Thirty years ago, on 2 April 1982, Argentine forces invaded and occupied the Falklands Islands and South Georgia. The resulting conflict lasted 74 days and ended with the Argentine surrender on 14 June 1982, which returned the islands to British control. This year sees a commemoration, but not a celebration, of those events. This year has also seen an increasingly vocal campaign by Argentina to increase tensions in the South Atlantic region and repeated attempts to raise the issue of the sovereignty of the Falklands in international meetings and forums, whether or not it has anything to do with the agenda of the meeting in question. Therefore, as both Britain and Argentina reflect on the members of our armed forces that gave their lives in that conflict, we do so against the backdrop of unnecessary Argentine sabre-rattling; how different from the 20th anniversary commemorations when joint ceremonies were held to pay respect to the fallen on both sides.
Looking at where we are today, it is worth reflecting on some of the facts, including those enshrined in international law, against a background of unfortunate misinformation emanating from Buenos Aires. The most important fact is the principle and right of self determination enshrined in Article 1 of the Charter of the United Nations, a principle and right which Commonwealth Caribbean countries have long upheld, and a principle and right which is particularly poignant given the basis on which political independence was achieved in Trinidad and Tobago and elsewhere in the region. The people of the Falkland Islands are British Citizens, and have chosen to be so. As such, there can be no negotiation on the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands unless and until such time as the Islanders so wish. They have made it absolutely clear that they do not want this. To have some idea of what is at stake, imagine if the people of Tobago woke up one morning to find that they were no longer Trinbagonians and had become part of another country, with no say in the matter. Some people will say that it is different for the Falklands as they are so far from Great Britain. But they are so far from everywhere: it is more than 1000 miles from Buenos Aires to the islands.
The United Kingdom has held sovereignty over the Falkland Islands since 1765, which is before the existence of Argentina as a country. In 1832, Argentina sent a military garrison to the Islands, which was subsequently expelled by the British in 1833. But no civilians were asked to leave as it was made clear that they were free to remain. Indeed historical records show that most did so. That three-month military occupation back in 1833 and the eight weeks of military occupation in 1982 are the only times that the Falklands have been under imposed Argentine control. In 1850, the United Kingdom and Argentina ratified a convention for the settlement of existing differences, thus acknowledging there was no territorial dispute between the two countries.
It is worth reflecting, in the context of Trinidad and Tobago, just how long-standing this history is. In 1765 Trinidad was part of the Spanish empire and Tobago part of the British. In 1765 the French revolution was yet to happen. In 1765 the United States of America did not yet exist. Like any country, the people of Trinidad and Tobago have a history that fuses many influences and nationalities. But this country’s existence is thanks to the self-determination principle, not an obscure historical argument. Argentina has persistently tried to give the impression that there was an Argentine population of the Falklands Islands brutally expelled by the British. But this is a fantasy – such people have never existed. The Falkland Islands have no indigenous peoples; all civilians have voluntarily migrated to or were born on the Islands. The UK has never implanted or expelled any civilian population from the Falklands. Since 1833, civilian migrants voluntarily came from a wide variety of countries, as they did throughout the Americas during the 19th Century.
The Republic of Argentina’s claim to the Falkland Islands, which it bases on the principle of territorial integrity, is without foundation as the Islands have never been legitimately administered by, or formed part of, the sovereign territory of the Argentine Republic. As neighbours in the south Atlantic, the UK wants to have a full and friendly relationship with Argentina. But we will not negotiate away the human and political rights of the Falkland Islanders. The only people who should have a say on those rights are the people of the islands themselves.
The UK remains disappointed that, thirty years after its unjustified and illegal act of aggression against the Falkland Islands, Argentina continues a policy of hostility with attempts to strangle the economic livelihood of this self sufficient and prosperous community and a refusal to co-operate with Falkland Islanders on a range of issues for the common good of the region.
The Action Plan endorsed by the United Kingdom and all the members of CARICOM plus the Dominican Republic at the UK-Caribbean Forum in Grenada in January this year rightly agreed to “support the principle and the right of self determination for all peoples, including the Falkland Islanders, recognising the historical importance of self determination in the political development of the Caribbean and its core status as an internationally agreed principle under the United Nations Charter”. These principles are crucial, not only to the Falkland Islanders, but to all those who live in freedom.
At this thirty year point, we should remember the real victims of the illegal invasion of the Falklands. The islanders forced to live for months under foreign military occupation. The 255 British military personnel and three Falkland Islanders that perished. And of course the 649 Argentine military, many of them conscripts, that died during an act of aggression perpetrated by a vicious military dictatorship that had also waged a ‘Dirty War’ on thousands of its own people. The official position of the Argentine government is that it “reaffirms its legitimate and permanent sovereignty” over the Falklands; we in the UK re-affirm our commitment to the rights of the islanders under the UN Charter and call on all who have ratified it to do the same.