When is a referendum not a referendum? Sleight of hand in the Falklands.
On March 11th 2013, some – but not all – Falklands Islanders took part in a “referendum” whose widely publicised results were that 99.8% of those who voted, answered YES to the question
“Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom?”
What is less well known is that (a) this
was not a referendum in the usually understood meaning of the term, and (b)
that the announced result was based onthe views of only 64% of the adult
population. 36% of them did not
participate in the vote.
I’ll explain why these are relevant, after outlining some international
reactions to the vote.
UK Prime Minister David Cameron said Argentina should take "careful note" of the referendum result and that Britain would always be there to defend the Falkland Islanders.
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague said:
"All countries should accept the results of this referendum and support the Falkland Islanders as they continue to develop their home and their economy"
Argentina's foreign minister, Hector Timerman, said:
"The United Kingdom lacks any right at all to pretend to alter the juridical status of these territories even with the disguise of a hypothetical referendum"
Alicia Castro, Argentina’s ambassador to London said
"This (referendum) is a ploy that has no legal value," said Alicia Castro. Negotiations are in the islanders' best interest. We don't want to deny them their identity. They're British, we respect their identity and their way of life and that they want to continue to be British. But the territory they occupy is not British"
The Argentinian government has never accepted British claims to sovereignty. It believes that the territory belongs to Argentina. It will continue to hold to this position until and unless Britain comes to the table and engages in serious negotiations.
In 2012 a poll to mark the 30th anniversary of the Falklands war indicated that 89% of Argentinians support the sovereignty claims of Buenos Aires. Many believe the timing of the 2013 referendum is linked to the discovery of extensive oil and gas deposits, as well as growing interest in the Antarctic, which is likely to become an important source of fresh water and other resources. Veterans say it is absurd that the small community of islands should decide the fate of an strategically important area of land and sea that is bigger than Argentina itself.
The International Community is hardly enthusiastic about Britain’s claims. The United Nations has passed several recent resolutions calling on Britain and Argentina to negotiate on a range of issues concerned with the Falklands. Britain has consistently refused.
Immediately after the referendum, only one state, Sweden, announced public support for Britain’s position. Even the USA, supposedly the UK’s most significant global ally, remained silent on the issue. On the other hand, Latin America is vocal and united in support of Argentina’s historic claims of sovereignty.
On 4 June 2013, the organisation of American states (OAS) adopted a declaration that calls for negotiations between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the ‘sovereignty’ of the Falkland / Malvinas Islands. The resolution was passed as part of the 43rd annual OAS assembly in Guatemala. All Latin American countries expressed their full support for the measure. Canada was against the OAS final declaration, while the USA did not take a position on the matter.
I’m not attempting an assessment of the strengths of the opposing sovereignty claims here, other than to say that it is clear that neither side possesses an overwhelmingly convincing and unproblematic case. Otherwise the dispute would not have rumbled on for 180 years, and have been the occasion of a war between the two countries in 1982.
What I want to focus on here is the
“referendum” itself, and how Islanders (and British politicians and mainstream media)
have depicted this event in unsubtle ways which don’t fully reflect the reality.
Was this a valid referendum?
The term “referendum” is a technical term for a kind of consultation that involves the entire electorate of a nation or province. By custom and practice, only a state can mount a referendum. The Falkands Islands is not a state. The British Government played no formal part in the exercise.
This referendum was organised by the Islanders themselves, with no official involvement of any government. They invited John Hollins, the former Chief Electoral Officer of the Canadian province of Ontario and the current Chair of the Board of Directors of The Delian Project, to act as an election observer.
In general, for a referendum to be considered valid, those posing the question need to assure the population (and the international community) that all relevant individuals have received the invitation to vote, have had a free and fair exposure to both sides of the argument, and have been able to express their views freely – without fear of pressure or coercion – at the ballot box.
Nowhere can I find any statement that the Argentinian Government were able to put any proposals before the Falklands voters for their consideration.
What proportion of the population actually voted?
In relation to who voted, I have been able to piece together the following, mainly from information supplied by the Guardian’s excellent data blog:
At last census (2012), the Falklands population was 2,841. This is a decline from the high of 3,053 in 2001. 16% of the population (454) identify as Chilean or St Helenean, not British. The majority of people living on the Falklands today were not born there. They are immigrants, many of whom presumably went there for work. 1723 of the adult population are in employment (75%). 485 of these work for the government (28% of all jobs). Other major sources of employment are fishing-related and tourism. 25% of adult Falklands residents are not in paid work.
Approximately 20% of the population are under 18, so ineligible to vote. So the adult population is approx 2300.
Only 1649 of the Falklands population were deemed eligible to vote in the 2013 referendum (adults who were born there or who are long-term residents). Thus these 1649 eligible voters constituted 71% of the adult population. This meant that 29% of adult residents (650) were denied a vote.
Only 92% of the 1649 people eligible to vote actually did so (1517), comprising 66% of adult residents. Thus 34% of adult residents did not vote, most because they were denied the opportunity, and so the world does not know their views.
These facts are largely unknown, and have not been reported or further investigated by journalists, certainly not in Britain. They seem to me to tell a much more ambiguous and inconclusive story than most have cared to tell.
Why does this matter?
It matters because Falkland islanders deserve security. Security can never be guaranteed by Britain alone. It has to involve some viable accommodation with the people and politicians of the country and the continent where the Islands are, backed by processes supported by the International community at large, through the UN. Those in the British political and media circles who paint the “referendum” as some kind of black-and-white decisive moment, do the people of the Falklands no favours. We need to understand and grasp the complexity and subtlety of the situation if Falklanders’ lives are ever to be lived other than under the threat of further insecurity, whether political, military or economic.
I’ll be coming back to this issue (and similar issues facing Britain around the world, such as in Gibralter!) in future blogs.