The government wants to invent a new crime: Treason. It is doing this by simply adding a new section to the Criminal Code threatening to punish anyone it deems to be writing or producing material that misleads the public about the sovereignty of Mauritius on any part of its territory. It threatens those breaking this new lawit invented with up to 10 years in prison and a Rs5 million fine. The timing of this move is not all that surprising: beset by scandal and corruption, governments often try to drape themselves in the flag and no doubt this peculiar piece of legislation will be passed with a nod and wink towards the dispute with the UK over the Chagos. If that is the intention, then the law itself is pointless. Who within the country disputes Mauritius’ claims over the Chagos? It’s one of the few matters that all Mauritians do agree on: the Chagos must return to Mauritius and Chagossians must be allowed to resettle there.
The trouble with this new crime invented by the government is that in a country with as complex a history and territory as Mauritius, such a simplistic law is open to an immense amount of abuse. Take Rodrigues for instance, where there are smaller political parties and individuals that call for Rodriguan independence and deny Rodrigues as an essential part of Mauritian territory. Such a platform would be a crime under this new law. Do we then throw them in prison and risk fanning separatism within Rodrigues?
In recent years, lots of questions have been raised about Agalega and the construction of a foreign military base there. In part, this has been a self-inflicted problem given that the government has kept its own people in the dark about what is happening in Agalega. This has led to concerns that Mauritius has bartered away its sovereignty. There is no doubt that such concerns are motivated by a genuine patriotism and concern for the national interest. Under this law, however, that too would be a crime. Sowill this law be used like a sledgehammer to silence such concerns?
Aside from its insidious side, now we come to the part of the law that’s a bit of a joke. It deems that anybody outside Mauritius providing misleading information about Mauritius’ sovereignty (as the government sees it) can also be prosecuted. For one thing, there is no way that it can actually implement such a law unless they plan to arrest US and British writers and analysts that dispute Mauritius’ territorial claims on the Chagos. Or French writers when it comes to Tromelin. And in any case, the British don’t undermine Mauritius’ claims through sponsoring writers; they do so within Mauritius through other means such as the 40 million pound ‘support package’ or jaunts to the Chagos. So the law is pretty much meaningless in that respect.
Worse, this nonsensical law could actually leave the government with egg on its face and alienate allies. Bacoult and the Chagos Refugee Group have followed a two-pronged strategy over the years: in Mauritius agree with its claims over the Chagos while at the same time demanding that the UK government allow them to resettle in the Chagos as UK subjects (implying its recognition as UK territory). For arguments made in UK courts and newspapers, under this law,Bancoult too could be prosecuted. As could the group of UK parliamentarians sympathetic to the Chagossian demand for resettlement (though not formally recognising Mauritius’ claim). What about the Maldives that refused to back Mauritius because it claims part of the waters surrounding the Chagos? Do we engage in diplomacy or use this law to prosecute Maldivian writers and politicians for sticking up for their own government’s viewpoint? What about Chagossians in the UK and the Seychelles that don’t recognise Mauritian claims, do we try to win them over or see them as traitors as defined by this law?
Foreign relations in a country with a geography and history as complex as that of Mauritius requires a deft hand and a critical mind. Silly laws like this only turn us into a joke.