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What do the Falkland Islands continue to tell us about territorial world views?

By Klaus Dodds


The last couple of weeks have been busy ones when it comes to news about the Falkland Islands. Or Islas Malvinas as Argentine and other readers might insist upon. For others, the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) is the preferred naming option — highlighting as it does their continued contested status.

We have had the Falkland Islands referendum. I was fortunate enough to be an accredited observer and spent a very interesting few days watching the voting and counting unfold in Stanley and the wider Islands. Shortly afterwards, an Argentine bishop was appointed the next Pope, Francis I, and this encouraged speculation about what the pontiff might have to say on the question of the Islas Malvinas. President Kirchner of Argentina was quick off the mark and paid her respects at the Vatican. Whatever special powers the Pope possesses, it won’t be enough to alter the sovereignty dynamic in the case of these South Atlantic islands. As Margaret Thatcher might have said the current UK government is not for turning — sovereignty is not up for discussion. And, most recently, new archival papers released in the UK revealed that members of the Thatcher government were divided over how to respond to the Argentine invasion of April 1982. For all the talk of an ‘Iron Lady’ and dispatching a ‘task force’ to recover the Islands, there was clearly the possibility at one stage or another of a deal being done. Raising in the process the enticing question of how British politics, let alone the fate of the Falkland Islanders, might have been different if war was avoided and some kind of settlement secured.

But that was April 1982 and things have moved on since then. Indeed, in the last two years, relations between Britain and Argentina have worsened and there is no reason to think that any settlement will be forthcoming. Whatever some newspaper columnists might think, the referendum was intended to send a clear message to Argentina and the wider world that the Falklands community is not looking to its nearest neighbor when considering future options. And, at the moment, it does not need to. The UK government has reiterated its support for respecting the ‘wishes’ of the Falkland Islands community and that other neighbours such as Chile and Uruguay are a benign presence. Brazil, while offering some rhetorical support to Argentina, is not unhelpful to the UK position. So the imbroglio continues.

At this stage, attention often turns to other kinds of options, beyond the continuation of the status quo i.e. the Falklands continuing as a UK overseas territory. While laudable, I think what continues to fascinate me about these islands is perhaps what insights they have to offer us more generally. As other geographers such as Alec Murphy note, territory continues to exercise an extraordinary ‘allure’ in our contemporary world. Noting all the claims made in the 1990s about globalization and border-free worlds, the idea of territory remains popular with political leaders and publics alike. For one thing, and perhaps other islands such as Cyprus animate this issue as well, territory helps to consolidate a view of political life being container like. Islands, with their apparently clear-cut distinctions between land and sea seem to lend themselves well to the containerization of political thought.

Second, we might think about territory as a flexible resource, which enables the socio-spatial education of citizens. In the case of the Falklands, there is a vast array of materials ranging from postage stamps, computer games and atlases to commemoration and museum displays that play their part in the geographical education of citizenry. They play their part in creating regimes of territorial legitimation and reinforce particular spatial commitments. The end result is to remind us perhaps that states rarely give up territory and usually only do so under extreme circumstances. Even when the territory in question was poorly understood and arguably neglected, as was the case of the Falklands in 1982, there was still sufficient allure in the territory itself combined with a sense of protecting the small resident community to ensure that the UK committed itself to resisting the Argentine occupation. The invading Argentine forces, on the other hand, while undoubtedly aware of the Falklands as a geographical component of Argentina, were remarkably ignorant of the English speaking community residing on the islands. Islanders still recall of Argentine amazement when they discovered that their first language was English and not Spanish.

What was striking, in the aftermath of the 1982 conflict, was the billions of pounds the UK was prepared to invest in the Falklands, and the wider commitment to bolster a presence in the South Atlantic and Antarctic. The idea of giving up the territory in question was now unthinkable, and if anything the Falklands is more embedded in UK stories about its extra-territorial scope and responsibities (as well as histories of war and commemoration). UK governments use the term ‘overseas territories’ to acknowledge that distance need not be any kind of barrier to their continued connection with the UK.

Finally, we should not under-estimate the power of territorially based world-views and the ease in which many territorial disputes seem unable to make much progress when it comes to promoting alternative imaginations — joint sovereignty, parallel statehood, cross citizenships, and other kinds of free associations. This does not mean such things are not possible or even desirable in the case of some of the most violent and apparently intractable disputes. But one should not under-estimate how keenly many people feel around the world about lines on the maps and barriers on the ground. Perhaps they offer a modicum of reassurance in a world, where to paraphrase Marx and Engels, all that appears solid melts into air. And this would apply to both Britain and Argentina.

Klaus Dodds is Professor of Geopolitics at Royal Holloway, University of London and a Visiting Fellow at St Cross College, University of Oxford. He is editor of The Geographical Journal and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He is the author and editor of a number of books including the Geopolitics: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2007) and The Antarctic: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2012). He was a visiting fellow at Gateway Antarctica, University of Canterbury and has worked with national and international polar organizations including British Antarctic Survey, Antarctica New Zealand, International Polar Foundation, and the Australian Antarctic Division.

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Recent Comments

  1. Peter Hamilton

    It would seem that the purpose of Klaus Dodd’s article was to explore the geopolitical significance of territory. In the case of the dispute over the teritory of the Falkland Islands|Malvinas there are two sides, are there not? Bar mentioning that the Argentine forces were “undoubtedly aware of the Falklands as a geographical component of Argentina”, Dodds surprisingly gives no consideration to the Argentinian and the South American perspectives.

    The islands may be the subject of postage stamps, computer games and tourist souvenirs for the islanders and the British. They have a much deeper historical significance here in the south of south America. Hence the profusion of public squares and streets, just in Argentina, which are named after the Islas Malvinas. Not to mention the many monuments, through-out the country, to the “gesto” (gesture) of 1982 and Argentina’s fallen. Then there is a hymn and a march to the Malvinas,both pre-dating the conflict. The national cause of Argentina, inscribed in the revised Constitution of 1994, is the recovery of the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. There is a sense, which goes much deeper than the poltical banter, that the islands belong to Argentina by right and that the present population are “usurpadores”.

    From the mainland of South American and from the standpoint of history, it is easy to see why the territory of the Falkland Islands/Malvinas will always be regarded as a British colony, as a thorn in the side, so long as its sovereignty is not returned to Argentina. The islanders’ tampering with the historical and legal facts through devices like a doctored constitution, self-determination and the referendum cannot conceal that essential truth.

  2. Jayne Birkin

    I am a North American who has traveled throughout Argentina recently, and the Argentine logic behind the claim to the islands is very odd. In my view, the Argentines are just as much descendants of Europeans as the Americans, Canadians and citizens of the Disputed Islands. What is strange is that they claim some sort of moral high ground and call the islanders negative names such as “planters”, “colonists”, etc. This is completely hypocritical. Many of the islanders have longer histories of generations living there than the Argentines (who experienced a flood of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th century).

    Most current North American borders are recognized based on 17th, 18th and 19th century settlements, wars, and alliances. Whoever lasted longest, gained territory. The British lasted longest in the Disputed Islands, ergo, they govern them. The Spanish descendants lasted longest in Patagonia, Missiones, etc and today they own them (rather than Paraguay or the Tribal Mapuche peoples).

    In the 1830′s Vancouver Island was claimed by Russia, Spain, United States, Britain, and the native tribes. But we don’t recognize 1830′s claims today. We don’t believe that Mexico “inherited” Spain’s claim of Vancouver Island (or the San Juans for that matter). We accept that the island belongs to Canada – despite its close proximity to Washington State.

    Proximity is a poor argument, Cuba should belong to the USA, as it sits on the same underwater peninsula as Florida.

    Finally, wars change things. Germany may have historical claims of western Poland, eastern France, and the Czech Sudentenland, but their fascist wars destroyed those claims. Germans today cannot say “well it was just those bad Nazis, but we still deserve our historic claims on those lands”. Equally the Falklands war changed things, and the 1960′s UN resolutions no longer apply. Some people just don’t know how to lose gracefully. And neither do some countries.

  3. Ken Westmoreland

    Britain should remain in the Falklands, if not out of regard for the Islands and the people who live there, then to highlight the immaturity of Argentina, and of Argentine nationalist mythology, through the profusion of streets and monuments, all representative of North Korean style brainwashing.

    This is, of course, not unique to Argentina – Spain’s claim to Gibraltar is equally infantile, while Guatemala’s claim on Belize and Venezuela’s claim on part of Guyana are at least passive as those are now independent countries.

    There is a school of thought beloved of Guardian readers that Latin Americans can do no wrong, because of their vibrant culture and music, and it’s only the horrible gringos like the British and the Americans who are perpetrators of colonialism.

    The claim to the moral high ground by descendants of Spanish colonists and Italian immigrants is utterly grotesque – the fact that Argentina is no longer under Spanish colonial rule is neither here nor there, it is a by-product of colonialism, and it has no right whatsoever to talk about ‘planted populations’. ‘Malvinas’ is simply a Spanish corruption of the French ‘Malouines’, so hardly indigenous to South America. Perhaps the Argentines shoud refer to the Islands as the ‘Selk’nam Islands’, after the indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego who they managed to kill off.

    Following the Second World War, millions of Germans were expelled from what is now the west of Poland and the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad. This was deeply traumatic for Germans, but you don’t hear Angela Merkel whining about how ‘East Prussia’ should be returned, and that its present ‘inhabitants’ are ‘usurpers’.

    Argentina’s choice of language towards the Islanders is completely obscene, and is reminiscent of that of Mugabe towards white farmers in Zimbabwe – at least he was more respectful of them for the first two decades of majority rule than Argentina has been.

  4. Richard Lacey

    Peter:

    “recovery of the sovereignty”
    “its sovereignty is not returned to Argentina”

    Phrases like these perpetuate the myth that Argentina EVER had sovereignty over the Falklands/Malvinas (and just for the record, “Malvinas” was the name given to the islands by the French, not the Spanish).

  5. Deanstreet

    argentina’s claim is a nonsense, historically and in the sense of self-determination.

    For those of you who are interested, study the history at:

    http://www.falklandshistory.org/false-falklands-history.pdf

    Spanish version: http://www.falklandshistory.org/historia-falsa.pdf

    http://www.falklandshistory.org/false-falklands-history.pdf

    Both PDF files to be found at:

    http://www.falklandshistory.org/

    More..

    http://falklandstimeline.wordpress.com/

    I would also recommend that you visit:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/52978952@N04/5533643350/

    http://www.flickr.com/groups/malvinas/discuss/72157626157758043/

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/52978952@N04/5533028871/

    http://www.flickr.com/groups/malvinas/discuss/72157626007581908/

    The history is rather quite simple if one cares to read..

    Kindest regards from the Falkland Islands

  6. Peter Hamilton

    Jayne:
    Every case where there is a dispute over the ownership of territory is best considered in its own right, I believe. Comparisons are not helpful and may lead to confusion.
    Behind Argentina’s claim to the islands are sound historical grounds. The almost obsessive attention given to the islanders and the use of bad language have muddied the waters. Hector Timerman’s comments are not to be condoned. But, within the terms set down by General Assembly resolution 2065 (XX) Question of the Falkland Islands/Malvinas he is correct to insist on bilateral talks between Argentina and the UK. The UN resolutions still very much apply. The 1982 war was just one episode in a long saga. It took the French centuries to evict the British from their lands. But that’s making a comparison…

    Richard:
    Argentinian sovereignty over the islands is not a myth.
    The islands were administered, albeit not continuously, from Buenos Aires between 1767 and 1833, when the British seized Soledad.

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