Chagos and the Bancoult’s Refugees Group

Resettlement is inextricably linked to sovereignty, without sovereignty there will be no resettlement

The request made by the Leader of the Opposition inviting the Prime Minister to meet Olivier Bancoult, leader of the Chagos Refugees Group (CRG) must have come from the heart. Hon Berenger, who is reputed for his assiduity when it comes to Chagos, knows all too well from the track record of Mr Bancoult, that it’s questionable whether the latter has ever had the interests of Mauritius at heart.

The right of Mauritius to exercise its sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago is not his priority, Mr Bancoult has publicly stated, and the CRG has for decades been fighting for only one cause: the right of the former inhabitants of Chagos to resettle on “their” islands. And it is only because Mr Bancoult and his associates are considered British subjects, and entitled to protection under British law accordingly, that the British Government has accepted to fund their numerous petitions to the UK High Court.

The British have always insisted that the Chagos Archipelago is theirs. They have argued consistently that the Archipelago, along with Mauritius, the Seychelles and other islands were ceded to Great Britain from France under the Treaty of Paris in 1814. In response to the numerous protests made by Mauritius on the question of sovereignty, they repeat ad nauseam that the islands will be ceded back to Mauritius if no longer required for defence purposes.

The Mauritian position could not be more contrasted with the British one but it aligned itself with the GRG for a right of resettlement. Mauritius has made it known that it wants to exercise its sovereign rights over the Chagos Archipelago, which it claims was illegally taken away from it at the time of independence.

Mauritius relies for that purpose on numerous UN resolutions and more particularly Resolution 1514 (XIV), which provides in its operative part that any attempt aimed at the partial disruption of the national unity and territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

Today thanks to the release of secret documents by Whitehall which have been deposited at the Public Records Office, it is confirmed that Britain withheld information that the islands were required for the exclusive use of the United States, on a long-term basis, as a fully fledged military base.

The Mauritian Government has much to gain in having Olivier Bancoult and his associates as part of an official working group on the Chagos, and display unity on Chagos when facing a former colonial power which excels in a divide-and-rule strategy. It is good to recall that Oliver Bancoult was a member of the delegation led by a former PM to an AU Summit in Addis and had easy access to the Minister and Senior officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Why should the CRG agree to such a proposal when Britain argues that it holds the key to a future resettlement? For the simple reason that this argument does not hold water anymore. The recent decision of the International Tribunal appointed to determine the compatibility of the Marine Protected Area around the Chagos Archipelago with the UNCLOS convention has brought a fundamental change to the equation, impinging both on the question of resettlement and sovereignty.

The Tribunal opined that the undertaking relating to the return of the Chagos when “no longer required for defence purposes” gives Mauritius “an interest in significant decisions that bear upon the possible future uses of the Archipelago”.

Commenting on the decision of the UNCLOS Tribunal in the European Journal of International Law, Michael Waibel, a lecturer at Cambridge University, wrote on 17 April 15: “More immediately the UK will find it difficult to avoid engaging in serious consultation with Mauritius on renewal of the lease of Diego Garcia to USA in 2016.”

Mauritius, in other words, has an interest not only in the eventual return of the Chagos but also in the condition in which it will be returned and implicitly any present or future use to which the Chagos will be subjected to. Whilst the British may have argued that their promise to cede the islands — when no longer required for defence purposes — was a mere political undertaking which is not binding , the Tribunal has legally clothed this undertaking so that henceforth the legal obligation of the UK is beyond doubt.

The U.K.Government cannot contemplate a resettlement scheme behind the back of the Mauritian Government anymore. It runs the risk of violating international law and the UN Charter. Should the islands, presumably Peros Banhos and Solomon, be earmarked for resettlement, the first legal obligation that will kick in, is the requirement to return those islands to Mauritius. The question of resettlement comes next and that too after the consent of the Mauritian government has been obtained.

Of course the unfolding of such events would be too good to be true. The U.K. Government has another plan to trigger and this is why the role of Mr. Bancoult becomes determinant. The U.K. will trigger a referendum adopting a position similar to the Falklands case, inviting the Chagossians to vote in favour of a U.K. Chagos and the promise of a fully funded resettlement.

It is unlikely that the Prime Minister will see eye to eye with Mr. Bancoult on the Chagos issue. And it serves no purpose to offer judgment. We had rather concentrate on the fact that the question of resettlement is inextricably linked to that of sovereignty and without sovereignty there will be no resettlement.

* Published in print edition on 8 July 2016

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