The Falklands referendum and the so-called right to self-determination

On 18 January 2013 the government of the Falkland Islands announced a date for the referendum on whether to retain the Islands’ status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom. It will take place on 10-11 March.

Not long afterwards, the Argentine vice president Amado Boudou came out against the referendum, arguing that the electorate largely consists of ‘colonists’ – “the descendants of those who evicted the true inhabitants of those islands.” I agree with Mr Boudou that the referendum is an outrage. But my reasons are the mirror image of his. The purpose of the referendum is to rebut Argentina’s claim on the Islands by affirming the ‘right to self-determination’ of the Islanders. David Cameron likes to put the case this way, and the right to self-determination for peoples is even enshrined in the UN charter. Yet it is a gravely misconceived idea.

To understand why, let’s look at what this principle means in practice. Imagine a nation that has a large ethnic minority which is a majority in a particular region. The group claims to be a ‘people’ and demands independence on this basis. In other words, their claim is based on the ideal of majority rule, or on the notion that ‘peoples’ should be demarcated by states. But what if our group is one of religious fundamentalists who will impose draconian laws on the now outvoted people of the original nation? Or what if, as the philosopher Sir Karl Popper warned in one of his last speeches, they are the Sudeten Germans who demanded secession from Czechoslovakia in service of the Nazi regime? Because the principle of self-determination had almost total moral authority in much of Europe, and because the existence of the Czechoslovakian state had itself been justified with this principle by its founders, there was no moral defense available, either logically or psychologically, against the German demand for the Sudetenland.

falkland_islandsThe supposed right to self-determination, then, can be used to justify virtually any form of political oppression—paradoxically, it can be (and has been) used even in the service of imperial conquest. So it is a mistake to defend the Falklands on these grounds. The Islands would still be British even if for some reason a majority were ethnically Argentinian (for example if Luis Vernet’s settlement had been successful, or simply via immigration). Only racism can justify a demand for independence based on ethnic differences alone. The real reason the Falklands should remain British is that Britain has peacefully and effectively administered them for nearly two centuries. The British claim in 1833 was legitimate and unchallenged by any other claim to sovereignty.

In general, there is only a case for independence when it is motivated by a wish for genuine political progress. The idea that one is being oppressed unless one votes with people of the same culture or outlook is just as mistaken as the racist interpretation of self-determination. Oppression is committed via policies. I might feel freer as a religious radical who sides with the majority in my support for draconian restrictions on, say, free speech—but I am much less free than a person with the same views who is part of a minority in a liberal democracy. Political freedom is not morally arbitrary; it is not determined by popular whim.

Questions of race or ethnicity are hence irrelevant, and majority opinion is not a sufficient motivation for change. Libertarians will likely agree with J.S. Mill’s ethical hypothesis:

If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.

But self-determination is not only contrary to liberalism; it is also profoundly at odds with other conservative values, for it demands the use of force and the overriding of individual rights for political change––and it does this not for the sake of progress, but in sheer obedience to a principle.

The right to self-determination is not so much a right as a glorification of tribalism and mob rule. It is a shame that our Government feels obliged to give such a perverse justification for what is in fact the moral imperative of protecting the rights and institutions of the Falklanders.

Liberty Fitz-Claridge can be found blogging at The Taints of Liberty. This article is based on one originally written for the Caerulean.

7 COMMENTS

  1. I think your logic is flawed. You say:

    “But self-determination is not only contrary to liberalism; it is also
    profoundly at odds with other conservative values, for it demands the
    use of force and the overriding of individual rights for political
    change––and it does this not for the sake of progress, but in sheer
    obedience to a principle.”

    In what way is self-determination contrary to liberalism or these other conservative values? If all the people of the Falklands wanted to be Argentinian, you would be denying all their individual rights to oppose them, and using force to do so. To take the principle to its ultimate conclusion, every individual has a right to self-determination, and as long as he lives in peace with his neighbours, who can complain?

    The problems posed by, say, the Sudetenland Germans were very real, and replicated across much of central and eastern Europe at that time, due to the break-up of Austria-Hungary etc, the manner of which almost guaranteed another war. But it was not the desire for national self-determination which was the central problem, but the nationalistic collectivism which accompanied it, and led too many people to see their neighbours as their enemies.

    • Hello, thanks for your comment.

      > In what way is self-determination contrary to liberalism or these other conservative values?

      Self-determination isn’t the right of individuals to choose, it’s the right of a majority to impose their will on a minority (hence it’s decided by vote). This is mob rule, which is illiberal. Political change made solely to conform to a principle (rather than to solve a problem) is against conservative tradition.

      If all the Falklanders ‘wanted to be Argentinian’ – we need to know what this means in terms of policies before we can say whether they have a ‘right’ to it. If it meant that they unanimously wanted the lower taxes of the Argentinian government (just to hypothesise), they should secede. If it meant they unanimously wanted more draconian restrictions on free speech, which are not made by the British government, this would be wrong. If they really were unanimous, there would be no reason for them to need the state to enforce that restriction, since everyone would follow it anyway, and ostracise anyone who accidentally broke it – unless it were to ensure that future generations were also forced to obey it. This is coercion, yet the right to self-determination makes it acceptable just because a majority voted for it.

      That’s why I say the principle of self-determination isn’t a good criterion for deciding whether a population should secede, and a better criterion is whether the people would be objectively freer in the new government.

      > To take the principle to its ultimate conclusion, every individual has a right to self-determination, and as long as he lives in peace with his neighbours, who can complain?

      That’s not the ultimate conclusion of a principle that says you can implement whatever policies you want as long as it wins a vote. I completely agree that *individuals* should be able to do what they want as long as it doesn’t coerce others – but this has nothing to do with the right to self-determination as espoused in the UN charter.

      In short, I think you’re equivocating between individual freedom and pure democracy.

      > But it was not the desire for national self-determination which was the central problem, but the nationalistic collectivism which accompanied it

      Absolutely, self-determination was not the central problem. What I said in the article is that the supposed right was *used* as a poltical tool, and hence enabled a victory for National Socialism.

      • Thanks for the response, but I remain convinced of my earlier criticism, that your argument is flawed.

        You are treating self-determination, as exemplified in the Falklands referendum, as synonymous with democracy, in turn synonymous with mob-rule. However, the only justifiable legitimacy for the British to maintain sovereignty over the Islands rests on the people of the island supporting the status quo. Merely the established fact of British rule could not be maintained in the face of a popular will amongst the islanders to cast off British rule, any more in this case than in the case of any other imperial outpost. In such struggles, the British rule is maintained by brute force, and thus a stronger brute force would defeat it de facto and de jure.

        Consideration of this issue presupposes that the Falklands must be either part of Argentina, under the Crown or independent (although this last seems to be overlooked), i.e. that there must be a state of some kind. This being the case, there are differences of opinion as to which option should prevail. The notion that the islanders must be the ones who decide, i.e. that the matter should be settled via the principle of self-determination, without ignoring the majority rule aspect of this (although I gather the islanders are pretty unanimous) is far easier to justify than any other formulation, such as (a) the Islands are geographically near Argentina or (B) the British planted a flag there some time during the 19th century.

        I acknowledge the threat to individual liberty posed by democracy. However, as I say above, the issue under discussion presupposes a state will exist. Therefore I reject the charge that I am equivocating between liberty and democracy, and I disagree with your statement: “the principle of self-determination isn’t a good criterion for deciding
        whether a population should secede, and a better criterion is whether
        the people would be objectively freer in the new government”, because it immediately throws up the question: who shall decide which option (on offer) guarantees more freedom?

        It is certainly the case that the desire for self-determination can be and has been used as a tool to advance nationalistic policies which are contrary to liberalism, but I would maintain that the desire to be free from foreign domination or the power of an undemocratic tyrant is not at all contrary to liberalism, nor individual liberty.

        This subject with regard to central and eastern Europe is much discussed in Mises’s ‘Nation, State and Economy’, which I think is worth a read.

        • “Merely the established fact of British rule could not be maintained in the face of a popular will amongst the islanders to cast off British rule, any more in this case than in the case of any other imperial outpost. In such struggles, the British rule is maintained by brute force, and thus a stronger brute force would defeat it de facto and de jure”

          If a majority in a region wants to secede, and it’s deemed unacceptable by the existing nation, the latter may well have the resources necessary to defeat it. But such a response would only be justifiable, I think, in defence against violence. So, the Sudetenland should have been defended in that way. But my example of the religious fundamentalists would be a case where it’s merely *wrong* for that group to secede, though they should still be ‘allowed’ to do so. Perhaps this important distinction should have been stated in the article: ‘What is right?’ as opposed to, ‘What can we use force to prevent?’

          “The notion that the islanders must be the ones who decide, i.e. that the matter should be settled via the principle of self-determination, without ignoring the majority rule aspect of this (although I gather the islanders are pretty unanimous) is far easier to justify than any other formulation, such as (a) the Islands are geographically near Argentina or (B) the British planted a flag there some time during the 19th century.”

          I think, here (and also in your first paragraph with reference to “justifiable legitimacy”), you’re making another assumption criticised by Popper, namely that political conflicts should be resolved by deciding ‘who should rule’ and giving power to that person or group. But power itself is no more justifiable in the hands of the majority than in those of anyone else. There is no ‘best’ ruler. All rulers are capable of error. For this reason, Popper said that the question ‘Who should rule?’ ought to be replaced by ‘How can we so organize political institutions that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage?’ The answer involves finding ways of correcting errors in political institutions.

          The merit of democracy, then, is solely in the fact that it allows bad rulers to be voted out — which is one of several error-correcting mechanisms that might be present in a liberal democracy. So, it should not be viewed as a way of choosing rulers that has problems but should nevertheless be upheld as the more legitimate or justifiable way. This would be an infallibalist approach, no matter how wary you were of the flaws of majority rule. Democracy merely helps us correct errors. There is nothing else good about it.

          As such, it would be wrong to violate international law in deference to majority opinion (unless you were somehow able to show that deciding everything democratically led to more and better error correction than the existing procedures by which laws are changed).

          I’m sceptical of referenda in general for this reason.

          “I acknowledge the threat to individual liberty posed by democracy. However, as I say above, the issue under discussion presupposes a state will exist. Therefore I reject the charge that I am equivocating between liberty and democracy, and I disagree with your statement: “the principle of self-determination isn’t a good criterion for deciding whether a population should secede, and a better criterion is whether the people would be objectively freer in the new government”, because it immediately throws up the question: who shall decide which option (on offer) guarantees more freedom?”

          Yes, we do presuppose that a state will exist. But this is not a reason to demand that all disagreements be resolved democratically.
          As I’ve said above, there’s a difference between what is right morally and what justifies defensive violence. So the statement you quote there does not throw up the question of ‘who shall decide’ — people might have diverse views on how tolerant governments should be of seceding populations, while sharing the above criterion as a purely moral conviction. Hence the question was stated as ‘whether a population *should* secede’, rather than whether it *should be allowed* to secede.

          “It is certainly the case that the desire for self-determination can be and has been used as a tool to advance nationalistic policies which are contrary to liberalism, but I would maintain that the desire to be free from foreign domination or the power of an undemocratic tyrant is not at all contrary to liberalism, nor individual liberty.”

          Why is ‘foreign domination’ worse than local domination, if the *policies* of the former are more liberal?

          • I keep referring to this particular case, and you keep responding with theoretical or historical cases of limited comparability. I don’t really understand what your problem is with the referendum in this case, or why you think it is contrary to liberty for the people who live there having a say in how they are governed and by whom. The legitimacy of government in any form or democracy is not at issue. The only thing at issue is whether the Islands get handed over to the Argentine government. If the majority of the people who live there want this, I say let them have it. If they don’t, I say let them stay as they are. This strikes me as the most reasonable, liberal position on the matter.

          • If a majority of the Falklanders wanted to be part of Argentina, whether this is acceptable morally would depend on their reasons. It almost certainly would be wrong — and in that case the same would go for the referendum itself. I do not have a right to live under an inferior government. It’s mistaken to refer to this as ‘people who live there having a say’, as if it were a good thing a priori and regardless of their tribalist motivations or what oppression they might want to impose on the rest of the islanders. (This is what I was trying to bring out in the theoretical examples.) But given that it’s a small island at considerable distance from the UK, I do not think it would be worth using violence to prevent it.

            It’s not that I’m against *letting* the Falklands secede. I am only against glorifying this morally as the ‘right to self-determination’. This is a more liberal, reasonable position because it refuses to condone any given form of oppression as some kind of tribal right, though it requires us to use violence only in defence against violence.

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