One of the defining images of Britain in the second half of the 20th century is the flag being pulled down in remote lands across the earth, the last twitch in the dying body of the British Empire. But it was not the end of British colonialism, however. The great citizens of Blighty often forget that while our tired old kingdom may have ceded most of its former imperial possessions, it still clings to 14 territories spread across the globe. Some are merely large tracts of ice lost in the snows of Antarctica, and others are simply uninhabited rocks in the wide oceans, yet there still exist important British refuges that are the subject of unending arguments over sovereignty.
The two most well-known, and most under threat, are Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands. The former is a peninsular on the southern tip of Spain, and claimed by the Spaniards, the latter are a group of islands clustered in the South Atlantic, claimed by Argentina. And it is the Falklands which have been most lodged in the minds of the British public. As if going to war in 1982 to reclaim the islands wasn’t enough to deter Argentina, its president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has picked up the sabre-rattling where Galtiere left off, and has recently been in the news for criticising the posting of Prince William to the Falklands. She has made it perfectly clear – Argentina wants the islands ‘back’.
It’s with a great deal of relief that we’ve seen all recent British Prime Ministers show two fingers to successive Argentinean governments. Despite the pressure from the deluded South American nation, and hypocrisy from America to negotiate over the islands (while, it should be remembered, they retain ‘colonies’ like Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands), Britain has held firm over the issue.
And quite right too. Western nations like to wax lyrical about self-determination, the right for a people to choose who governs them. When it comes to Britain and her dependent territories, on the other hand, the UN believes that the UK should either negotiate with the nations who make conflicting claims – for which, read ‘hand them over’ – or else grant them their independence.
Article 15 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights states that “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality”, while Article 21 says “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of the government”. The people of the Falkland Islands and the people of Gibraltar have declared themselves to be British. A referendum held in Gibraltar in 2002 showed that 98.48% of its residents wished to remain subjects of the United Kingdom. So, the Overseas Territories have chosen who they want to govern them.
Sadly, this seems that it will never be enough. Spain, Argentina, and seemingly half of the UN seem willing to ignore the human rights of the Overseas Territories Citizens to spite their former imperial motherland. And their persistence should not be underestimated. The UN is currently rife with an anti-colonialist attitude where it should be focusing on despotic regimes the world over, and Argentina has lost a war and seen the fall of a military junta while never taking its eyes off what it calls the ‘Islas Malvinas’. They will not give in.
Britain, for once in its post-imperial life, needs to not give in either. We cannot, in all good conscience, overthrow tyrants on the other side of the world who govern without their people’s consent, while at the same time throwing away the Overseas Territories in spite of the desires of their people to remain our fellow citizens. We would be betraying their trust in us to defend them against whatever threats came their way if we entered into negotiations to surrender these territories. The sun has set on the British Empire, but come what may, the UK has a duty to protect the freedom of choice for her subjects, whatever small corner of the world they choose to live in.