The Chagos: looking back in order to look forward

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Under Mauritian sovereignty, Diego Garcia would still be able to host the US military base.

A year after the United Nations General Assembly ordered the United Kingdom to evacuate Chagossian territory, the situation has not changed. Despite adverse international public opinion and the recommendation of its own All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Chagos to heed the Court’s opinion, the UK continues to be defiant, says the author.

22 May 2019. A benchmark in our efforts at reclaiming our legitimate rights on the Chagos Archipelago. The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), in the wake of the opinion emitted earlier by the International Court of Justice ( ICJ), resolved that the UK should abide by the Court ruling and vacate the Chagos within six months. A year has elapsed. No movement, that is known, has been recorded on that particular scoreboard. 

This leads one to wonder: what moral right would the UK have to pressurise other countries to uphold UN Resolutions and international law in general? For example, can it apply pressure on the Israeli government to abandon its stated intention of annexing the West Bank and other Palestinian territories? Israel was, after all, one of the other five, along with Australia, that voted against the Resolution. 

Had the UK not contravened in the 1960s, the Chagos would not have been excised…

The Chagos Archipelago issue has kept the UK and Mauritius at loggerheads for over half a century. In reviewing this matter, it is opportune to recall certain pertinent facts: 

First, the UK, in defiance mainly of United Nations resolutions 1514 and 2066, excised the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius prior to Independence and leased it to the USA to establish a naval facility on Diego Garcia. The Chagossians were unceremoniously removed and dumped principally in Mauritius. 

Second, Mauritius is not a belligerent nation and has peaceful credentials. It has no national army. It harbours no untoward ambition in the region. Its foreign policy is anchored on: friendship to all, enmity to none.

Third, the Indian Ocean is a major trade route, principally for known rivals India and China. France is present in the region through its departments of Reunion and Mayotte (the latter being part of the Comoros Archipelago), the UK through the illegal occupation of the Chagos, and its military presence in Kenya and Oman. It is noteworthy that Djibouti, at the western tip of the Indian Ocean, hosts a number of foreign bases on its territory, including those of China, France, the US, Italy and Japan. India is equally present in the region via a number of privileged agreements, including coastal surveillance systems. 

Lest it is forgotten, Mauritius has always favoured a bilateral approach to this dispute, but the UK, for decades, avoided addressing the real issue, resorting to delaying tactics. The British-Mauritius Fisheries Commission of the 1990s relating to the exchange of fisheries scientific data around the Chagos waters, the so-called Marine Protected Area (MPA) of 2010, covering the same expanse but, lo and behold, excluding the waters of Diego Garcia, are flagrant examples of such perfidy. Substantial bilateral talks at the highest level, often called for by Mauritius, were craftily circumvented. Resolutions of international and regional organisations like the Non-Aligned Movement, the OAU/AU calling for peaceful settlement were simply ignored. Mauritius even proposed a possible way forward: the immediate restitution of the outer islands to it while discussions on Diego Garcia would continue. This proposal was also put to President W. Bush in 2004 at the Oval Office by then Prime Minister Bérenger. But the mandarins of London were adamantly opposed.

Matters worsened when Bérenger threatened to withdraw temporarily from the Commonwealth to take the matter to the ICJ. The UK shamefully amended its reservation on such matters barring that route. Mauritius served notice that it would take the matter to the UNGA to move the ICJ. However, a change in government in Mauritius simmered down the issue for a while until the UK’s unilateral proclamation of the Chagos MPA, despite a contrary undertaking from then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to then Prime Minister Ramgoolam. The latter took the matter forward leading to the historical verdict of the Law of the Sea Arbitral Tribunal on the matter. 

Mauritius had always privileged the bilateral course. Even former Prime Minister Anerood Jugnauth gave more time to time. The threatening note issued jointly by the UK and US missions in Port-Louis when concrete steps were being envisaged to take the issue to the UNGA simply blew the lid off. If the matter has been so internationalised of late and now rests with the UN, it is but thanks to the British themselves.

Despite the ICJ’s forceful pronouncement condemning UK’s actions and enjoining it to terminate immediately its unlawful occupation of the Chagos, an opinion overwhelmingly upheld by the UNGA, regrettably, the UK continues to baffle international law. Its stature in the world is dented. It even failed to have its judge re-elected to the ICJ, a first since the inception of the Court. Despite adverse international public opinion and the recommendation of its own All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Chagos to heed the Court’s opinion, the UK continues to be defiant. Even the EU countries, except Hungary, dissociated themselves from it. 

Australia also finds itself among the six that voted against the UN Resolution. But then, throughout its history, it has predisposed itself unconditionally to the USA and by extension to the UK. Yet, it has had many an opportunity to play a legitimate leadership role in the region. As a Commonwealth country, along with India and post-apartheid South Africa, it could have formed an axis to play a major role in the security of the Indian Ocean and be identified more as a committed partner in this region than being tied to the WEOG (Western Europe and Others Group) in the context of the UN geographical configurations. Its attempt to form a rival grouping at the time the Indian Ocean Rim Association was being mooted is revealing. Isn’t it time for a review of its foreign policy options and position itself as an important player in this part of the world?

The UK should understand that times have changed. This is another world. It is no more the era of ‘Rule Britannia’! It should drop its defiance and play according to international norms. It should demonstrate its willingness to uphold the ICJ opinion and restore itself as an international law-abiding country. Mauritius is willing to dialogue and make the rightful conclusion. Resettlement of our citizens on the Archipelago is not problematic. 

Mauritius is officially on record as having no objection to the US continuing to operate its base on Diego Garcia. Of course, it is conscious that the Pelindaba Treaty constitutes an obstacle in that perspective. It is, however, in a ‘fait accompli’ situation. Had the UK not contravened in the 1960s, the Chagos would not have been excised and history surely would have taken a different course. Mauritius will need to negotiate with the member states of the AU, parties to the Treaty, and chart a way forward. The Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace concept spearheaded by India in the thick of the Cold War is no longer among the cards being dealt in this region. 

The way forward exists. And Sovereignty has no price!

P.S: It would be interesting to see what the UK Court of Appeal has to say in the wake of last year’s developments at the ICJ and the UNGA in its impending adjudication. Also imminent is the UN Secretary General’s report to the Assembly.

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