Chagos & Diego Garcia: ‘We need to decide what are in our best interests’

Interview: Vijay Makhan

‘The UK has always been proud of its sense of ‘fair play and justice’. This is the time to demonstrate it’

 MedPoint Saga: ‘public opinion is fickle and we may yet suffer another bout of collective amnesia at the time of elections!


Vijay Makhan, former Deputy Secretary General – Organisation of African Unity (now AU), and Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Mauritius, is our guest this week to comment on the judgement delivered on the Chagos issue by the International Court of Justice and the possible course of actions as a follow-up. He also comments briefly on the verdict of the Privy Council regarding the Medpoint affair. Read on:

Mauritius Times: In a televised meeting with officials of the Ministry of External Affairs recently, following the announcement of the Advisory Opinion of the ICJ in favour of Mauritius, Minister Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo said that the issue of Mauritiussovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago can only be resolved through diplomacy and dialogue, and added that Mauritius is and will remain an ally of the UK and the USA”. Were you aware that we are allies of these two countries?  And if we look at it from Lutchmeenaraidoos perspective, Taiwan, Pakistan, Argentina, Mexico, etc. could also be considered “allies” of this country, isnt it?

 Vijay Makhan: I think the Minister is best placed to answer the question, now that he has manifested himself. But let me just remind him that Mauritius has always espoused a policy of friendliness to all and of non-enmity in its inter-state relations approach. This has been the case since our independence and successive governments have acted in conformity with that principle.

Besides, let me underscore the fact that Mauritius is still an active member of the Non-aligned Movement, which I think is likely to assume its heyday importance in the face of a new episode of Cold War that appears to be on the doorsteps of the international scene. Therefore, I would like to believe that the Minister’s words may have somehow surpassed his thoughts. Let’s put it as an unfortunate use of terminology and leave it at that. In fact, we do entertain cordial and friendly relations with both the US and the UK.

Incidentally, since you mention Taiwan, let it be noted that Mauritius has no formal relations with it. Indeed, ours is a one-China policy and this has been the case since 1972.

* For having been closely associated with the framing and practice of Mauritiusforeign policy for many years, how do we go about deciding whats in the best interest of Mauritius?

In international relations, I have always maintained that it is permanent interests that prime. There is no permanent friendship, there are permanent interests. And that’s the case for all states. In framing our policy, we need to decide what are in our best interests and articulate and define our course of action accordingly. But of course, we also need to take into account the fact that we do not live in isolation from the rest of the world. And we need to bear in mind the interests of those with whom we need to interact and determine our position in that light.

There are certain instances when we need to soften and shift position in the long-term interests of the country and in others defend our stand to the last breath. In effect, we need to prioritise what we consider our long-term and steadfast interests and act accordingly. Recuperating the Chagos Archipelago and exercising our sovereignty on that part of our territory falls in that category.

* To come back to the Chagos issue, what happens next after this Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice?

The fact that it was the General Assembly of the United Nations that requested the International Court of Justice to render an Advisory Opinion on the issue, it is to the General Assembly that the Court has sent the opinion it handed down on 25 February. The Secretary General of the UN will now formally inform the General Assembly of the outcome of the request and take it from there in terms of determining the modalities on how to proceed to give effect to the findings and recommendations contained in that opinion.

I must say that I personally view that ICJ’s opinion as a judgement given its tone and the forcefulness of its language. In effect, it finds that the detachment of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius was unlawful and that the process of decolonisation of Mauritius was not lawfully completed when it acceded to independence in 1968.

It further finds that the continued administration of the Chagos Archipelago by the UK is a wrongful and unlawful act. The Court concludes that the UK is under an obligation to bring an end to its administration of the Chagos as rapidly as possible and enjoins all Member States of the United Nations to cooperate with the UN to complete the decolonisation of Mauritius. It could not be clearer!

* What should Mauritius be doing in the meantime if the initiative for moving things forward should come from the UN General Assembly?

For a start, and I am pretty certain that it must already have been done, Mauritius should address a personalised letter to the Heads of State and Government of all those 94 countries that supported us when the Resolution came up for a vote in June 2017. In particular, a special move must be made in that regard towards the African Union in Addis Ababa.

We should also be approaching those countries that abstained for one reason or another and those that were absent from the vote to impress upon them the findings of the Court and the justness of our struggle for the Chagos Archipelago. We need to build on the momentum and keep the issue alive in all manner possible, including in the international media. We need to continue to demonstrate that we believe in the finality of our struggle, that is, the recovery of the Archipelago, and are ready for negotiations towards that end. We should open a line of communication with all political parties in the UK and constantly be in touch with them, if such is not the case already.

In all of that, we need to sensitise our own public opinion consistently and involve our citizens of Chagossian descent at all stages of the process. We need to start work on the resettlement process and develop a strategy for the immediate, intermediate and longer terms.

It is absolutely essential that in this enterprise everyone should be on board, including all political parties. I have always said and I maintain that on issues of this nature, the process should override party political considerations. The All Party Parliamentary Committee should be reactivated. It should hold public hearings as well and provide all stakeholders the possibility to contribute to its deliberations.

* It’s the second or third generation of British politicians and FCO officials since the Harold Wilson days who are presently presiding over British policy-making in relation to the Chagos. That policy has remained constant; in fact it has worsened from the earlier British acquiescence of Mauritius’ sovereignty to its claim to its own sovereignty over the Chagos at the ICJ. How can we expect that to change?

Indeed, the position of the UK appears to have crystallised. In fact even the language has changed. When Margaret Thatcher, then UK’s Prime Minister addressed Sir Anerood Jugnauth, our then Prime Minister on the issue, the term used was to ‘revert’ sovereignty of the Chagos to Mauritius when no longer needed for the defence of the West which, in itself, implies a recognition of our sovereignty. It now talks of ‘ceding’ the Archipelago!

In that respect, it is interesting to note the international behaviour of the UK when it comes to the question of Gibraltar, for example. Let it be known that in its dispute with Spain over the Rock, the UK had formally offered to take the dispute to the ICJ in 1966, a proposal rejected by Spain. This fact is underscored by Joseph Garcia, Deputy Chief Minister of Gibraltar, in a write-up in Foreign Policy on 28 February, that is, as recently as last week! In contrast, their stand on the Chagos at the recent hearings is, to say the least, rather incomprehensible!

I would like to believe that the findings of the Court and the international pressure that will ensue will bring the UK to a positive disposition and better sentiments. After all, the UK has always been proud of its sense of ‘fair play and justice’. This is the time to demonstrate it.

Lest it be forgotten, may I also remind that on the issue of Marine Protected Area around the Chagos except for the waters around Diego Garcia unilaterally declared by the British, the special Tribunal set up under UNCLOS found in favour of Mauritius and that is binding.

* It we were to look at it from the US’ and UK’s perspective, which both consider the Diego Garcia base as an important Linchpin in their defence of Western interests against threats posed by terrorism, piracy, etc, and for the containment of increasing Chinese influence in the region, the prospect of their letting go of their control of the territory is very remote, isn’t it?

In approaching the issue from that angle, one is tempted to go along with what you suggest. But international relations are not static. They are dynamic and there are always new elements that come into play.

Since the unlawful detachment of the Chagos and the agreement between the UK and the US relating to the lease of a territory that, in the first place, was not theirs to deal on, things have evolved drastically on the world scene. The Cold War as we knew it ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. From a supposedly communication centre, Diego Garcia became more than a mere naval facility. It is now a fully-fledged military base with nuclear facilities. When the lease came up for renewal in 2016, Mauritius had posited that it should be at the negotiating table with the US and the UK. That fell on deaf ears though it was very much in line with the finding of the UNCLOS Tribunal which I have just referred to.

Since the first Iraq War, better known as ‘Operation Desert Storm’ in 1990-91, under the watch of George Bush Senior, when a coalition of forces from some 35 nations attacked Iraq following the latter’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait, Mauritius changed its position on the issue of the American base in Diego Garcia. Indeed, since then, Mauritius is on record to have repeated that it does not seek the dismantling of that base. SAJ has reiterated that position time and again and more recently at the ICJ.

Mauritius has played its role fully in the fight against terrorism and piracy, to the extent of even prosecuting and imprisoning pirates caught in the region.

So, the question of sole defence of the West does not hold. These are elements that need to be taken into consideration when addressing the issue at this particular time. As regards the containment of the presence of the Chinese in the Indian Ocean, the presence of a military base or not will not deter it from what it considers the upholding of her interests in the region. The maritime route in the region for its trade and economic activities is as vital to China as it is for India. So let us not camouflage the issue any further.

* David Snoxell, Coordinator of the Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) said, last week to this paper, that the APPG has argued for a “separate agreement on the future of the base of Diego Garcia between the UK, Mauritius and the US”. Should the UK and the US be agreeable to the APPG’s suggestion — if at all they do –, do you think it would be in Mauritius’ long-term interest to go for separate agreements – one for the military base and another for Mauritiussovereignty over the whole of the Chagos Archipelago?

The APPG has been supportive of the struggle of Mauritius with more emphasis on the right of return of our citizens of Chagossian descent to the Chagos Islands. Though, of late it has raised the issue of sovereignty and has advocated for negotiations to be held between our two countries.

The sovereignty over the Chagos is, as far as I am concerned, clearly for Mauritius to exercise, as averred by the Court. Any agreement or Treaty in that respect between Mauritius and the UK will need to cover the modalities for sovereignty to revert to Mauritius as rapidly as possible as underlined by the Court. The issue of the US military base should necessarily be part of another set of negotiations once this unlawful act of dismemberment is done away with.

I believe that had Mauritius been involved in the renewal of the lease in 2016, things would have taken a different turn. As I said earlier, the world has known some drastic changes and the circumstances are no longer what they were in the 1960s. The USA itself has changed its policy in terms of its continued military presence abroad, to wit its decision to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan among others.

We need to have high-level interactions with the Pentagon in Washington, the US State Department, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London to make explicit our position and remove any doubt that may still exist on our intentions, present and future. In that exercise, we need to keep our other friends, in particular, India and China abreast with developments and enlist their understanding and support. We shall also need to keep the African Union fully briefed.

* There are new players which have come into the picture and are creating “a multi polar and complex India Ocean environment” (Dr David Brewster, author of ‘India and China at sea: Competition for Naval Dominance in the Indian Ocean’). How well are we playing our cards in this new complex environment?

I think that if we continue to base our actions on our age-old policy of friends with everyone and enemy to none, we will continue to reap benefits from our interaction.

We are not a big country size-wise, but we are an important player in the region given our strategic geographical position and the level of our development since independence. What surprised me was the posture of China when the resolution relating to the Chagos came up for a vote at the General Assembly of the UN in June 2017. As you know, they abstained though I am happy to note that they have expressed satisfaction on the findings of the Court. We need to understand that stand and deal accordingly to ensure that it upholds our position as it has done in the past.

Similarly, we also need to open up to others in the region, like the Maldives which voted against, Sri Lanka and Singapore which abstained. Similarly, among those that were absent at the vote from our own continent, Africa, were Senegal and Morocco.

* Do we have need for more of SSR’s ideological orientation in matters of foreign policy even 50 years down the line since Independence and less of Lutchmeenaraidoo’s meanderings in this new geopolitical environment?

I think we must acknowledge that it was SSR who traced, in broad terms, the path of our foreign policy and it has served us in good stead. If we are, today, a respected player in the concert of nations, it is thanks to a large measure to the foundations that were laid in the immediate aftermath of our independence. We have, of course, over the years, built on that foundation, fine-tuned and conducted our policy accordingly, depending on who was at the helm of affairs and the interest displayed in international relations.

As an example, if the African Union, has stood by us and made of our struggle their own, it is thanks to our past engagement and commitment to the cause of the continent. For those of your readers who may not be aware, I was elected as Deputy Secretary General of the then OAU in 1995 by the African Heads of State and Government and again in 1999 and assumed office of Commissioner of the AU during the interim period leading to the creation of the African Union. This could only have happened thanks to our active involvement and participation in continental issues.

It is sad to note, and I have said as much, that we do not appear to be represented at the level desired when Council and Summit meetings of the AU are held. The same applies to the SADC and COMESA. In the past, we were a leading voice in regional and multilateral negotiations. We don’t appear to be as active as we once were except when it concerns our vital interests, per se. That is not correct. We need to beef up our missions abroad and ensure that our representatives are of the desired calibre.

* What else remains to be said about the MedPoint case in the wake of the judgement of the Privy Council?

I think, like so many of our citizens, that the Privy Council judgement as regards the MedPoint case may constitute a personal gain for Pravind Jugnauth, and certainly clarifies matters for our law on corruption with respect to the issue of interpretation of personal interest. It is also a fact that the Privy Council deliberated on the basis of existing law and evidence adduced in our own local courts.

However, the public constitutes a court of its own and it will not forget that a property evaluated initially at 75 million rupees suddenly found itself re-evaluated at double that amount, including the fact that maybe for the first time Government purchased used equipments and materials in that deal. The public will no doubt also remember that the payment was approved on the eve of the New Year and just before a new fiscal regime relating to payment of capital gains tax was to enter into effect.

But then again, often in such matters public opinion is fickle and we may yet suffer another bout of collective amnesia at the time of elections!

* What are, according to you, the main takeaways from the MedPoint saga that decision-makers both at the political level and in the public administration would do well to remember for their own good and their careers?

Consider the amount of time, energy, financial resources that this saga, as you call it, has engulfed. The arrests of political as well as public administration officials in full public glare, followed by court proceedings have taken their toll, not only on the image of the country as such but on the reputation of those directly concerned and causing woes and worries to their families and close ones. It certainly is not a matter to look forward to, given the high media attention that this unfortunate and regrettable episode attracted.

Therefore, it is incumbent on those holding public office, high or at whatever level, to follow rules and procedures laid down for the conduct of public affairs at all times and guard from succumbing to pressure wherever and whoever it may come from.

But then, frailty is a human characteristic.


* Published in print edition on 8 March 2019

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