LONDON, Mar 12 – British Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday urged Argentina to respect the wishes of the Falkland Islanders after they voted overwhelmingly in a referendum to remain a British territory.
A near unanimous 99.8 percent of the 1,672 eligible voters in the disputed South Atlantic archipelago voted “yes”, according to official results, with a 92 percent turnout.
Only three of the 1,517 valid ballots were cast against staying an internally self-governing British territory.
The islanders organised the vote in response to increasingly vocal demands for sovereignty by Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, who claims Britain is illegally occupying the islands.
Her government has dismissed the referendum as meaningless and said it would not affect its claims on the Falklands, which sparked a brief but bloody war with Britain in 1982.
The announcement of the result overnight Monday was met with jubilation in the islands’ tiny capital Stanley, and Cameron said he was personally “delighted” by the outcome.
The British prime minister urged Argentina to “take careful note”.
“The Falkland Islanders couldn’t have spoken more clearly. They want to remain British and that view should be respected by everybody, including by Argentina,” he said in a statement.
Cameron also warned against any military action by Argentina.
“The Falkland Islands may be thousands of miles away but they are British through and through and that is how they want to stay. People should know we will always be there to defend them,” he said.
Falklanders hope the referendum result will arm them with an unambiguous message to take to other capitals when pressing their case for acceptance on the international stage.
The United States, for example, has studiously avoided taking sides on the issue despite its close ties with Britain.
The resounding “yes” result, delivered at around 10:30 pm Monday (0130 GMT Tuesday), sparked massive celebrations.
“There’s so much noise here, it’s huge,” said Barry Elsby, a member of the islands’ legislative assembly. “There are hundreds of people outside the cathedral, celebrating, singing and waving flags.”
He told AFP the vote “sends a message around the world”.
International observers from Canada, Chile, Mexico, New Zealand, Paraguay, the United States and Uruguay monitored the referendum on Sunday and Monday and declared it “free and fair”.
Argentina however maintained its position that the vote was illegal.
“It’s a manoeuvre with no legal value, which has neither been convened nor supervised by the United Nations,” said Alicia Castro, Argentina’s ambassador to London.
“We respect their way of life, their identity. We respect that they want to continue being British, but the territory they inhabit is not British,” she told Argentinian media.
The referendum sparked huge enthusiasm among the Falkland Islands’ 2,563 permanent residents, four-fifths of whom live in Stanley, with its typically British pubs and red telephone boxes.
The remaining several hundred islanders are scattered in isolated sheep farms and tiny settlements across the bleakly picturesque landscape outside the town, known as “Camp”.
Even out there, homes and shops were festooned with posters and flags, both Britain’s Union Jack and the deep blue Falklands standard, which features the Union Jack and the islands’ crest — a sheep, a wooden ship and the motto “Desire the Right”.
London has held the Falklands since 1833 but Buenos Aires maintains that the barren islands are occupied Argentinian territory.
It says the United Nations had issued 40 resolutions calling on Buenos Aires and London to negotiate over the sovereignty of the territory, known as “Las Malvinas” in Spanish.
Tensions between the two sides have increased in recent years against a backdrop of the discovery of oil reserves in the waters off the Falklands, the 30th anniversary of the 1982 war and domestic political difficulties facing both governments.
International reaction to the vote was almost non-existent.
George Philip, professor of Comparative and Latin American Politics at the London School of Economics (LSE), said the vote “offers a certain psychological relief” to the islanders from Kirchner’s emotional claims to their home.
But he added: “In international terms, it’s a bit of a non-event. I think people will hope it goes away.”