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A Historic Vote in the Falkland/Malvinas Islands

Far south of the South American continent and east of Argentina and Chile is an archipelago known as the Falkland Islands, or Islas Malvinas in Spanish. With a thriving economy and unparalleled natural views and sea life, what some consider inhospitable land is actually home to hundreds of families who live in one of the safest and most beautiful regions of the world. 

Unfortunately, the islands are not primarily known for their natural beauty or safety.  Instead, the islands evoke animosity between Britain and Argentina.  Disagreement over control of the islands erupted in war in 1982, causing hundreds of deaths. The situation continues to be emotionally charged for the islands’ 3,000 inhabitants.

In response to the continued international disagreement, local elected officials called for a referendum to determine the islands’ political status. The referendum question voted on March 10 and 11 asked: “Do you wish the Falkland Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom?"

Extensive preparations took place ahead of the vote.  Local authorities held town hall meetings to determine the wording of the referendum question, and passed a number of referendum codes designed to ensure the vote meets internationally accepted standards of transparency and efficiency.  In this light, international observers were invited to supervise the vote.  Brad Smith of California and I led the international observation team made up of political and civil society leaders and technical experts from all over Latin America.  Observers from as far as New Zealand joined Mexico, Uruguay, Chile, Canada, and the U.S. for the vote.

At play was the opinion of more than 1,600 eligible voters, most of whom have links stretching back eight or nine generations to the islands.  Their forefathers fished squid, hunted whales and farmed wool to survive.  Here, too, expeditions to and from Antarctica, Europe and Asia landed to rest and refuel before the long journey home. 

A two-day vote was held to ensure everyone in East and West Falkland had the opportunity to vote.  Four static stations in Stanley, Goose Green, Port Howard, and Fox Bay accompanied four mobile polling stations and a mobile flight which served more than six outer islands.  Overall, it was an impressive logistical undertaking that included Range Rovers, airplanes and numerous election officials. 

In the end, more than 1,500 Islanders voted, for a 92 percent total turnout.  An amazing 99.8 percent of voters said “yes” to their union with the United Kingdom.  Three voters went in the opposite direction. Had the vote gone their way, local officials were prepared to hold subsequent referendums to determine the Islands’ future political status. 

International referendum observers were in no position to opine—nor will they opine— on political matters involving territorial claims by foreign governments.  Their responsibility was purely of a technical nature.  Observers do hope, however, that the outcome is respected at all political levels and within multilateral institutions.  Islanders, like citizens of any free nation, have a right to self-determination, political certainty, economic freedom, and the right to raise families in social harmony. 

In speaking on behalf of an international audience, our referendum observation team held the highest ethical and professional standards throughout the process.  At a press conference this week, Brad Smith and I issued our initial observation findings, which praised the work undertaken by local authorities to ensure a free and transparent vote.  Our team found no signs of coercion and concluded that the process met international standards.                

*Juan Manuel Henao is a consultant based in Mexico City and former Mexico Country Director for the International Republican Institute (IRI), a Washington DC-based not-for-profit democracy promotion organization.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Falkland Islands, Malvinas, Argentina, Britain

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