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sovereignty, self-determination, and the nation-state
press release


The Falklands War, we are told, is about sovereignty over the islands, which is disputed between Britain and Argentina. What, however, is sovereignty, and how far is the concept compatible with pacifism and nonviolence?

Sovereignty is concerned with absolute power, the ultimate right to govern in a particular place or over a particular tract of land. So it is that Britain and Argentina have sent to their deaths over 1100 men in an attempt to settle a quarrel over the “empty sounds of an ancient title”, as Samuel Johnson, the eminent lexicographer, aptly described it. Indeed, with prophetic insight, he inveighed against those who wished to convulse “the whole system of European empire for a few spots of earth which, in the desert of the ocean, had almost escaped notice”. It would be unfair to the present islanders to describe the Falklands as a ”bleak and barren spot in the Megallanick ocean, of which no use could be made unless it was a place of exile for the hypocrites of patriotism”; nevertheless, that is an apt description of South Georgia, the place at which the current crisis erupted. For all their antiquity, Dr Johnson’s Thoughts on the late Transactions concerning the Falkland Islands seem as relevant now as in 1770.

Sovereignty, then, is open to the same criticisms that radical pacifists and libertarians make of nationalism and the state; it is concerned with territoriality, putting a higher value on land than on the people who happen to live there; with exclusivity, creating barriers (frontiers) between one group of people and another; with centrism, concentrating decision-making and lines of communication on one focal point rather than encouraging purely local initiatives; with authoritarianism, the giving of orders by the few rather than responsible decision-making by the many.

It is only by understanding sovereignty in these terms that one can begin to see why Britain, over 8000 miles from the scene, and Argentina, at least 400 miles away, should fight so bloodily and tenaciously over the homeland of 1800 people to whom Britain has denied nationality but who also have no ethnic, linguistic or cultural ties with Argentina. Both the Argentinian invasion and the British re-invasion are presented simplistically in terms of flag-waving, and even the diplomatic negotiations have been posed on the lines of possible one-, two-, or even three-flag solutions.

This is not to say that the overall British attitude exactly matches that of Argentina. It would undoubtedly be fair to say that, until news of the Argentinian invasion broke, the great majority of British people knew nothing, and those who did cared little, about the Falkland Islands, let alone the Islanders. Even the British government, with its refusal of nationality to the islanders under the Nationality Act 1981, and its floating the notion of surrendering sovereignty to Argentina in return for a so-called lease-back arrangement, clearly did not treat the Falkands as a major priority in their planning or action. In Argentina, however, there does not seem to be a baby born who is not taught to say, even before “mama” or “papa”, the sacred words, “the Malvinas are ours”, so that, on seeing the islands marked in school atlases, along with parts of Antarctica, Chile, Paraguay etc, as Greater Argentina, no questions are raised. Indeed, left-wing politicians who have opposed the junta on every other issue have been allowed out of prison or house arrest to announce their support for the recuperation of the islands. Even church and ant-militarist leaders question only the use of force before a complete breakdown of negotiations, but treat the Argentinian ‘right’ to the ‘Malvinas’ as axiomatic. In these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that, according to a letter from an Islander, some of the Argentinian invaders were amazed to find that the islanders did not speak Spanish and did not welcome them as ‘liberators’.

The historical grounds for Argentina’s claim to the Falklands are complex, but, essentially, it derives from the inclusion of the islands in the former Spanish empire, an inheritance putatively usurped by the British occupation of 1833. Herein, however, lies the awful effect of such sovereignty claims, for whatever may have been the rights and wrongs, in international law and politics, of the events of 1833 and earlier, the present claim takes no account of the people who now live on the islands and have so lived literally all their lives, as have their forebears for several generations.

The sheer hypocrisy of the Argentinians’ claim is shown by the fact that they shrink from carrying it to its logical conclusion. If it is valid to claim the ‘Malvinas’ now, on the basis that a few Argentinian settlers were dispossessed in 1833, then the claim of South American Indians to the whole of Argentina, on the basis of their dispossession and partial extinction by conquest in the 15th to 19th centuries, is indisputable. And to those British people whose need to prove their revolutionary anti-colonialism is so great that they eagerly acclaim ‘victory’ for the imperialist adventure of a fascist military dictatorship, it may be pointed out that Britain should, by their own logic, forthwith cede sovereignty to France, as the lineal successor to the Duchy of Normandy, if not to West Germany, as heir to Saxony, or even to Rome.

To attack Argentinian claims to sovereignty over the Falklands is in no way to defend British claims. Ethnic, linguistic and cultural ties with people of the Falklands need no more confer sovereign rights than do such ties with people of the United States or the old Commonwealth. The present British claim to sovereignty is pressed as a defence of the rights of the islanders against aggression. That, as has already been shown, has been belied by the British government’s past record. Underlying such glib words are nationalism and militarism as odious in their effect as those of Argentina. The Argentinians, even if they are deluded, know the cause for which they are fighting. The British, ignorant of the Falklands as either a place or a people, are indulging in fighting for fighting’s sake, whilst their government is proving, as Dr Johnson again predicted, that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”.

So often in politics and war the issue is presented as a clear choice between two sides. So often pacifists and upholders of nonviolence have to point out a third, and not necessarily middle, way. The governing principle for us all in such issues is not historic claims of the parties, but the present wishes of the ordinary people involved: how do they want to order their own society and what political associations do they wish to form? In the case of the Falkland Islands, one would have thought, the issue is far more straightforward than in some more complex areas of disputed territory, such as Northern Ireland or Cyprus. So far as one can establish, the people of the islands form a homogeneous whole, with no significant ethnic, linguistic or religious divisions or enmities. Therefore, such questions as power-sharing, protection of minorities, or complicated boundary arrangements do not arise. There is no need even to settle the frontier with Argentina - the Atlantic Ocean is the most natural boundary in the world.

If, in such circumstances, the people collectively indicate that they do not wish to be incorporated into Argentina, then the world, including Argentina, should recognise the point. It does not follow, however, that the people should be incorporated into the sovereign state of Britain, and certainly, as has been indicated, they have not hitherto been so treated, and it would require the agreement not only of the islanders but also of the whole people of Britain for such incorporation to be valid.

It is, however, a matter of concern how many people in Britain seem to discount the right of self-determination of the islanders as a viable factor in the situation, as if the future of the islands were primarily a matter for settlement in London and Buenos Aires. The whole point and purpose not merely of democracy – a much maligned word – but also of nonviolent and pacifist models of society is that people should take control of their own lives and accept responsibility for their own actions. This means in the Falklands situation that there is a real possibility for the islanders to govern themselves, and, with a population of only 1800, what a marvellous opportunity for really participatory democracy.

It would clearly be part of such self-government that the Falkland Islands Company should be taken over by the people, for such a colonial anachronism has outlived whatever useful purpose it may once have had. A solution of self-determining independence would coincidentally fulfil the UN charter and policy of ending colonialism. The Falklands have an opportunity to become a real country without an army, an internationally recognised demilitarised zone, in which the words ‘state’ and ‘sovereignty’ can fall into well-deserved obsolescence, where people matter rather than power, the sheep can graze in easy silence and the penguins ponder in peace.

Bill Hetherington
The Pacifist, June 1982


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