Make the Falklands/Malvinas a Free Zone

The upcoming 30th anniversary of the Falklands/Malvinas War by which London re-conquered the islands after an Argentine invasion has given rise to abundant demagoguery. With one exception—the document “Malvinas, An Alternative Vision” signed by a group of Argentine intellectuals, lawyers and journalists (they face a lawsuit for treason.)

After questioning their government for considering the islands “irredentist” and reminding their fellow Argentines that they have yet to re-examine their staunch support of dictator Galtieri´s crazy invasion in 1982, they ask for something reasonable: Argentine policy should treat the people of the Malvinas as subjects of the law with a right to self-determination rather than try to force a sovereignty on them based on geographical proximity or ancient colonial history. They don´t say that they do not consider the Malvinas to be Argentine. They only ask their government to honor the human rights treaties that were incorporated into their constitution by respecting the rights of those inhabitants and engaging in dialogue with them.

In press interviews, one of the signatories, journalist Jorge Lanata, author of a documentary on the archipelago, points to something quite elementary: the nationalistic agitation coming from Argentina will only push the people of the Malvinas further away from Buenos Aires.

This does not excuse the United Kingdom for its own share of demagoguery and nationalistic agitation. Sending a powerful destroyer carrying Prince William and a ton of bellicose rhetoric to the Falklands recently looked like the “Argentinization” of British politics. The gesture also appeared to be aimed at countering the charge by domestic critics that military spending cuts, which include the decommissioning of Britain’s remaining aircraft carriers and will leave the country without new ones for another several years, have left the islands unguarded.

The document belongs in the gallant Argentine tradition of Juan Bautista Alberdi, the 19-century author of “Crime of War” (a tract against the war of the Triple Alliance) and other seminal classical liberal texts. But its greater merit lies in the debate it has opened about the future of the islands.

The principle of self-determination is a good starting point. It is a principle, however, that can be used for virtually anything. It was invoked, in its modern form, by president Woodrow Wilson in the aftermath of World War I. While it served as an anti-imperialist protection for some, for others it meant the replacement of one sovereignty with another one imposed by the great powers—and therefore a change of owner, not of condition.

Reminding people that the inhabitants of Malvinas are subjects of the law and that their wishes matter is quite significant. In this historical moment in time, the principle will tend to reinforce the British position, since the great majority of the Falklanders are of British descent and fear an Argentine takeover. However, the British position based on self-determination seems more of a pretext than a principled stance, especially taking into account the fact that the oil company Rockhopper claims to have found recoverable crude (potentially amounting half a million barrels per day.) If the United Kingdom truly believes in the self-determination of the people of Malvinas, it should turn the islands into a free zone or free territory, even beyond what they did in Hong Kong when they had control. They should allow not only unfettered commercial freedom but also free immigration (without the British state having to take care of immigrants, of course.)

A major consequence of the endless Anglo-Argentine dispute over the Falklands has been the weakening of the ability of the inhabitants to exercise real self-determination by cornering them into material and psychological dependency on the British state. The prolonged Argentine boycott that pretty much hinders all commerce between the islands and continental South America, and limits air contact to one weekly flight by a Chilean company, has isolated the people of Malvinas, reinforcing their attachment to London. And the recent decision by South American governments not to let ships carrying the Falklands flag moor in their ports will only contribute to limit their choices. Not to mention the 1982 precedent, which translates into the permanent fear of a new Argentine invasion (I rule out such an outcome: Cristina Kirchner will never risk losing power in an unwinnable war.) A people living in fear and isolation are anything but free to exercise self-determination. Self-determination presupposes acting on a will that is free of interference and enjoying property rights. Both are hurt by the constant political pressure and the economic boycott.

If the United Kingdom turned the Malvinas into a free zone or free territory, the population would begin a march towards real self-determination. True, perhaps in the long run the population would be enriched with people from other nationalities and the loyalty to the Union Jack would be diluted. Or maybe not. It would depend on how attractive the free zone was for citizens from other places and how comfortable the descendents of current inhabitants felt years from now with the loose arrangements. But the process would be spontaneous and peaceful. It would oblige South America to abandon all manner of boycott—since the evolving population would perhaps be partially of South American descent, all restrictions on the people of the Malvinas would become a domestic issue for those governments.

Thirty years after the war, the tiny archipelago in the South Atlantic offers the possibility of giving the principle of self-determination real meaning.

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