The battle for Chagos: What did Goliath lose?

3 sep 2018 10:36

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(This article was published in Weekly on the 29 June, 2017) The UN resolution on Chagos was a very public slap in Goliath’s (read Britain’s) face. Oh, it hurt. But the question is, will it leave a permanent scar?

Everyone loves a good old David-beatsGoliath story. The diplomatic fight for the Chagos Islands is no exception. On the one side, there is this tiny David-esque island state in the middle of nowhere that the world barely notices, except for when some superstar wants to take a luxury holiday under the sun. On the other side, there are Goliathan superpowers Britain and, lurking in the shadows, the US.

In this specific story, Goliath says that he is a pleasant giant that likes peace, daffodils, democracy and human rights. But David calls Goliath a hypocrite, because Goliath apparently forgot about his supposed love for human rights when he watched an entire people getting kicked out of their own country because the giants wanted to build a castle (military base) there. The story has more drama, intrigue and emotion than an average suspense series on Netflix. And so, it was not surprising that the world inhaled sharply when the United Nations’ (UN) member states had to vote on a resolution about seeking an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague on the legal status of the Chagos Islands. In fact, the world did more than just inhale. It made popcorn, relaxed.

David’s allies used the same rhetoric, focusing heavily on the need to crush whatever is left of colonialism everywhere in the world. The anti-colonialism, pro-human rights approach was effective – so effective that countries that were expected to support Goliath for political reasons relented and let themselves be guided by principles instead of diplomatic strategies. In the end, the UK and the US did not stand a chance with their tired tune about how this is a dispute between states that should be solved bilaterally. It was a slam-dunk victory: 94 to 15 countries voted in favour of the resolution. The moment was referred to as historic. But after the champagne and the fireworks, the time has come to ask ourselves: What exactly did we win?

David’s position

Goliath’s face is momentarily covered in blood but, according to a political observer, Jocelyn Chan Low from the University for Mauritius, the bruise that will remain once he has cleaned himself might not be too ugly. “The adaptation of the resolution is a step forward, but how much forward?” Chan Low asked rhetorically.

The only action that the UN’s general assembly has de facto taken, as a result of the vote, is to seek the ICJ’s advisory opinion on the legal consequences arising from the separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius. The key word here is ‘advisory’. Any verdict that the international court delivers, even if it is in favour of Mauritius, will be just that – advisory and symbolic. “It would be a diplomatic and political victory if the ICJ ruled in favour of Mauritius, but it risks having no effect on realpolitik,” said Chan Low.

Whatever happens, the Goliaths would be able to continue to run their own races on Chagos – an anti-fairytale scenario that Chan Low unfortunately envisions. “The US would just ignore any ICJ verdict on Diego Garcia that wasn’t in their favour,” he said. “It might cost them a few political and diplomatic points, but defence and military issues come first,” he added.

Would the sting from the slap of losing diplomatic points not sting too much, though? No, according. We would be likely to see some American-bashing in international forums and at highlevel meetings, but it would be nothing that the US wouldn’t be able to handle. The superpower would face some harsh words about how it doesn’t respect another country’s’ territory, but there would be no real sanctions that would make altering a functioning military strategy worth the trouble for the US.

Smaller than David

While the victory might turn out not to amount to much for Mauritius, it risks mattering even less to the one group of people who are symbolically smaller than David in this story – the exiled Chagossians. Certain stakeholders wrongly perceived the UN resolution as a landmark victory in their struggle to resettle on the islands. Dreamers, however, risk facing disappointment. “There has been some confusion, but the truth is that sovereignty and resettlement are still two different issues,” said Chan Low. The confusion might have arisen from the government’s rather recent decision to team up with the Chagos Refugees Group to put up a united front in international forums when it lobbied for the sovereignty cause. It was a strategically smart move, since it would have been more difficult for foreign governments to get away with publicly ignoring human suffering than to ignore a faceless land dispute.

The Chagossians were a useful marketing tool that allowed Mauritius to score some points from a human rights perspective, but it is not likely to have any immediate effect on their resettlement dream. “The resolution put the plight of the Chagossians back on the agenda – they got another opportunity to talk about how Britain treated them – but that’s all. An eventual resettlement is still far away,” said Chan Low. Their only hope, he added, is to wait for Mauritius to settle the sovereignty dispute which will eventually facilitate their resettlement, sometime in a distant future.

Even if Mauritius gets a positive ICJ verdict and the US, against all odds, decides to give into the international pressure, nothing is likely to happen before 2036. That is when the lease that the UK granted the US for operating a military base on Diego Garcia expires, having been renewed last year. If it ever plans to recognise Mauritius’ sovereignty over the islands – which looks unlikely – the superpower can stall until at least then, according to Chan Low.

In real life, David versus Goliath stories rarely have happy endings. What we risk having to face is a Goliath who rules over David’s castle, with a tiny bruise on his forehead in memory of a certain UN resolution.

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