There are moments in history when a nation comes together as one. It is uplifting and is a breath of fresh air from the rancid atmosphere of retribution and revenge. That moment was lived by Mauritius this week when government and opposition, lifted by a euphoric population, united their forces to claim in one voice the return of the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritius, putting an end to the partial colonisation of our islands.
The general sentiment of togetherness is nothing new. It comes back at every step of our struggle for sovereignty which brings us closer and closer to our aim ever since the now no-longer secret note drafted by then-British Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s private secretary about the ‘deal’ that the British prime minister would offer Seewoosagur Ramgoolam during that meeting on the sidelines of the Lancaster House talks: “Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam is coming to see you at 10.00 tomorrow morning. The object is to frighten him with hope: hope that he might get independence; fright lest he might not unless he is sensible about the detachment of the Chagos Archipelago.”
Ever since this act of bullying, and the heartless expulsion of a whole population to make sure there is “no indigenous population except seagulls who have not yet got a committee” as Paul Gore-Booth, permanent under-secretary of the Colonial Office put it, Mauritius has been relentless in its fight against Britain and indirectly its giant ally – the US.
The struggle of both the Chagos Refugee Group and the Mauritian government has since punctuated our history, leading to small victories. (See our cover story in Weekly this week). In 1971, the ordinance by Britain barring Chagossians from returning to the archipelago was successfully challenged in British courts.
Our biggest victory perhaps came when Mauritius reacted to the 2010 declaration of a marine protected area – a subterfuge to keep the Chagossians away – by lodging and winning a case in the tribunal under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The tribunal decided that the marine zone was illegal.
Today, we are fighting another one of those big battles which will hopefully yield another small victory. But then again, any small victory against two giants is morally a big one. And we can only fight on moral grounds. Concretely, however, we still have a long way to go to see our Chagossian compatriots packing their suitcases to go and live – or even die – in their home island.
For we are dealing with Britain and indirectly their ally the United States. We know from history that an Advisory Opinion is meaningless for the US and its allies and that when it comes to international law, might is right. Anyone who needs convincing just has to look at the Palestinian situation. The same International Court of Justice (IJC) rendered its Advisory Opinion about the construction of what came to be known as “the wall of shame” by Israel – a big ally of the US – in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The ICJ had then declared, “Israel must put an immediate end to the violation of its international obligations by ceasing the works of construction of the wall and dismantling those parts of that structure situated within Occupied Palestinian Territory and… make reparation for all damage suffered by all natural or legal persons affected by the wall’s construction.” That was as far back as 2004! The wall has been completed and reinforced since. As for the “reparation for all damage”, let’s not even go there.
So Chagos may not be for tomorrow. Our victory however will be a moral one. Embarrassing and shaming those who take the moral high ground when it comes to judging other countries but are oblivious to the worst human atrocities perpetrated by them. And for that we do need to stand together as one and recognise each other’s role in the struggle! Away from idealisation. Away from canonisation. Away from cheap politics and gross propaganda.
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