The Future of the Falkland Islands and Its People/The Future of the Falkland Islands and Its People

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The Future Of The Falkland Islands And Its People[1]

Dr. Lyubomir Ivanov

Bulgarian Academy of Sciences

Sofia, Bulgaria

1. Introduction[edit]

Until the 1982 Falklands War few people (even in the UK) knew of the Falkland Islands. Nowadays the Islands are better known, although both in my country and elsewhere they still are largely associated with the Falklands War and the notorious territorial dispute with Argentina.

I became fascinated by the South Atlantic insular territories well before 1982, the original subject of my interest being one of the most beautiful places in the world, the island of South Georgia. More recently, my knowledge about the region has benefited from three Antarctic expeditions and field work out of the Bulgarian base St. Kliment Ohridski on Livingston Island, the South Shetlands. During the last five years, I have also been participating in an Internet discussion on the Falklands (the Falklands-Malvinas forum) where an extensive debate and analysis of various aspects of the early Falklands history has convinced me that the misrepresentation of history – notably the 1820-33 period – is inherent to the Argentine sources, as well as often repeated uncritically by other publications including British ones. That discussion has featured also some examples of typical Argentine attitudes and their evolution, indicating that that country’s next generation may well harbour greater sympathy and appreciation of the Falklands as a distinct neighbouring country.

My personal interest in overseas territories such as the Falklands, stems from their very special if not non-standard aspect. In the epoch of globalization, these territories are increasingly becoming bridges between the principal world centres of power and influence. Indeed, the Falkland Islands are associated with the major centre of economic, technological and political development that is Europe. At the same time, their geographical location enables them to serve as an additional bridge to another such prospective centre like South America. Besides, the Falklands nation is among the very few ones having their homelands bordering Antarctica. These unique advantages offer development opportunities that many other nations are lacking.

By way of comparison, Bulgaria’s geopolitical options are essentially limited to the choice between three regional powers of unequal magnitude, namely Europe, Russia and Turkey. Bulgaria is joining the European Union of course. This is a step-by-step process that started with a trade agreement, which was followed by an association agreement, and has finally reached the stage of accession negotiations. At each step, Bulgaria assesses the benefits and pays the price involved. Turkey also seeks EU membership but is less ready for it and, while not yet in the EU, has little interest in Bulgaria joining earlier; the same is true for Russia even though that country has yet to declare it wish for EU membership. (Incidentally, if it were possible Argentina might well have been tempted to join the EU too.)

Russia still pretends to treat Bulgaria as part of its sphere of influence, which is felt in matters of commerce, privatization and investment. While Bulgaria’s re-integration with the West has not been easy, we did it of our own free will, with the result being that the growing EU share in our foreign trade has already exceeded 50% with the share of Russia and other former Soviet republics correspondingly dropping from 60% to 15% within 15 years.

2. The Falklands Today[edit]

Unlike most overseas territories (bar Greenland and French Guiana), the Falklands is not exactly what is usually termed a ‘mini-state’, being as large as Ulster and enjoying an EEZ larger than that of the UK itself. Its land territory offers ample space for agriculture (including organic production) and urban development, as well as good potential for tourism. The Islands are endowed with enviably plentiful good harbours, their waters are rich in fish and squid, with estimated considerable oil deposits in the Falklands continental shelf too. The Islands further benefit from being one of the gateways to adjacent Antarctica. (By the way, Bulgaria’s presence on Livingston Islands makes it sort of a southern ‘neighbour’ of the Falklands too.)

A most precious asset of any country is its human resources of course, including its demographic potential (which in the Falklands case is comfortably increasing but still tiny) as well as its civil society basis and its political framework. One is greatly impressed by the practice of Falklands democracy, by the public awareness and participation, by the high standards and quality of statesmanship demonstrated by the Falklands Councillors in the first place. One major benefit from the link with Britain appears to be the present democratic system of Falklands government providing for a responsible democratic management of the country on a sustainable basis. The governance of the Falklands, starting with its legislature and ending with say the fisheries patrolling, is an increasingly sophisticated and complex business conducted by the Falkland Islanders and their elected politicians in a fairly mature and efficient manner. In the meantime, more positions are being taken by locals rather than by people contracted overseas. Therefore, perfecting the Falklands democracy appears to be a key instrument in ensuring the country’s further prosperity and well-being.

The present constitutional status of the Islands provides for a degree of self-government going well beyond that of devolved Scotland for example, with exclusive ownership of the Islands’ natural resources (including any possible oil deposits and revenue), its own legislation, as well as immigration policies of its own. Nevertheless, the adoption of the Falklands Constitution in 1985 has been followed by considerable evolution in the practice of government. This evolution ought to be appropriately reflected in the current constitutional review, including the necessity of relieving the Governor institution from its ‘schizophrenic’ duty of representing both Stanley before London and London before Stanley, repeatedly pointed out by Falklands Governors themselves.

It would seem that the actual constitutional framework could be naturally enhanced in several aspects such as:

(1) Having an elected prime minister and cabinet of ministers with ministerial responsibility;

(2) Having native Falklands governors (rather than Foreign Office officials) nominated by the Falklands Prime Minister and appointed by the Queen;

(3) Appropriate arrangements with the UK ensuring that the Foreign Office would act on foreign policy matters related to the Falklands in accordance with prior authorization by the Falklands Government;

(4) Eventually, concluding a comprehensive legal agreement regulating the relationship between the Falklands and the UK, similarly to the way in which the relationship between the USA and the Northern Mariana Islands is regulated by their Compact of Free Association, or the way in which the relationship between the Netherlands in Europe, the Netherlands Antilles, and Aruba is set out by the Charter of the Kingdom of Netherlands.

Needless to say, both the scope and pace of such evolutional development are up to the Falkland Islanders themselves to set. In particular, the apparent hesitation at this stage of the Falklands political leaders to assume ministerial responsibility would probably leave that reform for another constitutional review. However, democracy necessarily requires the division of powers and separation of executive and legislative branches. Otherwise one sees the Stanley public meetings sort of playing the role of ‘parliamentary control’, similarly to Parliamentary Questions in the Westminster House of Commons and the House of Lords.

3. Self-Determination[edit]

Self-determination is a well-established principle of contemporary International Law. The practice of its exercising however is a political rather than legal process, indeed the UN Charter enshrining that same principle has no relevant list of nations/peoples appended, leaving open the key practical question: Who is entitled to self-determination and who is not? In each particular case, for self-determination to take place there should be a community of people considering themselves a distinct nation/people in the first place, then they must claim their right to self-determination and the opportunity to choose a self-determination option of their preference, and last but not least, that claim needs to be recognized by the respective central government.

More often than not this process goes not without obstacles and hardship; it suffices to mention the self-determination of the Kurdish, Palestinian, Timorese or Tibetan people. This has nothing to do with numerical strength as some people wrongly believe; indeed the Kurds number over 20 millions. At the same time the New Zealand possession of Tokelau, whose population is just half that of the Falklands, has its right to self-determination duly recognized both by New Zealand and the UN alike.

The Falkland Islanders are a nation same like the Scots, the Welsh or the English – or the people of Tokelau for that matter. Moreover, their right to self-determination has already been officially and formally recognized and guaranteed by the British Government through the process of enacting the 1985 Falklands Constitution. This act of transfer of prerogatives from London to Stanley entails that any future decisions regarding the sovereignty of the Falklands would be up to the Islanders alone to make, and this is irreversible. Once recognized/granted, the self-determination cannot be taken away.

Yet even the Falklands self-determination has been achieved not without the determined bold effort of the Falkland Islanders themselves, a turning point probably being their successful rejection and blocking of the attempted ‘lease back solution’ back in the Nineteen-seventies.

It must be pointed out that Falklands self-determination is an internal affair between the Falklands people on the one hand, represented by their elected government exercising sovereignty on the Islands themselves, and the British Government on the other hand exercising Falklands sovereignty internationally. Neither Argentina nor the UN could be parties to this bilateral business.

Any recognition of the Falklands self-determination by third parties like the UN is desirable but not crucial at all. While such recognition will come inevitably in the context of more global political developments expanding the practice of self-determination worldwide, it is nevertheless worth keeping the pressure on the UN Decolonization Committee for recognition and abandonment of its double standards.

The UN involvement is useful in countries like Western Sahara or Timor, where there could hardly have been any self-determination without it. However, all the other ‘non self-governing territories’ presently monitored by the UN Decolonization Committee are exercising their right of self-determination regardless of any UN sponsorship. A comparison between the Freedom House annual ratings of the ‘decolonized’ (the present 16 territories subject to UN ‘decolonization’) and their ‘decolonizers’ (the 24 members of the Decolonization Committee) would suggest that the former are three times more democratic than the latter. And surely, as much better off, too.

To cap it all, the ‘decolonizers’ themselves happen to administer such territories as Tibet (China), West Papua or Irian Jaya (Indonesia), Kashmir (India) and Chechnya (Russia), where democracy is scarce and self-determination denied. Naturally, the 16 UN-labeled ‘non self-governing territories’ seek to adopt the high standards of their respective ‘administering powers’, i.e. those of Britain, the USA, France and New Zealand, rather than those of Cuba, Iraq, China, Congo, Iran, Syria, Venezuela and other Committee members.

Nevertheless, the UN Decolonization Committee could be useful in educating the people of the UK Overseas Territories about the available legitimate options of self-determination other than independence and full integration, thereby compensating for the present somewhat narrow-minded insistence by the Foreign Office that any devolution of more power would be granted only within the context of a timetable for independence.

The Argentine sovereignty claim cannot be an obstacle to the Falklands self-determination either. Such claims may exist before the self-determination and continue to stay in place for some time after its exercise, as demonstrated by the precedents of Mayotte, Belize, Kuwait or Guyana.

When the Comoro Islands exercised their self-determination (independence from France) in 1974, the island of Mayotte opted otherwise and since then is a ‘territorial collectivity’ of France still claimed by the Comoros. Belize became independent in 1981 while subject to a Guatemalan sovereignty claim which was subsequently scaled down, remaining confined only to part of southern Belize today. At the time of its independence in 1961 Kuwait was subject to an Iraqi sovereignty claim which stayed in place until as late as 1994. Prior to Guyana’s independence in 1966, Venezuela used to claim two-thirds of its territory (Essequibo region), a claim that has not been formally renounced yet.

Argentina’s claim could possibly end up in one of the following two definitive solutions.

The first solution – which has essentially been implemented ever since the Falklands War – is the gradual diminishing of that claim to a point when it would become (if not already) purely notional and hardly of any practical relevance, like e.g. the Syrian claim to the Turkish province of Iskenderun (Alexandretta) or the Guatemalan claim to Belize or the Venezuelan claim to Essequibo. Traditionally, the ‘Malvinas claim’ has been of symbolic value for the Argentines (part of their national identity almost) to the extent of outweighing any material gains that could possibly result from pursuing a rational negotiated settlement.

While these Argentine priorities may change in the future along with evolving public attitudes, the willingness of the Falklands to make material concessions could be expected to decrease further as the time goes. In other words, so far the Argentine approach has been a typical case of a ‘too little too late’ losing strategy, where one party offers each time what would have been acceptable to the other party last time but no longer is.

The second solution is a negotiated settlement. For Buenos Aires this would mean dropping its claim in exchange for some concessions by the Falklands, say a final delimitation of their respective EEZ waters with reasonable amendments in favour of Argentina. An agreed EEZ delimitation is anyway prompted by the Law of Sea Convention, however unless Argentina puts forward a realistic proposal that could be acceptable to the Falklands, the present de facto delimitation is bound to become final. (This delimitation already involves sizable concessions to Argentina rather than following the midline principle.) Similarly, at present Argentina refrains from pursuing other available means of settlement like arbitrage or the International Court of Justice, apparently being aware of the legal weakness of its claim.

4. Relevant Experience[edit]

Before outlining some options of Falklands self-determination that could possibly result from the present political evolution of the Islands, it might be instructive to briefly mention some relevant developments in other overseas, autonomous or associated territories.

The Channel Islands (two distinct state entities actually, Jersey and Guernsey) are not exactly devolved units of the UK yet have a close, unquestionably non-colonial relationship with the UK preserving their self-government and local autonomy. Like the Falklands they have no party system, but Guernsey is moving to ministerial form of government. It is worth mentioning that such a fundamental characteristic of the UK Overseas Territories as their full financial autonomy is enjoyed even by Crown Dependencies closely associated with the UK like the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

The Gibraltar lesson – yet to be duly taken – is that the British Government is in no position to overrule the free will of the people of the UK Overseas Territories anymore. This lesson will have an impact on the future of other Overseas Territories, never mind how specific the case of Gibraltar might be. (It is geographically in Europe, part of the EU etc.) Indeed, the present Gibraltar controversy underlies the necessity of treaty-based regulation of the relationship between the UK and its Overseas Territories, ensuring in particular that the Foreign Office is Gibraltar’s Foreign Office representing Gibraltar before third parties like Spain, not the other way round.

From a wider perspective, the present shameful dealings of Foreign Office over Gibraltar are at odds with both the mainstream UK foreign policy and the will of the UK Parliament alike, sending wrong signals which might encourage the resurrection of various territorial disputes around the world.

The new Gibraltar constitution recently approved by that country’s Assembly envisages a status similar to the Crown Dependency status of the Channel Islands, plus possible representation in Westminster and in the European Parliament. Devolved integration with the UK is now becoming more popular in Gibraltar, indeed according to a recent opinion poll it is supported by the plurality of Gibraltarians. The basic formula of this option is full self-government, leaving the UK Government responsible for foreign affairs and defense matters, citizenship (but not immigration) and currency, similarly to the relationship between the Netherlands, the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba. An important detail would be that such relationship could be severed unilaterally by Gibraltar but not by the UK.

In the UK itself, following the devolution of Scotland and Wales some sort of devolution for England is on the agenda too, with legislation presently being enacted to provide for referendums in England’s regions for establishing elected assemblies, albeit with less legislative or fiscal powers than Scottish or Welsh ones. Interestingly, the advocates of a Yorkshire assembly or an English parliament are invoking the right of self-determination!

The United Kingdom is unlikely to become a standard federation though, for its devolution involves considerable asymmetry with various degrees of self-government and substantially different constitutional arrangements for England, Scotland, Wales, Ulster, the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands, and the Overseas Territories. Further asymmetry is brought in by overseas territories like South Georgia or Akrotiri and Dhekelia presently lacking local population which might support self-government, and others like Ascension or Chagos (British Indian Ocean Territory) that are at certain intermediate stages of their political evolution.

By the way, even the classical federation of the United States of America has (besides its fifty constituent states) asymmetric components like Puerto Rico, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa, US Virgin Islands, and the federal District of Columbia itself. Most of these have their elected governors who are heads of government, as well as their own elected nonvoting representatives in the US Congress.

Among European overseas territories, Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles have ministers plenipotentiary in the Council of Ministers for the Kingdom of Netherlands, dealing with defense, national sovereignty, foreign relations and citizenship. They elect no MPs in the Netherlands Parliament but send delegates when legislation for the entire realm is enacted. The Governors of Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles are local residents. The three countries: the Netherlands in Europe, the Netherlands Antilles (comprising Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, St. Eustatius, and St. Maarten), and Aruba, have an equal voice in the Kingdom, making it a kind of federation.

According to the 1957 Treaty of Rome subsequently amended by the Maastricht Treaty, the Treaty of Amsterdam, and most recently the Treaty of Nice, the Netherlands Antilles and Aruba (in the same way as the UK Overseas Territories) are associated territories of the EU but not part of the Union itself.

Greenland and the Faroe Islands elect two MPs each in the Danish Folketing (Parliament). Although Denmark is part of the EU the Faroes are not, while Greenland used to be but withdrew from the EU in 1985.

The Åland Islands are a Swedish minority self-governing province of Finland, with the latter being responsible for the foreign policy and defense. Nevertheless, for international treaties to apply to the Ålands the approval of their Lagting (Assembly) is required.

5. The Falklands Future[edit]

The present Falklands’ form of government may arguably evolve into one of the following two principal options of self-determination: the option of free association or devolved integration, and the option of full independence. (Free association and devolved integration as outlined above would appear to be essentially the two varieties of one and the same option, to be referred to as ‘devolved integration’ below.) A curious detail of the independence scenario is that independent Falklands would have two immediate neighbour countries: Argentina and … Britain (South Georgia).

There is no need to make any early choice between the possible options of self-determination. That should better come as a result of natural evolution and building upon what the Falklands have already achieved. Self-determination also entails the freedom to change one’s mind subsequently, for future generations may decide differently.

I believe that any future choice between independence and devolved integration would be the choice between two good options rather than between a good and a bad one. Here follow but few relevant considerations that might provide the starting point for a more comprehensive analysis:

(1) Devolved Falklands would not lose the UK as its special gateway to such an advanced and important world region like Europe, including the Falklands associated status with the EU. Probably, this was one of the reasons for Aruba to cancel its independence agreement with the Netherlands and preserve its constitutional link with the Netherlands/EU instead;

(2) Devolved Falklands would keep the benefits of UK/EU citizenship, including the right of abode in the UK and Europe, consular and other diplomatic services by the Foreign Office (how many embassies of its own could the Falklands afford?);

(3) Devolved Falklands would continue to enjoy its present degree of absolute security guaranteed by Britain and thus by Britain’s allies (USA and NATO) who have no match in the field of security. On the contrary, smaller states tend to be heavily dependent on the goodwill of their larger neighbours for their survival. In the Falklands case, no regional Latin American arrangements whatsoever could nullify the risks of unexpected negative developments on the mainland that would render the Falklands vulnerable;

(4) Devolved Falklands would keep its influential lobby in London rather than be left alone with fairly modest own capabilities for influencing the international developments that affect the Islands.

Should the Falkland Islanders opt to keep their relationship with Britain, they ought to identify the UK interest in that relationship. Indeed, why should the UK be interested in keeping its constitutional link with the Falklands? The existing sentiments generated by the Falklands War are still vivid and deep – that War probably changed Britain as much as it changed the Falklands themselves – but would be less telling for the next generations.

As funds become available (e.g. should oil be discovered in commercial quantities), then the Falklands might possibly think about sharing the defense burden, just as the Channel Islands do contribute to the UK Treasury for the defense and foreign service provided by the UK. This certainly does not mean bearing the costs of RAF Mount Pleasant or of naval protection – surely the people of Brize Norton do not pay for RAF Brize Norton but are taxed for defense like anyone else in the UK. With a current defense budget of 32 billion US dollars and population of 60 millions, defense expenditure would amount to some 533 dollars per capita, suggesting that a fair Falklands contribution could be no more than 1.6 million dollars annually. There would be a case for deducting the FIDF (Falkland Islands Defense Force) costs though.

If the principle of such contribution is agreed, then its actual implementation could be adjusted to take into account the fact that the Falklands – unlike the Channel Islands or the UK – still has the top priority of building its essential infrastructure such as a national road network, a deep water port facility, and possibly a second urban settlement besides Stanley. (As pointed out by Councillor Jan Cheek during the discussion at my lecture, a certain Falklands contribution is already being made directly to the BFFI (British Forces Falkland Islands); her subsequently communicated estimate puts the present aggregate Falklands contribution to defense, with FIDF included, at some 1.1 million dollars per year – L.I.)

With respect to their link to Europe/EU via Britain, the Falklands should settle on a degree of association with the EU that suits them best, ranging from full EU integration like Gibraltar or French Guiana to opting out like the Channel Islands or Greenland.

Apart from its possible arrangements with the European Union, the Falklands may adopt a flexible approach providing also for a free trade agreement with the emerging FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas).

This is to say that Britain’s responsibility in the sphere of foreign affairs would be more of formal and technical nature, whereas the Falklands foreign policy would be made by the Falklands prime minister and cabinet of ministers with a particular minister being possibly responsible for that.

In any case, there is no reason why the Falkland Islanders should base their exercise of self-determination on anything but weighing the practical gains and losses for them pertaining to each option. Others may opine differently, e.g. from an Argentine point of view the independence option would seem ‘the lesser evil’ – if not a step toward annexation of the Islands then at least as a way of reducing Britain’s territorial presence in the Southwest Atlantic to South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands; besides, the concept of devolved integration would be quite alien to the Argentine political culture and tradition.

To sum it up, in terms of internal development independence could hardly bring to the Falklands anything they do not have already or cannot achieve by natural evolution towards devolved integration. In external aspect – which however does affect internal development – independence might somewhat restrict Falklands’ capabilities to pursue its national interest. Therefore, an appropriate form of devolved integration (free association) would seem to combine the advantages of both independence and affiliation to an important country, while minimizing their respective drawbacks.

Sofia - Livingston Island - Ushuaia - Puerto Williams - Punta Arenas
February 2003


  1. Public lecture delivered in Stanley on March 4, 2003