Chagos Archipelago: Principled stance

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On 13TH JULY, in a written answer to Lord Jones of Cheltenham’s Parliamentary Question (PQ) on the Chagos Archipelago, Baroness Anelay of St John’s, Minister of State, Deputy Speaker of the UK House of Lords, quotes almost word for word from the content of the Joint Press Statement of the British High Commission and the Embassy of the United States of America issued in Port-Louis on the 24th June. The press statement followed Prime Minister Anerood Jugnauth’s official announcement in the Mauritius National Assembly that he would seek a referral by the forthcoming UN General Assembly to the International Court of Justice in order to obtain an advisory opinion on Chagos Archipelago.

‘Referral of this matter to the International Court of Justice would cause lasting damage to Mauritius’ bilateral relations’, harps on Baroness Anelay of St John’s in her answer to the PQ, ‘and we have respectfully sought the Prime Minister of Mauritius’ assurance that he does not in- tend to proceed with such action…’ In spite of the repeated undisguised threat, couched in a surprisingly undiplomatic language, the Mauritian Prime Minister has shown no sign of faltering but instead maintained an uncompromising stand on Mauritius sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago, conscious of his high moral and legal ground on an issue that draws unanimous support from the population.

It should have been clear right from the start of the conversation between Dr Peter Hayes of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), on a special Chagos-related mission to Mauritius in early May this year, and Sir Anerood Jugnauth that the latter was not prepared to allow Britain to continue taking Mauritius for a ride. ‘A date,’ he was reported to have asked for from his interlocutor. He wanted the UK Government to simply but solemnly announce the date on which the Chagos would return under Mauritius sovereignty. Nothing more, but nothing less also! He was adamant in his demand and not prepared to be tricked again by any subterfuge.

As the last of the Mohicans, PM Jugnauth still remembers the conclusion of the 1965 London Constitutional Conference when the illegal excision of the Chagos archipelago, bartered for our independence, was ram- med down Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam’s throat by the then British Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson while the other members of the Mauritian delegation, including himself as an Independent Forward Block delegate, were frustratingly put in front of a ‘fait accompli.’ It was later disclosed that the ‘deal’ was sealed with a golden hand-shake of 3 million British Pounds. JeanClaude de l’Estrac, in his book entitled L’An prochain à Diego Garcia, describes the deal as a sale of the Chagos Archipelago to the British. I’d rather call it a compulsory acquisition of land in an occupied territory leased or given away to a third party for an unspecified project that would turn out to be lethal. Successive Mauritian governments have since maintained our claim to sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago.

The worst part of the ‘deal’, however, was not so much the grabbing of the land as it was the inhuman and highly reprehensible treatment meted out to the natives of the Chagos Archipelago. Some were tricked and others forcibly removed by the British colonisers and left to rot in the squalid conditions they had to live in Mauritius and in the Seychelles. Several of them kept loitering on the quay, night and day, hoping for a boat that would take them back to their paradise islands. But it was not to be. No pro- vision whatsoever had been made by the local authorities to welcome or to offer them and their children a minimum of comfort. Many were left stranded in the strange suburbs of Port-Louis, without food and accommodation.

The suffering of the forcibly exiled inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago is today well known and well documented, in spite of the desperate attempt made by the British to sell to the world the fiction of the archipelago being made up of desert islands peopled at some remote period by ‘contract workers’ or a couple of Man Fridays! In his recent publication Retour aux Chagos, Fernand Mandarin, one of the forefront native Chagossians’ spokespersons, who was allowed to leave the archipelago in 1966 to join his wife in Mauritius, revealed that the latter had been denied the right to return home to Diego Garcia after giving birth to their first child in Mauritius, in October 1963. The only conclusion we can draw from this cruel hardship faced by the Mandarin couple is that as early as 1963, ten years ahead of the final cleansing of the Chagos Archipelago, the ignominious conspiracy for the setting up of a military base on Diego Garcia had been hatched and the process of the depopulation of the Chagos Archipelago had secretly started. When John Prescott, the former deputy prime minister in Tony Blair’s Labour government was made aware of the circumstances in which took place the deportation of the Chagossians, he stated publicly that he was ashamed UK governments al- lowed this to happen. “It was wrong”, he said, “and we must make amends.”

Olivier Bancoult, leader of the Chagos Refugees Group, has made of the right of the Chagossians to return home his cheval de bataille, for nearly two decades now but is still waiting for the UK to ‘make amends’. In the litigation between the Chagossians and the UK government, in the London High Court or the House of Lords, many a lawsuit was won, lost or quashed often by having recourse to Orders in Council, which are undemocratic in essence. The news that a British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) commissioned report, carried out by KPMG to look into the repatriation of the forcibly exiled Chagossians may soon make the latter’s return to their ancestral home possible as, according to a draft report there are ‘no fundamental legal obstacles’ to resettlement, was received with mixed feelings - a ray of hope for the Chagossians and cautiousness by the Mauritian authorities, fearing yet another deliberate obstacle in their bid to reclaim their lost territory.

“As early as 1963, ten years ahead of the final cleansing of the Chagos Archipelago, the ignominious conspiracy for the setting up of a military base on Diego Garcia had been hatched.”

In front of the principled stance of Mauritius on the sovereignty issue, it is feared the UK government might favour the organisation of a referendum and try and lure the Chagossian community, including its diaspora, into voting in favour of the Chagos Archipelago remaining a British colony. I have personally, on several occasions, invited the Mauritian authorities to enter into a productive dialogue with the Chagossians, through their elected and recognised leaders, and draw together a road map for the future status and development of the Chagos, once our sovereignty over the archipelago is restored. I have an inkling that this important step has not been seriously considered yet, although one should realise that in this case also, time is of the essence.

We should have already braced ourselves to face unavoidable concerted assault against our legitimate claim in this crucial year when the renewal of the lease of Diego Garcia will be the subject of negotiations between the 2 interested parties namely Britain and the United States. We need to muster all our troops – our traditional friends and both regional and international organisations – to be able to successfully challenge those 2 powers. As far back as 1980, the Organisation of African Unity, the predecessor of the African Union passed the Resolution on Diego Garcia demanding that it be unconditionally returned to Mauritius and that the military base is a threat to Africa. Later, in 2001, the same African Union passed another resolution calling for the return of Diego Garcia to Mauritius in order to complete the process of decolonisation.

The illegal dismemberment of our territory at the time of our independence and the forcible exile of the whole population of the Chagos Archipelago occurred at the height of the Cold War so that the US could turn Diego Garcia into a military base. All other reasons put forward by the super power and his unconditional ally to explain their heinous acts were damned lies. Diego Garcia is today perhaps the most important US installation in the world with around 4,000 US military and civilian personnel in residence, including some 40 British naval officers. In defence of the West, the Diego Garcia base, dubbed the “Footprint of Freedom”, has been used as a launch pad for B-52 bombers during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that killed thousands of innocent civilians including children, insensibly defined as collateral damage. It is today reported to be playing a part in the so-called war on terror and has been used for the refuelling of 2 “rendition” flights in 2002.

Tomorrow, our right and dignity restored, are we to allow Diego Garcia, that territory of ours, to continue to be used for such cruel acts in return for an annual rental, however hefty it could be? This is akin to blood money, Mr Prime Minister, and you certainly don’t need that sort of money for a second economic miracle!

A principled stance on this issue would be to ask the US for a date for the dis- mantling of the military base as well. We could then expect the full weight of the African leaders behind us and unanimous patronage from the African Union as well as from the Non-Aligned Movement for Mauritius claim of sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago, including Diego Garcia.

The three aspects of what can be termed the Chagossian saga are all inter-related and should be dealt with concurrently – adequate compensation and return of the exiled people and their descendants to their native island, the sovereignty of Mauritius over the Chagos Archipelago and the dismantling of the US military base. Any other unprincipled approach would be a strategic error and bound to weaken our case at the United Nations with the result that our legitimate claim could fail to draw the support required.

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