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Here’s an interesting idea you might not have considered before: let’s force Alaska to become a part of Canada. It is, after all, separated from the rest of the United States of America by some 500 miles and connected to Canada by a border more than 1,500 miles long.
Perhaps this suggestion sounds ridiculous? It shouldn’t, at least if you support Argentina’s claim to sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. With the UK having just deployed one of its most powerful warships to the region, and Prince William having begun a six-week deployment to the islands in his role as an RAF search-and-rescue pilot, frustrations are once again boiling over in the Argentine capital Buenos Aires.
Standing against a backdrop of the Falkland Islands coloured in the Argentine flag, Argentina’s president, Cristina Kirchner, has accused Britain of “militarising” the South Atlantic, and has vowed to take her complaints to the United Nations.
But Ms Kirchner’s claims to sovereignty over the Falklands are bogus, and she should know it. The reason why the notion of handing Alaska to Canada sounds so absurd is because the Alaskans have no desire to become Canadian, and the rest of us respect that fact.
There is, as it happens, a term for such sentiment in international legal parlance. It is called “the principle of equal rights and self-determinations of peoples”. If Ms Kirchner cared to look, she would find this written down in Article 1.2 of the Charter of the United Nations, to which her country is a signatory.
Ms Kirchner argues that because the Falkland Islands are located much closer to the coast of Argentina than they are to the coast of the British Isles they should therefore be Argentinian. This is nothing more than a modification of the so-called ‘saltwater fallacy’, which holds that a country has less claim to a territory if it is separated from it by the sea than if it is connected to it by land or is situated close by. This is how the Soviets managed to keep a straight face when condemning the United Kingdom and France of colonialism during the Cold War, whilst maintaining their own de facto empire in Eastern Europe.
There are, however, those who accuse the UK of being selective in its application of the principle of self-determination. This argument has been considerably weakened by the British Government’s decision last month to permit Scotland to hold a referendum on independence, but it still has its proponents. They argue, for instance, that if the people of West Doncaster were to announce their aspiration to join France, the British Government would never permit it. There are three problems with this rationale.
First, it is an example of reductio ad absurdum. The people of West Doncaster do not want to join France, and it is highly unlikely that they will discover such an aspiration in the foreseeable future.
Second, there is always a strong argument for not disrupting the established order without good reason. If, by some quirk of history, West Doncaster was a part of France and wished to remain so, there would be a good case for the UK respecting that fact, provided neither the West Doncastrians nor the French were generating conflict or economic turmoil in the maintenance of their claim.
Third, even if the West Doncastrians did wish to become independent of the UK, let alone join France, attendant circumstances would need to be considered. When considering the state of Quebec’s desire to become independent of Canada, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in 1998 that Quebec did not have the right to secede unilaterally. The court reasoned that as an integral part of Canada, the impact of Quebec’s secession on the country as a whole would also need to be taken into account; hence there was a constitutional duty to negotiate terms acceptable to both sides.
Importantly, this principle would not have applied had the Canadians been exerting their claim to sovereignty over Quebec through the use of violence or discrimination. Only a state whose government “represents the whole of the people or peoples resident within its territory, on the basis of equality and without discrimination, and respects the principles of self-determination in its own internal arrangements, is entitled to protection under international law of its territory”.
This is why the decision of Kosovo to unilaterally declare its independence from Serbia, or the decision of South Sudan to become independent of Sudan against the latter’s wishes, are different cases. There, not just discrimination but violence was used to assert sovereignty, and that changes the rules of the game.
On this basis, Argentina’s claim to sovereignty over the Falklands is weaker still. Not only do the islanders wish almost categorically to remain British; not only is their claim reinforced by nearly two centuries of history; and not only is the UK exercising that claim on the basis of equality and without discrimination, but the counterparty in this dispute, Argentina, has used force in an effort to assert its rights, and lost. That attempt took place 30 years ago, when Argentina’s military dictatorship unilaterally began a war to settle a dispute they had failed to win through negotiations, which cost more than 900 lives.
As for the notion that Argentine inhabitants of the islands were evicted at some point in the distant past by European settlers? This is nonsense. When the English first landed on the islands and laid claim to them in 1690 they were uninhabited. Argentina, itself now populated by many millions of people of European descent, was not even a country at the time.
Ms Kirchner should not be surprised, therefore, that the British Government refuses to reopen negotiations on the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands now. Argentina has lost this fight in more ways than one, and it’s time they respected that fact.