not settle tensions between Buenos Aires and London over the islands any time soon, but it is significant from the perspective of the habitants of Malvinas/Falklands as it gives them voice and agency to express their aspiration. The referendum gave agency, visibility, to the inhabitants of the Falklands if not to conduct foreign policy, at least to decide on their fate. There are not two governments involved in a dispute for sovereignty any longer but three parties reclaiming rights. This makes the dispute more sensitive and the tension between the legal claims of sovereignty and the principle of self-determination more difficult to reconcile. To complicate matters, the referendum has no real effect from the perspective of international law as, unlike other cases of decolonisation, it was not called for nor supervised by the United Nations. It was a unilateral decision of the British government echoing the interests of the British inhabitants of the Islands but overlooking the UN call for dialogue between two sovereign states.

Now, the British manoeuvre is somehow puzzling. Why was the referendum called now and not before, given that the issue has been debated in the United Nations for nearly half a century? Some explanations point to three reasons at least: Firstly, Argentina has returned the Malvinas/Falklands issue back to the international agenda since the mid-2000s. The Kirchner administration advanced a high profile, reopening the case in the UN Decolonisation Committee. Secondly, South American solidarity goes beyond the mere position of principle to take concrete action. Buenos Aires has the backing of the majority of the continent as several Latin American governments have adopted pro-Argentina positions toward the islands. For example, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), of which all 12 South American nations are members, passed a resolution rejecting the referendum during a December 2012 summit in Peru. This rejection includes the regional power, Brazil, which has repeatedly stated its support for Argentina’s claim to the islands, and was seconded by the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in January 2013. Thirdly, in the absence of negotiations over sovereignty Argentina announced it was breaking an agreement over oil and gas. In this context, the UK government can use the Yes vote to change the state of play reinforcing that any negotiation over sovereignty will have to include the presence of islanders, something that Argentina will be reluctant to accept. As a result, the stalemate is likely to continue, and undoubtedly will be fuelled by future tensions over exploitation of natural resources.

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