Britain has fought side by side with the U.S. for the last decade in Iraq and Afghanistan. So you would have thought that President Obama might offer Britain a little support on its most urgent foreign policy objective -- the on-going efforts to stop Argentina swallowing up the Falkland Islands, lying vulnerably just 300 miles off its South Atlantic coast.
Sadly, Obama seems unconcerned to show such loyalty to his ally. “Our position remains one of neutrality,” says his administration. “The United States… takes no position regarding the sovereignty claims of either party.”
Thanks, Mr. Obama.
No wonder the Falkland Islanders have felt the need to show the world just how much they wish to stay British -- something that was impressed upon me during my visit there in January. Last Monday they took part in a referendum on their sovereignty, and a whopping 99.8% of them voted in favor of remaining as a UK territory. Since the UN Charter enshrines a people’s right to self-determination, you’d hope they might finally get the backing of the American president.
Sadly, though, it may not be as simple as that. Argentina regards the 2,800 Islanders as an “implanted” British population whose wishes are therefore irrelevant, and is only too happy to bully them, hoping to undermine their economy and weaken their resolve. What’s more, it seems that the international community, with Obama at its head, is letting them get away with it.
In recent months Argentina has threatened to prevent flights to the Falklands from traveling through its airspace; refused to allow port entry to cruise ships that have visited the Falklands; and persuaded the Mercosur bloc, which includes Brazil and Uruguay, to close ports to all ships flying the Falklands flag. Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, is busy persuading other countries to back her case and is whipping up nationalist sentiment at home, declaring that Argentina will control the Islands within 20 years.
It’s deeply unsettling for the Islanders to see their homeland so aggressively coveted by a giant neighbor, especially since Argentina’s ill-conceived 1982 attempt to take the Islands by force is still fresh in the memory. Back then many of the invading soldiers expected to be welcomed as liberators. Instead they were greeted with contempt -- a sentiment Margaret Thatcher wholeheartedly shared. She immediately dispatched a massive task force from Britain, and only two months after they had arrived, the demoralized Argentines surrendered.
Nevertheless, the conflict and its accompanying horrors are still intensely resented by Falklands people. They remember being pushed around at gunpoint, their public buildings being taken over and their leaders being deported. And they display a steely determination that their homeland will never again fall into Argentinean hands.
They have the backing of just about everyone in Britain. In fact, to Britons of my generation, the Falklands capture the imagination like nowhere else. I was a teenager when Argentina invaded them in 1982, and the war that followed was a formative experience that left me with an intense curiosity about the place, and the people who live there. So when, a few weeks ago, the government of the Falkland Islands invited me to carry out a training project, I was fascinated to see just what this windswept little community was really like, and how British it could really be.
Walking along the streets of the main settlement, Stanley, on my first evening, I was reminded of the archetypal English village in late-summer sunlight, complete with community store, church, bright red post box, plenty of pubs, and a proud display of British flags. There are big physical differences of course -- not least the thousands of penguins nestling in the wind-battered rocks just outside town. You don’t get those in Stratford-on-Avon. But the people display those old-fashioned virtues of self-reliance, care for neighbors and an understated pride in their country. For 180 years, it’s been a tight-knit place where everyone knows everyone else -- and despite living 8,000 miles away from the UK, the Islanders are as British as warm beer and afternoon tea.
In fact, Argentina’s only obvious claim to the Islands is geographical -- the same one that would make Alaska part of Russia. Any historical claim is far-fetched, for unlike the South American mainland, the Falklands never had an indigenous population vulnerable to European colonists. And Argentina didn’t even exist in its modern form when the British began to settle there in 1833, let alone when they first arrived in 1690. Moreover, the Islanders, many of whom trace their family history back nine generations, have always done so by free choice, as Argentina discovered to its cost in 1982.
Ironically, most Argentineans, including President Kirchner, are themselves the descendants of European settlers, and their families have been in their country for rather less time than the Falkland Islanders have been in theirs.
The people of the Falklands shrug their shoulders at this, merely expressing, with British understatement, their disappointment at Argentina’s bullyboy tactics. Meanwhile, they look forward to a healthy economic future based on fishing (much of the calamari eaten in Europe is from the Falklands), tourism, and oil.
However, the Islanders also rely on the international community to dismiss Argentina’s power games, and to accept the rights of this small, isolated but determined community to decide its own future. In particular, they expect President Obama to recognize these rights, and will patiently wait to see how he responds to a referendum result that is as unequivocal as it gets.
All the Islanders ask for is to live their lives in peace. If the UN Charter has any force, if the right to self-determination is paramount, they should surely be allowed to do so.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons