Thursday, March 7, 2013

COHA: The Falklands/Malvinas Referendum – The Islanders’ Voice Is Far From Being Trivial

The Falklands/Malvinas Referendum - The Islander's Voice is far from Trivial
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Council on Hemispheric Affairs
March 7, 2013
Originally published:

The approximately 1,600 inhabitants of the Falklands/Malvinas islands that are eligible to vote will go to the polls on March 10-11 to vote on a referendum regarding their political paternity with London. It is widely expected that the inhabitants of these South Atlantic islands will vote in favor of remaining an overseas British territory. [1] Over the years, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs has published a spate of analytical reports and commentaries, as well as provided interviews to major media outlets regarding the ongoing dispute between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the fate of the Malvinas/Falklands islands. (For more in depth readings, links to recent COHA publications regarding this subject can be found at the end of this essay). While COHA does not believe that the referendum will settle tensions between Buenos Aires and London over the islands anytime soon, this initiative is important, as it will give a clear and concise voice to the islanders’ aspiration.
An Issue not to be solved soon
It is not likely that the dispute over the Falklands will be solved anytime soon. The 1982 Falklands War made the islands, if anything, even more a part of Argentine national identity, than before. This makes the dispute even more sensitive for the Argentine population and a politically explosive issue for any president at the Casa Rosada. Nevertheless, the ongoing dispute should not be regarded as an irreversible wedge that prevents cooperation between Argentina and the United Kingdom on a host of other issues. In fact, since the war, the two governments have cooperated in joint projects in spite of their differences over the Falklands. As recently as the mid/late 1990s, Buenos Aires and London signed a number of agreements regarding fishing rights and the search for hydrocarbons around the islands. Unfortunately, tensions in recent years have meant that some of these accords have since been annulled. [2]
An important factor to take into account is the recent revelation that there may be potentially large quantities of offshore oil and gas surrounding the Falklands. It has been reported that private oil companies, in cooperation with the British government, already have found both oil and gas deposits. [3] Meanwhile, Buenos Aires also has plans to search for oil off the islands. [4] Whichever country ends up having access to these deposits stands to profit greatly if the deposits prove to be viable for commercial extraction. In other words, these deposits stand to be a game changer in the coming years for both the UK and Argentina, which is particularly important as both nations continue to experience sagging economies. [5] Unfortunately, the potential for great profit, rather than bringing the governments together in some kind of joint-venture to extract the oil and gas will likely become an additional divisive issue over control of the islands.
Moreover, the latest controversy currently revolves around Argentine accusations that the U.K. has deployed nuclear weapons to the islands. Buenos Aires made similar accusations in 2012 as well. [6] On both occasions, London and the government of the Falklands denied the claims. [7] These controversial statements further hinder attempts at diplomatically resolving the Falkland issue. [8] Latin America and the Caribbean have been Nuclear Weapons Free Zones (NWFZ) since the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco; [9] hence, if Argentina’s claims were proven to be true, the UK would be in grave violation of an important treaty.
Mixed Hemispheric Feelings
Not surprisingly, the referendum has brought about a variety of reactions around the continent. Canada is arguably the only nation in the hemisphere that openly supports the UK’s claim over the islands and the islanders’ right to self-determination. [10] In 2012, Canada distanced itself from the rest of the hemisphere regarding a proposed disposition by the Organization of American States (OAS), which called for binational discussions between London and Buenos Aires over the future of the islands. At the time, the Canadian representative to the OAS, Allan Culham, explained, “Canada believes that only the inhabitants of the Falkland Islands can determine their own future. We therefore do not support the resolution as it is drafted.” [11]
Predictably, Argentina has declared that the upcoming Falklands referendum is invalid and shows “a disrespect for national and international laws.” [12] Buenos Aires has the backing of the majority of the continent as several Latin American governments have adopted pro-Argentina postures 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. [13] This rejection includes the regional powerhouse, Brazil, which has repeatedly stated its support for Argentina’s claim to the islands. [14]
Washington’s Attempts at Neutrality
Finally, the U.S. has been conflicted as to what position to take regarding the Falklands disputes. The White House undoubtedly continues to  protect the historical “special relationship” between Washington and London. On the other hand, a more pro-Argentine oriented position would arguably improve Washington’s relations with Latin America. Recently declassified documents help shed new light onto the relationship between British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President Ronald Reagan during the 1982 Falklands War. In a personal letter, Thatcher wrote, “I am writing to you separately because I think you are the only person who will understand the significance of what I am trying to say…I also believe that the friendship between the United States and Britain matters very much to the future of the free world.” [15] The letter came at a time when Thatcher ordered the deployment of a military contingent to the islands to expel Argentine troops.
In recent years, Washington generally has attempted to maintain a neutral position regarding the islands. For example, during a January 2012 press briefing at the State Department, the following Falklands-related question was asked:
QUESTION: Does the U.S. take a position on the recent posturing between the United Kingdom and Argentina over the Falklands?
ANSWER: This is a bilateral issue that needs to be worked out directly between the governments of Argentina and the United Kingdom. We encourage both parties to resolve their differences through dialogue in normal diplomatic channels.
We recognize de facto United Kingdom administration of the islands, but take no position regarding sovereignty. [16]
Nevertheless, the Obama administration came under fire in 2012 for supporting an OAS resolution that called for bilateral dialogue between the UK and Argentina. Conservative analyst Nile Gardiner stated that President Obama’s “actions over the Falklands demonstrate that in practice he has nothing but disdain for America’s closest friend and ally.” [17] It seems that new Secretary of State, John Kerry, will have his work cut out for him regarding what to say, and not say, with respect to the islands. Essentially, his goal will be to not upset the balance regarding U.S. foreign policy between the UK and the Western Hemisphere. During a recent visit to London, Kerry declared that:
We continue to urge a peaceful resolution of this critical issue. Let me be very clear about our position with respect to the Falklands, which I believe is clear. First of all, I’m not going to comment, nor is the President, on a referendum that has yet to take place, hasn’t taken place. Our position on the Falklands has not changed. The United States recognizes de facto UK administration of the Islands but takes no position on the question of parties’ sovereignty claims thereto. We support co-operation between UK and Argentina on practical matters. [18]
The British government would have probably desired a clearer more sharply British stance from Washington, rather than Kerry’s diplomatically neutral statement.
The Islanders are People too
At the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, we recognize the situation in the Falklands as sensitive and greater dialogue between all interested parties. We advocate for greater cooperation between Buenos Aires and London in a variety of common-interest issues. Ideally, we would like to see a joint venture between both governments regarding the search for oil and gas deposits so both nations can profit. COHA recognizes that in the following years, the control of the islands will remain in dispute.
Nevertheless, a discussion about the islands does not revolve simply around the territory or the potential offshore oil and gas deposits, but with the islanders, who, for the most part, have inhabited these South Atlantic islands all their lives. It is their voice that must be an important determining factor in any discussion between Buenos Aires and London.

W. Alejandro Sanchez, Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated.
For additional news or analysis on Latin America, please go to: Latin News
Recent COHA publications/interviews on the Falklands/Malvinas:
Larry Birns, Alex Gibson, Gustavo Palhares & Faizaan Sami, “Falklands Fever not likely to turn into War,” Aide-memoire, Council on Hemispheric Affairs, February 14, 2012. Available:
W. Alex Sanchez, “Peru finds itself snared in the Falklands/Malvinas Dispute,” Commentary, Council on Hemispheric Affairs, April 29, 2012. Available: 
W. Alex Sanchez, “Improving UK-Argentina Relations over the Falkland-Malvinas Islands,” Opinion, VOXXI, February 20, 2013. Available:
W. Alex Sanchez, “The Falklands Referendum: A Hemispheric Balancing Act” (Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, January 16, 2013) Available:
Taylor Stout (with Aisha Espey and Sarah Slater), “Falkland Islanders fight for their Sovereignty,” Press Release, Council on Hemispheric Affairs, June 18, 2012. Available:
Liam Whittington, “Business as Usual? – The United Kingdom’s Relationship with Latin America in 2011,” Report, Council on Hemispheric Affairs, November 11, 2011. Available:
COHA Director Larry Birns and COHA Research Fellow W. Alex Sanchez  were interviewed by Al Jazeera’s Inside Story on the Falklands/Malvinas situation. See the video at: “Inside Story Americas –What lies beneath the Falklands,” Al Jazeera, February 10, 2012. Video available:

[1] Philipson, Alice, “Falklands Islands set date for referendum on future sovereignty,” The Telegraph (UK), January 8, 2013. Available:
[2] Arie, Sophie, “Argentina snubs UK over oil deal as anniversary nears,” The Telegraph (UK), March 29, 2007. Available:
[3] “Otra petrolera britanica haya gas en las Malvinas,” La Nación (Argentina), April 23, 2012. Available:
[4] Santoro, Daniel, “El gobierno llama a licitacion para buscar petroleo cerca de las Malvinas,” El Clarin(Argentina), July 30, 2012. Available:
[5] “Viceministro desestima posible crisis economica de Argentina,” Prensa Latina (Cuba), March 3, 2013. Available:  Also see:
[6] Schomberg, William, “Analysis – Long haul ahead for Britain’s struggling economy,” Reuters, March 3, 2013. Available:–business.html
[7] Carroll, Rory, “Argentina accuses UK of deploying nuclear weapons near Falkland islands,” The Guardian (UK) , February 10, 2012. Available:
[8] “El gobernador de Malvinas acuso de mentiroso al Gobierno,” El Clarin (Argentina), March 3, 2013. Available:
[9] “Falklands dispute: Argentina accuses UK of ‘defiance’ of anti-nuke treaty,” Russia Today, February 26, 2013. Available:
[10] W. Alex Sanchez, “The Unlikely Success: Latin America and Nuclear Weapons,” Geopolitics and Geo-Security, Blog post, November 16, 2011. Available:
[11] “Canada confirms Falklands self determination despite lobbying from companies operating in Argentina.”Mercopress. August 30, 2012. Available:
[12] “Canada dissociates itself from the OAS Resolution on the Falklands,” Falkland News, June 6, 2012. Available:
[13] Foreign Staff. “Argentina attacks Falklands Islands referendum,” The Telegraph (UK), January 21, 2013. Available:
[14] “UNASUR summit rejects Falklands’ referendum and wants to limit ‘vulture funds,’” Mercopress, December 1, 2012. Available:
[15] “Brazil strongly  supports Argentina’s Falklands ‘ claims at defense minister’s summit.” Mercopress. October 9, 2012. Available:
[16] Prentice, Alessandra, “Secret files lift lid on Thatcher-Reagan Falklands contacts,” Reuters, December 28, 2012. Available:
[17] “U.S. Position on the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands,” Office of the Spokesperson, U.S. Department of State, January 20, 2012. Available:
[18] Gardiner, Nile, “Barack Obama’s unwelcome Jubilee present to Britain: Washington reaffirms OAS resolution calling for Falklands negotiations with Argentina,” The Telegraph (UK), Blogs, June 5, 2012. Available:
[19] “Kerry refuses to comment on Falklands’ referendum; US position remains unchanged,” Mercopress, February 25, 2013. Available:

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