Commentary: Falkland Islands redux

The Miami HeraldMarch 14, 2013 

OPPENHEIMER ANDRES MCT

Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for The Miami Herald.

AL DIAZ

The Argentine-British dispute over the Falkland/Malvinas islands is once again heating up, and the latest events point at a new diplomatic setback for Argentina’s legitimate claims over the South Atlantic islands.

By the time many of you read these lines, residents of the 3,200 population British-held Falkland/Malvinas will have held a referendum to decide whether they want to continue being a self-governed British overseas territory. The result is expected to be a massive support for continued British status — a major propaganda victory for the pro-British islanders.

An estimated 60 journalists from around the world were expected to visit the remote islands to witness the referendum, which will be held Sunday and Monday. Top members of the islands’ Legislative Assembly are scheduled to start a world tour in coming days to publicize the referendum’s outcome, and to stress the islanders’ right to self-determination.

While Argentina’s claims over the islands are legitimate — we’ll get to that later — Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s aggressive international campaign against the islanders has backfired.

By demanding bilateral negotiations with Britain without the islanders’ participation, escalating her hostile rhetoric against islanders, preventing ships flying Falkland Islands flags from stopping in Argentine ports and threatening legal action against firms drilling oil off the islands, Argentina has effectively pushed the islanders to hold this referendum, and to take their case to international forums.

While not as suicidal as Argentina’s military dictatorship’s ill-fated 1982 invasion of the islands, Argentina’s latest offensive against the islanders may go down in history as a text-book case of diplomatic incompetence. Great Britain’s Foreign Office is already exploiting it to its advantage.

In an extended interview last week, during a stop in Miami during a trip that included New York, Washington, Mexico and Cuba, British Foreign Office director of Latin American affairs Kate Smith told me that “what really prompted the Falkland islands government to hold this referendum was their concern that the Argentine government was strengthening its rhetoric in a way that discounted the views of the islanders.”

Smith added that “having a referendum that actually demonstrates officially what their view is will really enhance and strengthen the islanders’ position.”

Smith charged that Fernndez”s government has been waging a diplomatic and economic campaign to “strangle the prosperity of the islanders.”

“’There was a time, a few years ago, when we did have constructive discussions (with Argentina) on fisheries, on communications, and indeed on hydrocarbons, but that period’s sadly over,” Smith told me. “’With this Argentine government, we haven’t been able to pursue that sort of cooperation at all.’’

Sen. Daniel Filmus, head of the Argentine Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee and a strong Fernández backer, told me that the Falkland/Malvinas referendum “doesn’t have any importance,” because — unlike that of East Timor and others — it has not been conducted by the United Nations.

As for Argentina’s refusal to include islanders in any negotiations with Britain over the islands’ future, he said that the islanders have no place in the negotiating table “because they are British.”

“The island’s population was implanted there by force in 1833,’’ when the British occupied the islands and expelled the Argentines, he said. “The islanders could have saved themselves from holding this referendum, because there’s no question that they are British,” he added.

My opinion: Argentina has a legitimate right over the islands, because — as Columbia University international law expert Julius Goebel wrote in his 1927 book The Struggle for the Falklands’’ — France transferred the islands’ sovereignty to the Spanish Crown in a 1767 agreement, and when Argentina formally declared its independence in 1816 it legally inherited all formerly Spanish possessions in its territory.

This means that when the British occupied the islands in 1833 and called them Falklands, they occupied Argentine territory and populated them with British settlers, according to Goeble’s study, and to 1983 sequel by Yale University international law professor Michael W. Reisman.

But Fernández’s overheated rhetoric, as well as her government’s moves against the islanders, are more designed to win applause at home than to help Argentina recover the islands.

If Argentina really wants to recover its legitimate rights over the islands, it should seduce its islanders, rather than harass them.

Sure, winning over the islanders through economic and cultural exchanges may take generations. But by escalating tensions, the Argentine government has brought about a referendum that will give Britain and the islanders diplomatic ammunition to oppose any change in the islands’ status.

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