Falkland Islands Really Want to Be British

PHOTO: A woman shows her T-shirt in Stanley, Falkland Islands during a referendum intended to show the world that the residents want to stay British amid increasingly bellicose claims by Argentina.Tony Chater/AFP/Getty Images
A woman shows her T-shirt in Stanley, Falkland Islands during a referendum intended to show the world that the residents want to stay British amid increasingly bellicose claims by Argentina.

There seems to be no one crying out for independence in the Falkland Islands, where local residents overwhelmingly voted to remain a British territory on Monday.

Only 1,672 people were eligible to vote in this curious referendum in the Falklands, which have a permanent population of just three thousand residents.

But even though the number of voters resembled what you would get in a contest for student council president, the referendum itself is an interesting new chapter in the history of this contested territory off the Argentine coast.

Residents said the referendum was the best way to "show the world" that they do not want to be part of Argentina, which has laid claims to the islands since the 19th century. Argentina, which calls the islands the Malvinas, has stepped up its rhetoric under current President Cristina Kirchner.

Celebrations broke out in Port Stanley, the islands' only town, after the results of the referendum came in late Monday night. A whopping 98.8 percent of voters said that they wanted the Falklands to remain a "British Overseas Territory."

"Our historic referendum has shown to the world that no matter how isolated or small you may be as a people, a united community…can stand up for itself," read a statement issued by Falklands United, a group of current and former residents of the islands. "Tonight the Government of Argentina and the rest of the world heard our voice. It is a Falklands voice. It is a British voice."

Being a British "overseas territory" has its benefits. For one, it guarantees the islanders protection from Argentina. In 1982, Argentina, which was then ruled by a military junta, invaded the tiny islands and was repelled in ten weeks by British forces. Being a British territory also allows the islanders to run their internal affairs, and it means they're able to work in Britain without having to get a visa, just like Puerto Ricans who move to the United States.

But critics say the referendum, and its very predictable result--most of the eligible voters were of British descent--does little to resolve sovereignty claims over the island. And it hardly improves relations between the U.K. and Argentina.

Argentina's foreign ministry has labeled the referendum a "manipulative ploy" that cannot "alter the legal state of these territories." Sovereignty over these islands, according to Argentina, must be negotiated directly by the governments of Argentina and the U.K., and not voted on by a population that was "transplanted" to the "Malvinas" from Britain.

The U.K., on the other hand, contends that the residents of the Falklands must be allowed to choose what country they want to belong to, or if they want to become an independent nation.

But Argentina's foreign ministry recently said that the U.K.'s defense of the islanders' right to "self determination" was inconsistent with its attitude in previous colonial disputes, like that over Hong Kong. The British handed the colony back over to China in 1997 without asking the 7 million or so local residents if that was ok with them.

Argentina says it inherited these frosty islands from Spain, which acquired them from France in a treaty signed in the 18th century. But Britain never recognized this treaty, and its citizens have been present on the islands since the 18th century. First they arrived as seal hunters and fur traders, who only stayed there temporarily, and then established permanent settlements in 1833, when the British navy kicked out a small Argentine military garrison that had been there only a few months.

In recent years, the stakes in the Falklands dispute have become higher, as vast oil deposits have been found in the waters surrounding these islands. The Falkland Islands government has also sold profitable fishing licenses to European and Japanese companies since the 1980s.

And the U.S. position in this dispute? Well, it's basically to sit this one out.

"Our position on the Falklands has not changed," Secretary of State John Kerry said in a recent trip to London.

"The United States recognizes de facto U.K. administration of the islands but takes no position on the question of parties' sovereignty claims thereto. We support co-operation between U.K. and Argentina on practical matters," Kerry told British journalists who pressed him to deliver a position on the Falklands issue.

Here's a more thorough history of the Falkland Islands dispute and the claims laid to Las Malvinas by both sides.