The Falkland Islands, self-determination and more UK hypocrisy on Chagos

This is a guest posting, written by David Carrington (a Labour Party member in Southend West):

Last week there was an open letter sent by the Argentinian government to David Cameron asking for the return of the Falkland Islands (or Malvinas), creating diplomatic fervour. The Sun kicked off one of its self-promoting stunts, taking out an advert in the Buenos Aires press and loudly trumpeting British sovereignty, while David Cameron relied on the right to self-determination of those living on the islands as our grounds for hanging on to them.

A few weeks before Britain was again successful in defending its treatment of the Chagos islanders and won a case at the European Court of Human Rights, which denied the appeal of the Chagossians because of settlement payments made to them in the early 1980s on condition that they signed away their claims on the islands.

Never mind questions about the validity of the settlement and that many Chagossians were not aware that they were signing away their claims in their desperation, western liberal democracy treats property rights as a marketable commodity and the rights were effectively sold. Needless to say, the UK does not accept that the Chagos islanders have the same right to self-determination as the Falkland islanders.

The different treatment of these two sets of islands speak volumes about the staggering, yet unsurprising, arrogance and hypocrisy of western values. We are happy to rely on international law and the right to self-determination if, it works for us, but deny its validity when we cross it. Right wingers who hate everything about the European Court of Human Rights delight in this judgement (no matter how wrong it is) because it favours the UK and proves the ugly truth of capitalist liberal democracy – that absolution can be bought for even the gravest sin.

But there are encouraging signs when the UK plays the self-determination card. Not least that David Cameron has unwittingly become a modern day Leninist.

The right to self-determination is the “revolutionary kernel of international law” where it has attained the status of jus cogens (Latin for “compelling law”), or a peremptory norm. In layman’s terms this means that it’s an agreed standard from which there can be no derogation or withdrawal.

Experts argue that our model of the right to self-determination originated with Lenin and contributed to the de-colonisation movements after the Second World War. It was used by Woodrow Wilson in his Fourteen Points and it’s with Wilson that we can see the problems it caused for powerful nations. At the Versailles peace conference many different groups turned up demanding the right to choose their own destiny: the Austro-Hungarian Empire had collapsed into innumerable shards, Gandhi demanded Indian liberation and T E Lawrence turned up to speak for the Arabs.

Wilson later told Congress that when he’d said that ever nation had the right to self-determination , it was “…without the knowledge that nationalities existed, which are coming to us day after day”. His Secretary of State predicted it would “breed discontent, disorder and rebellion”. The fear that self-determination would lead to chaos and anarchy (compared by Eleanor Roosevelt to unbridled “individual human liberty” which “given unrestricted application…could result in chaos”) is seen in the drafting of the UN Charter, where colonial powers were reluctant to agree to an expanded right to self-determination. The “chaos” would inevitably result in a loss of colonial power and control. But the right retained its power and Article 73 of the UN Charter said that colonial powers should help to “develop self-government, to take due account of the political aspirations of the peoples”

Self-determination has the power to overturn international treaties (through Article 53 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties 1969) and it genuinely has the potential to be a properly revolutionary force in law, so it’s wonderful to see that David Cameron believes in it so much. I hope this means a new turn for the UK and that we’ll start respecting this right and applying it to all cases, whether it works in our favour or not.

Article 73 of the UN Charter also says that colonial powers held their colonies as a “sacred trust” for their peoples. Many of the present government know what it is like to be the beneficiary of a trust and I’m sure they’d be shocked if their trustees robbed them of the trust property in the same way that the UK robbed the Chagos islanders of their home. The UK can’t escape the judgement of history and we have to put this injustice right.