It’s not often that a 1,500 person vote has such profound geopolitical implications. From Sunday into Monday, residents of the Falkland Islands went to the polls to answer a YES or NO question – “Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom?”
According to AFP, 99.8% of voters answered a resounding “yes” to this question, which saw eligible voters come out en masse – 92% of the island’s 1,672 eligible voters cast a ballot in the referendum.
The political significance of this referendum reverberates across the North and South Atlantic, as the Falkland Islands have been the subject of a bitter division between Argentina and the UK for decades. The latter has claimed the Falklands since 1833, but Argentina has maintained that the “implanted” British population on the islands – known as the Malvinas in Argentina – does not a British island make. Argentina has historically laid claim to the islands, a conflict which came to a head in 1982 when Argentinian troops invaded the Falklands, leading to a deadly 10-week war, which saw Britain continue to retain control over the territory.
Argentina is rejecting the vote, claiming that the referendum as a publicity stunt, a futile exercise not sanctioned by the United Nations, and with no basis in international law. Later this week, Argentina’s Senate is preparing to vote on a motion to reject the Falklands referendum and reaffirm Argentina’s longstanding claim to the islands.
For the Falkland Islanders, the historic referendum was an opportunity to have their voices and wishes heard loud and clear. Indeed, the islanders – a huge majority of whom have British ancestry – feel strongly connected to their British identity. The Falklands present an interesting case around the issue of self-determination. Indeed, while the international community has often stood up and been vocal about the right to self-determination in other parts of the world, it has been conspicuously silent on the Falklands. Only Sweden has announced that it would heed the results of the referendum, while the United States – arguably the UK’s closest ally – has not made an official pronouncement.
Against a geopolitical backdrop which includes a recent discovery of offshore oil in the Falkland Islands, and increasingly heated rhetoric from Argentina, the Falkland Islands referendum – however small it may be – has significant implications. The referendum presents an interesting opportunity to examine self-determination in the context of international law, in spite of its being overshadowed by politics and division. Following the plebiscite – which international observers noted has been free and fair – can the international community ignore the wishes of the islanders, the long-time residents of that small piece of the world? Are their wishes irrelevant, as Argentina claims, because of the lack of UN participation? Should negotiations on the sovereignty of the Falklands take place – as requested by numerous UN resolutions – will the referendum carry weight, or will it be dismissed?
John Hollins, the former Chief Electoral Officer of the Canadian province of Ontario and the current Chair of the Board of Directors of The Delian Project, acted as an election observer in the Falklands. Mr. Hollins told UN Dispatch that “Having witnessed multiple elections the world over, it is clear the referendum on political status held in the Falkland Islands was delivered in an exceedingly professional, transparent, free and fair manner.” He added that, “most impressive, was the detailed knowledge of the electorate regarding their choices. We are convinced this knowledge compelled many to vote, accounting for the 92% voter turn-out.”
While the international community figures out how to respond to the results of the referendum and grapples with the implications, one thing is clear: the residents of the Falklands have freely and fairly cast their ballot in favor of remaining under British control. Whether this carries weight on the international stage remains to be seen.
Photo: A mobile polling station in the rural Falklands. Credit: The Delian Project.