Falkland islanders launch diplomatic offensive to counter Argentinians

Falkland Islands' 99.8% 'yes' vote in sovereignty referendum is being rammed home on tour of Americas to drum up support

Falkland islanders have launched a diplomatic offensive in the Americas to underline their overwhelming vote at the weekend to remain British.

Amid euphoria after the 99.8% "yes" vote, some are also looking to increase the island's self-sufficiency in the future, when they hope to use oil revenues to contribute towards the high costs of defending this remote South Atlantic community from Argentina.

Delegates from the islands will tour the United States, the Caribbean and Latin America to drum up support for their right to self-determination.

Mike Summers, a member of the island's legislative assembly, will soon visit Washington, where he expects to talk to US state department officials and New York, where he will have a meeting at the United Nations.

He – and other delegates from the assembly – will also take the islands' message to the international media.

"We're taking the result of the referendum to various countries to ask for support, to encourage them not to sit on the fence, and to show that this is not an argument between Britain and Argentina, it is a human rights issue," he told the Guardian.

"The vote gives us a strong hand. It is an act of self-determination that nations should be able to support even if they don't support the UK."

The initiative appears aimed at countering growing Argentinian diplomatic pressure. The government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has lobbied UN and regional bodies, paid for full-page advertisements in British newspapers and – most controversially – restricted access to the islands. It has persuaded South American neighbours to turn away Falklands-flagged ships, curtailed overflights and imposed sanctions on companies that exploit the resources of the islands.

The Argentinian foreign minister, Héctor Timerman, has declared the referendum on the islands – which are known as the Malvinas in Argentina – "illegal".

Alicia Castro, Argentina's ambassador to the UK, described the vote as "totally irrelevant".

"The situation is the same as it was yesterday. We have witnessed yet another delaying manoeuvre," she told Argentinian radio.

The Falkland islanders have the support of the UK government, which can often be counterproductive in a region where Britain's colonial history is widely reviled.

David Cameron called on Argentina to respect the wishes of the people of the Falkland Islands following the result today. Argentina should take "careful note" of the referendum result and that Britain would always be there to defend the islanders, the prime minister said.

To get what they say is a distinct message across, the community of some 2,900 islanders has initiated its own charm offensive, funded – it claims – from its own budget.

"It's expensive but important. We're trying to secure our political future and to push back against the relentless stream of aggression from Argentina," said Summers. "We have been self-sufficient for some time, apart from defence, so we can afford it. The only stress is that we don't have much time. There are only eight delegates and the world is a big place."

The main target for persuasion is the United States. Islanders were dismayed last month when the new US secretary of state, John Kerry – who was on his first visit to London since taking up his post – said the US took "no position on the question of parties' sovereignty".

Islanders said they would try to use the referendum result to shift opinion.

Steve Vincent, a businessman in the Falklands, said: "We hope for results. The US is a friend and ally. They say they support democracy and independence, so for them to sit on the fence is annoying."

The more assertive strategy of the Falkland islanders is partly determined by economics. Currently, the islands' budget is largely dependent on sales of fishing rights, which can vary enormously from year to year.

But four years from now, oil and gas, which it is hoped will begin pumping from new fields, is expected to bring in £200m-£300m a year. This will give the community more economic stability, flexibility and independence. Some say it will also allow them to share in the £75m costs of maintaining a heavy British military presence of 1,300 troops. "If the oil money comes in as expected, we'd happily contribute to our defence. It's expensive and we know times are hard so we'd like to contribute," said Vincent, who said it was a common view on the islands.

Although the community includes a wide range of nationalities, the majority are descendents of British settlers, some going back to the mid-19th century, as well as more recent UK arrivals.

Argentina, which insists it has a prior claim on the archipelago's sovereignty, says the islanders were transplanted by a colonial power. Many Falklanders consider themselves more British than people living in the UK. The 1982 war strengthened this identification. Today, locals still celebrate a "Thatcher Day" holiday once a year.

Given this climate, it is almost surprising that three people voted against British rule.

"No one has owned up and I don't expect they ever will," said Vincent. "There would be no repercussions because this is a democracy so people are entitled to vote either way.

"But given the strength of the 'yes' vote, they might be seen as unpatriotic ... Then again, if we did have a 100% 'yes' vote, it might look suspicious."


Jonathan Watts, Latin America correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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