Diego Garcia: A Pavilion too far?

The issue is not of a partisan nature: it involves the integrity of our territory. Who knows what all we can produce, with international cooperation, if we saw Diego Garcia as more than a remote outpost from Mauritius island?

Following the UK government’s decision in 2010 to establish a Marine Protected Area (MPA) around the Chagos Archipelago, the Government of Mauritius asked for a ruling from the UN Court of Arbitration on the Law of the Sea as to whether Britain could unilaterally take such a decision without consulting Mauritius in the matter.

Many here believed that this was not a correct strategy to reclaim Mauritius’ sovereignty over Diego Garcia which had been unlawfully excised in 1965 by Britain (the colonial power) from the Mauritian territory before independence. Dismissing Mauritius’ view that the Chagos forms an integral part of the Mauritian territory in accord with UN General Assembly Resolution 1514 banning the breakup of countries before granting independence, the UK has repeatedly made the bland statement that the “islands will be returned to Mauritius when no longer needed for Britain’s defence purposes”. Sine die, that is.

Following the excision of Chagos from Mauritius, the UK not only carved a new domain of its own in the area, calling it the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). It also sent away the inhabitants mostly to Mauritius, to prepare it for occupation by American forces to be stationed over there.

The UN Court gave its ruling in the matter of the MPA a week ago. It has found that Britain has acted illegally in the way it has exercised control over the Chagos Islands without consulting Mauritius on a prior basis, and thus depriving it of its fishing rights in the territory. The same type of decision was taken by Britain, as the Court emphasized, concerning the establishment of the MPA as the decision taken 45 years earlier to excise this part of the Mauritian territory in 1965, that is, unilaterally.

The decision of the Court which is binding on the parties, raises questions now about the UK’s sovereignty over the islands. By dismissing the UK’s unilateral decision to establish the MPA and ordering it to renegotiate the matter with Mauritius, the Court has clearly established Mauritius as an interested party in the MPA, and thus entitled to oversee the condition in which the islands are finally returned to it. The judgment declares: “The United Kingdom’s undertaking to return the Chagos archipelago to Mauritius gives Mauritius an interest in significant decisions that bear upon the possible future uses of the archipelago. Mauritius’ interest is not simply in the eventual return of Chagos archipelago, but also in the condition in which the archipelago will be returned.”

The British government’s hastily taken decision in 2010 on the doorstep of new elections, to declare the MPA around the Chagos was presented as an environment protection issue. In reality, it was motivated by an intent to ban Mauritian fishermen from the region and to pre-empt any risk of return of the Chagossian population to the islands after their expulsion from the islands in the 1970s.

In a separate judgement, without dissenting from the main ruling of the Court, two of its five judges, James Katega and Rüdiger Wolfrum, have gone further. They state: “The 1965 excision of the Chagos archipelago from Mauritius shows a complete disregard for the territorial integrity of Mauritius by the United Kingdom, which was the colonial power.

“British and American defence interests were put above Mauritius’ rights. Fast forward to 2010 and one finds a similar disregard of Mauritius’ rights, such as the total ban on fishing in the MPA. These are not accidental happenings.”

The latter two judges have come to the conclusion that the UK doesn’t have sovereignty over the Chagos because the “archipelago should never have been separated from Mauritius”. The three other judges did not pronounce themselves on this last issue as they felt the Court does not have jurisdiction to pronounce itself over this aspect of the matter.

The Arbitration Court’s ruling represents a significant step forward towards asserting Mauritius’ juridical sovereignty over the Chagos Islands. The UK’s Commonwealth and Foreign Office, which is in charge of the dossier, has reacted to the ruling stating that it “is committed to working with neighbouring states, including Mauritius” regarding conservation and management of the marine area. For it, therefore, Mauritius is not directly concerned but along with others despite Mauritius alone having petitioned the Court.

This ruling in the case shows that Mauritius stands to assert its legitimate international rights concerning the integrity of its territory. There is every reason for all forces concerned in the Chagos case, including the former Chagossian population, to work unitedly and present a common front in international forums having power to decide over the legality of the excision of Chagos.

For having participated in the Mauritius Constitutional Conference in London in 1965, SAJ as current Prime Minister is well placed to appreciate the distance we have travelled since the arm-twisting days of those times to the Court’s current ruling. We don’t have to have remorse or guilt for what was clearly out of our hands at the time. It is grossly unfair to judge by today’s standards the constraints under which leaders of those days engaged in negotiations in the given international environment. We have to maintain our serenity until the final goal is reached.

One can therefore look forward to the government’s full support to pursuing this agenda to claim back what should rightfully belong to us. The issue is not of a partisan nature: it involves the integrity of our territory. Who knows what all we can produce, with international cooperation, if we saw Diego Garcia as more than a remote outpost from Mauritius island? The land and the sea around it have the potential to change our outlook beyond the nostalgic recollection of Diego Garcia as a fishing and agricultural outpost of past days, the more we are treated on a par by global powers like the USA and the UK at least as far as our territorial integrity is concerned.


* Published in print edition on 27 March  2015

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