Cristina Kirchner, the Falklands/Malvinas and Crimea

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The occupation of Crimea, the region’s referendum and subsequent integration into Russia have led to the most serious geopolitical tensions in more than a decade, likely to influence dynamics in Europe for years to come.

At the same time, Latin American governments have largely sought to stay out of the matter, issuing only vague calls for a diplomatic solution. Most notably, Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff was reluctant to antagonize either Vladimir Putin, who will visit Brazil in July for the 6th BRICS Summit, or Ukraine, with which Brazil cooperates in the field of science and technology.

The question of self-determination vs. territorial integrity gained prominence a century ago when US President Woodrow Wilson's ideas contributed to local uprisings around the world (beautifully described in Erez Manela's The Wilsonian Moment). At the same time, the League of Nations President Wilson envisaged would guarantee the territorial integrity of both great and small nations.

After World War II, the UN Charter failed to resolve the clash between the two concepts, which has since then been a source of frequent instability in international affairs. With ethnic groups often scattered across national borders (e.g. the Kurds) both concepts can be abused if used selectively - leading to the oppression of minorities and territorial grabs in extreme cases. Great powers such as the United States (Southern Confederacy), China (Tibet) and Russia (Chechnya) usually deny wayward provinces to separate and use armed force and repression to maintain their territorial integrity. No country is entirely consistent: The United States, for example, supported self-determination for South Sudan and Kosovo, but not for Taiwan, Tibet or Abkhazia. Russia supported it in the case of Crimea, but is unwilling to organize a referendum in Chechnya.

In the case of Kosovo, Serbia argued that the unilateral secession made by the temporary Kosovo Government was in violation of the UN Resolution 1244, which guaranteed Serbia’s (formerly Yugoslavia) territorial integrity. The West, in turn, supported Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008, but tried to argue that the case was unique and did not set a precedent for future territorial secessions.

Most countries' interpretation of self-determination are thus determined by their national interests, context and circumstance, rather than principle. Stephen Krasner describes principles of sovereignty as “organized hypocrisy.”

In this context, Argentina’s President Cristina Kirchner contrasted her colleagues’ relative silence in recent weeks by accusing the West of applying a "double standard" for failing to recognize the referendum in Crimea, but accepting the result in the Falklands/Malvinas. "Either we agree on all territorial integrity (cases) or we continue (...) in a world without respect, where what befits the stronger comes first.”

Argentina’s underlying rationale, of course, is domestic: The Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas), a British Overseas Territory claimed by Argentina, held a referendum in 2013, in which over 99% of the local population decided to remain part of the United Kingdom – a vote that had no impact on the Argentine territorial claims.

Thus, while the West failed to accept the Crimean referendum largely based on procedural issues (and the fact that it was under military occupation), Kirchner did so because in her view, territorial integrity always trumps self-determination:  “You can’t defend the territorial integrity of Crimea and not do it for the Malvinas”, Kirchner says. “Territorial integrity has to apply to everyone.”

In principle, the President was right to bemoan an overall lack of consistency in the debate about self-determination. Yet by rejecting all kinds of referendums irrespective of their political context, Kirchner's position did not take into consideration important differences between the two scenarios - yet precisely these are crucial in the absence of a universally applicable concept, and in cases of disputed sovereignty. After all, few would argue for a world in which either the principle of territorial integrity or self-determination should be applied all the time, irrespective of the consequences.

Regarding the Falklands/Malvinas and Crimea, the first difference was procedural. The islanders’ referendum in 2013 was carefully planned and took place under the auspices of international observers from many different countries. Despite its seemingly unrealistic result (99,8%) in favor of maintaining its current political status as a British Overseas Territory, the referendum adequately reflected popular will. The date of the election had been known for months, providing all sides sufficient time to promote their cause.

The Crimean referendum, on the other hand, took place at extremely short notice. In addition, Russia did not allow international observers to ensure that the voting would take place in an orderly manner. In fact, journalists interviewed citizens in several parts of Crimea who were not allowed to vote – largely in regions dominated by Tatars reluctant to join Russia.

Secondly, the geopolitical context of each referendum differed strongly. While Russia had just invaded Crimea militarily, no such high-impact event took place prior to the referendum on the islands.

Some may point out that, just like the Russian military invaded Crimea prior to the referendum, Great Britain maintains a significant military presence on the Falkland/ Malvinas Island since 1982. Yet contrary to the Russian invaders, the British army is present on the islands today as a reaction to Argentina’s invasion in 1982, which led to local resistance among the population and the incarceration of many inhabitants by the Argentine during the conflict.

As expected, last years’ referendum on the islands did not affect the Argentine government’s opinion that the 2013 referendum on the Falkland/Malvinas Islands was irrelevant. As Argentina’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Alicia Castro, recently pointed out, “nobody doubts [the Islanders] are British, and can continue to be so, but the territory in which they live is not. It belongs to Argentina.” Indeed, in most countries, a referendum about secession would be unconstitutional. Yet Argentina's case is unlikely to be clear-cut enough to sway global opinion in a way that would see many countries pressure London on the matter. When the British foreign secretary recently visited Brazil - a country generally supportive of Argentina- the issue of the islands was not even on the agenda. Critics of Argentina's position point out that the settlers mainly of British origin came to  the islands before Argentina had populated Patagonia. In fact, islanders proudly tell visitors that it was their ancestors who, in the 19th century, helped establish the first settlements in Southern Argentina, not vice versa.

Theoretical debates about territorial sovereignty vs. self-determination are thus unlikely to help Argentina, the islanders and the United Kingdom find a common denominator - their very basic assumptions are too far apart. This may have important implications. As massive oil findings around the Falklands/Malvinas are set to dramatically increase both the Islands' economic importance, finding a solution to the only major territorial dispute in South America seems as unlikely as ever.

Read also:

Change in the South Atlantic

Oil in the Malvinas/Falklands: Brazil’s next regional headache?

Why China will back Russia on Ukraine

Photo credit: Leo la Valle/EFE