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Falkland Islands and all that

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International human rights campaigner and occasional actor Sean Penn, whose well-deserved Nobel Peace Prize continues to be delayed for mysterious reasons, was the first famous foreigner to lend his support to the cause. "The world today is not going to tolerate any ludicrous and archaic commitment to colonialist ideology," he told Cristina Kirchner, the president of Argentina. He was speaking, of course, of the Falkland Islands.

This was music to the ears of Kirchner, who has marked the 30th anniversary of the Argentine invasion and British recapture of the islands with a high-profile nationalist campaign to "recover" the Falklands (or rather Las Malvinas, as Argentines call them). Penn then went home to California, but it wasn't long before Fidel Castro weighed in, too. Unfortunately, Castro hadn't read the script.

Kirchner's chief talking point was an accusation that Britain was "militarizing" the South Atlantic by sending an "ultra-modern destroyer" to patrol the waters around the islands. (It replaces an obsolete, leaky destroyer, we must suppose.)

But Castro unhelpfully mocked the British, claiming that "the English only have one little boat left. All the English can do is send over a destroyer, they can't even send an aircraft carrier."

One could make a meal of this silly quarrel -- "The Falklands thing was a fight between two bald men over a comb," as Argentine poet and essayist Jorge Luis Borges once said - but it wouldn't be a very nourishing meal. A more useful approach would be to consider why it is so fundamentally silly.

It's not that the history of the rival claims is silly (although it is: first French settlers in 1764, then British in 1765, then the French hand their share over to the Spanish in 1767, followed by half a dozen more changes of ownership or control until the islands finally fall under permanent British rule in 1833). Nor is it that the islands are now worth considerably more than a comb (though they are, with seabed oil and rich fisheries surrounding them).

It's just that you are no longer allowed to shift control of territories from one country to another by force. That was the way the world was run for thousands of years, but after the Second World War the nations of the world changed the rule and, in effect, froze all the borders where they were at that moment. They did that not because it was just, but because most wars were over territory, and wars had got too big and destructive to fight.

Argentina can claim that the brief presence of Argentine colonists in the island at one point before 1833 gives it an eternal right to the islands, and Britain can insist that the wishes of the present, English-speaking residents, who want to remain British, must be respected, but neither is really relevant. The Falklands will remain British because we now define any attempt to change borders by force as "aggression".

This is the point at which the frantic protests about British "colonialism" usually erupt. They come from Argentina, where the European settlers dispossessed the aboriginal inhabitants. They come from Sean Penn, whose house sits on land that was part of Mexico until the United States conquered it in 1846. They come from everybody who wants to draw a line under history just after the situation that favours their interests came to pass.

But the line was actually drawn in 1945, and it has proved remarkably robust. When new African countries got their independence, they got it within the existing borders, even though those were originally drawn by the imperial powers with little heed to ethnic realities. When the old Soviet Union fell apart, all 15 successor states accepted the administrative divisions of that empire as their new national borders.

And whenever somebody who hadn't got the message tried to change their borders by force, pleading historical justice, ethnic similarity, or geographical tidiness, they were firmly rebuffed by almost everybody else. Indonesia seized and annexed East Timor in 1975, but eventually had to give it its freedom. Saddam Hussein's Iraq invaded and annexed Kuwait in 1990, but was driven out by an international army after only a few months.

And Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982. It was driven out by a British force, not an international one, but the United Kingdom would never have fought such a difficult war over islands then seen as almost valueless if it had not had international law on its side.

Argentina's action was privately seen as inexcusable by almost every other government, even if its Latin American neighbours did not say so in public. The generals who ordered the invasion were ignorant men who didn't understand that the world had changed, and they lost power in Argentina as a result of the war. More importantly, the law was upheld.

And that is why Alsace-Lorraine, after changing hands a dozen times in its history, will remain French. California, similarly, will remain American however much the Mexicans dislike it. As for Kashmir and the West Bank... but that's a subject for another day.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 14, 2012 J1

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