Mauritius: Wind Of Change Blows Over Diego Garcia

Mauritius: Wind Of Change Blows Over Diego Garcia
  • PublishedJuly 27, 2012

After years of prevarication, Britain has signalled that it is willing toreturn to the negotiating table with Mauritius to discuss the status of the Chagos Archipelago (best known for its island of Diego Garcia, pictured below, where the US has a huge military base). Sean Carey reports.

The wind of change is blowing through this continent, said British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan when he addressed the whites-only South African parliament in Cape Town on 3 February 1960. “Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.”

That wind blew again when another Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, met his Mauritian counterpart, Dr Navin Ramgoolam, at 10, Downing Street in early June.

The Dublin-educated Ramgoolam was in the UK to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and to sign a memorandum of understanding that allows the detention and trial of suspected Somali pirates
captured by British forces in the Indian Ocean. It was of great significance that the sovereignty of the disputed Chagos Archipelago, the so-called British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), also made it
onto the agenda. At the completion of the bilateral talks, the first between the two countries’ prime ministers since 1997, it was announced that discussions on Chagos would begin at ministerial level.

On his return to Mauritius the following week, Dr Ramgoolam stated that he planned to travel to Washington at the end of July with the intention of meeting the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton,
and Leon Panetta, defence secretary.

An ever-increasing number of people now know at least something about the way around 1,500 Chagossians, whose African slave ancestors first arrived in Chagos in the late 18th century, were
forcibly removed from their homeland between 1968 and 1971 to make way for the US military base on Diego Garcia, the largest and southernmost island in the archipelago.

Far fewer people are aware, however, that the Chagos Archipelago was excised from the colony of Mauritius in 1965 at the height of the Cold War by Harold Wilson’s Labour government as a condition
of the country’s independence in 1968. Successive governments in Port Louis have pointed out to anyone who would listen that the dismemberment of its territory, established under the terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1814, was in blatant contravention of UN Resolution 1514 of 1960. This very clearly states that “any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations”.

Those words were coined more than half a century ago – the same year as Macmillan made his speech in South Africa which inaugurated a second wave of decolonisation in sub-Saharan Africa – so why has it taken until now for the UK to signal that it is willing to return to the negotiating table? There may be four major reasons.

The first is that for 14 years, successive UK governments have been involved in a no-expense-spared battle with Olivier Bancoult, 48, leader of the Port Louisbased Chagos Refugees Group. An electrician, who was sent into exile when he was four years old, Bancoult is seeking the right of return for around 700 surviving islanders and their descendants, to their ancestral homeland.

After a series of spectacular victories in the British High Court and Court of Appeal, Bancoult lost by a narrow 3-2 verdict in the House of Lords, the highest court in Britain, in 2008. Nevertheless,
the Chagos Refugees Group’s legal efforts have been backed unequivocally by Dr Ramgoolam. Unsurprisingly, his government has been keen not to let the UK drive a wedge between the Chagos-
sians and Mauritius’s claim over the archipelago. Under the British Overseas Territories Act 2002, the Chagossians are entitled to dual British and Mauritian nationality – indeed around 1,800 of them
have migrated to Crawley, near Gatwick Airport in West Sussex.

The case is now before the European Court of Human Rights, and a judgement is expected later this year. Even the zealots in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London, who have maintained
a consistently hostile attitude towards Chagossian resettlement, must fear that the European Court will find against the UK.

The second reason is that Mauritius is currently contesting the right of the former UK foreign secretary, David Miliband, to have unilaterally declared Chagos a full “no take” marine-protected area on 1 April, 2010.

As Wikileaks later revealed, the policy, which outlaws subsistence fishing, was deliberately designed to put paid to the right of return of the Chagossians, described as “Man Fridays” by Colin Roberts, the BIOT commissioner.

Evidence of an unreconstructed co lonial mentality and a strategy much influenced by Machiavelli is unlikely to go down well at the forthcoming tribunal, which will hear the case under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It is also noteworthy that Mauritius will be represented by the formidable Philippe Sands QC, professor of international law at London University. If the judgement goes against the UK, this will have significant implications for America’s Diego Garcia base, where an extension to the existing agreement between the UK and US has to be ratified by December 2014.

The third reason is that Mauritius, which has a population of nearly 1.3 million, has direct experience of the implications in the shift of power from West to East and South. The poly-ethnic, palmfringed
island, well-known as a highend, paradise holiday destination, is now being wooed by China and India. Both emerging superpowers see the oldest of the Mascarene Islands as an important gateway to fast-growing consumer markets in mainland Africa comprising over 1 billion people.

The courtship means that Mauritius, Which is diversifying its near $11 billion economy away from textiles, tourism and sugar towards offshore banking, business outsourcing, and luxury real estate, is no longer obliged to play a subservient role to the former colonial master or the US out of fear that its vital economic interests could come under pressure.

That leads to the final point. Although the threat from the Soviet Union has long since disappeared, the new powers, China and India, are both flexing their evergrowingmilitary muscles in the region.

And the competition is not just limited to blue water. India now has the capacity, with its surface-to-surface Agni-III rocket capable of carrying a 1.5 tonne nuclear warhead more than 3000 kilometres, to reach not only the Chinese cities of Beijing and Shanghai, but also Diego Garcia. In response, China is busy upgrading both its nuclear and conventional missile system. The arms race has caused alarm in Washington.

The US undoubtedly sees China as the main threat to its economic and political interests and for this reason is desperately keen for India to keep a check on its regional
rival’s ambitions.

Indeed, on a visit to New Delhi last month, the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, was very clear about the aims and intentions of the Obama administration. “In particular,” he said, “we will
expand our partnerships and our presence in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia. Defence cooperation with India is a linchpin in
this strategy.”

What is intriguing, however, is that both India and China are involved in everwidening trade relations. Indeed some analysts think that by 2030 India and China could form the world’s largest trading
combination. But really, it’s anyone’s guess about what might happen in the Indian Ocean – more trade, more military activity, or a combination of the two.

Could it be, then, that the rapprochement between London and Port Louis is happening because the penny has dropped amongst UK and US foreign policy and military strategists, that it would be much better to have Mauritius as an ally, not an enemy at a time of unprecedented geopolitical upheaval?

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New African

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