Talking Politics

Britain and Argentina are as hypocritical as each other

By Dr Matthew Ashton

This week the diplomatic back and forth over the Falkland Islands seemed to hit a new low, with both sides accusing the other of duplicity.

There is no doubt that these arguments have largely been prompted by the 30 year anniversary of the Falklands War. For Britain it conjured up the illusion of long lost imperial greatness, and in the case of Argentina it was a humiliating defeat. As the great American historian Shelby Foote once commented, 'it's the fights we lose that really stay with us'. However it could equally be argued that both sides are also motivated by 'banal' nationalism and a desire to control the resources in the area.

What really irritates me though isn't so much the on-going sabre rattling, but the hypocrisy on both sides. When David Cameron talks about the right to national self-determination it sounds rather hollow considering our behaviour throughout the years. A good example would be the Chagos Islands, where Britain evicted the majority of the population in the 1970s in order to allow the US to build a military base. The islanders were removed from their homes against their will and the UK has blocked every attempt since then for them to return. According to the Wikileaks diplomatic cables, the British government recently decided to turn most of the area into a marine reservation so that it would be almost impossible for the former inhabitants to continue their fight for their land. Activities like this make it appear that when it comes to the right of self-determination the British government believes in it for some people but not for others.

However, Argentina doesn't occupy the moral high ground when talking about territorial rights either. Argentina was largely colonised by Spanish settlers who took the land from the indigenous population, killing huge numbers of them in the process. This continued throughout most of the 20th century and it's only recently that any attempt has been made to rectify the situation, although most observers would argue they're half-hearted at best. If Argentina really does believe in the need to return land to its original owners, I presume they're going to give all the land back that they acquired from the Kolla, Toba, Guaraní and Wichí people (to name but a few). To take the case of the Wichí, they've been struggling for years to gain legal recognition for the little land they have left. Despite this battle it hasn't stopped the Argentinean government selling off large areas of the nature reserve on which they live, to private companies who've started cutting down the forest for farmland. The Wichí tribe were finally given legal rights to less than 10km2 of it and the logging companies were given the go-ahead to continue destroying much of their old reserve. Perhaps this is what President Kirchner was talking about when she spoke about the need to respect territorial rights. The reality of the matter is that Argentina has been trampling on the land rights of its indigenous people for years and despite repeated promises to the contrary these groups are still having to campaign to try and get back just a fraction of what they've had taken from them.

It should also be made clear that most of the other South American countries that have thrown their weight behind Argentina in the Falklands argument have equally complicated relationships with their indigenous people. For instance Chile has an appalling record when it comes to its treatment of the Mapuche. For most of the 20th century they spent their time stealing the Mapuche's land, and even today they're complicit with mining and forestry companies in helping to destroy it, or making use of anti-terrorism legislation to lock up people who tried to protest against it.

What does all this mean then? Certainly two wrongs don't make a right. The fact that both the Argentinean and British governments have acted shamefully in the past (and in some cases continue to do so), doesn't necessarily mean either side is right or wrong when it comes to the Falkland Islands. However it does mean that neither country should be quite so quick to jump onto the moral high-ground and talk about their deep-felt belief in either self-determination or territorial rights.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.

WRITTEN BY...