What is crucial, and commendable, is that Mauritius has spoken with a single voice in front of the International Court of Justice
History was made on Monday 3rd September when the International Court of Justice started its hearings on the case entered by Mauritius. An advisory opinion of the Court was being sought on the legal consequences of the unlawful excision of the Chagos Archipelago from the territory of Mauritius prior to independence. This was done in breach of international law and of UN General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV) of 14 December 1960 which contains the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, calling for a speedy and unconditional end to colonialism.
Readers will recall that the UN General Assembly (UNGA) had voted on 22 June 2017 in New York by a margin of 94 to 15 countries supporting a resolution of Mauritius, namely that the dispute between the UK and Mauritius be referred to the ICJ for an advisory opinion on the legal status of Chagos.
In a statement at the United Nations then, Minister Mentor Sir Anerood Jugnauth had recalled that the dismemberment of the territory of Mauritius “without the freely given consent of Mauritius – in circumstances of patent and obvious duress – and the removal of the inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago, with no possibility of return, were acts constituting breaches of peremptory norms of international law”. They were a violation of the principle of self-determination and a breach of fundamental principles of human rights. “No amount of monetary compensation and no agreement to that effect can override these general principles of peremptory international law, not the least the right of self-determination”, he said.
Speaking about security concerns evoked by the UK, SAJ had clarified Mauritius’ stand by reaffirming that Mauritius does not have any problem with the US military base in Diego Garcia, but that instead the decolonisation process should be completed. “We want to assure the United Kingdom and the United States of America that the exercise of effective control by Mauritius over the Chagos Archipelago would not, in any way, pose any threat to the military base. Mauritius is committed to the continued operation of the base in Diego Garcia under a long-term framework, which Mauritius stands ready to enter into with the concerned parties’, he added.
Nothing could be clearer than that, yet despite Mauritius’ repeated reassurances to both the UK and the US that this country is not averse to the US military presence in Diego Garcia, successive Mauritian governments have met with vague statements and indeed British condescension as regards our legitimate claims on the territory. We had naively believed that the younger British Prime Ministers who had succeeded Margaret Thatcher were better inclined to give us a fair deal over part of our territory. Instead, from Margaret Thatcher (who had stated that Diego Garcia would be returned to Mauritius when Britain would have no need of it) down to David Cameron, going through several Foreign Affairs ministers of the UK, the same spirit of denial of our lawful rights has been repeating itself. The same hypocrisy is being continued to this day irrespective of which party or which Prime Minister is in command of Whitehall.
Even Mauritius’ interest in being a party to the discussions that the UK and the US had last year, pertaining to the renewal of the lease of part of the Chagos Archipelago to the US for military purposes, was snubbed by both parties. On the contrary, there was an explicit threat from both the UK and the US following the then Prime Minister’s statement in Parliament on 17th May 2016 – anticipating that the UK would de facto automatically renew the lease of Diego Garcia for a further 20 years without Mauritius’ involvement – that he was minded to get the UK to give better clarity to its usual vague statements on the issue.
Unexpectedly, a Joint Press release was made on 24th June by the British High Commission and the US embassy. It came as a surprise to Mauritian citizens that the US which had so far conveniently refrained from joining in as a party in the matter, co-signed an unbecoming note, which contained an explicit threat that should Mauritius seek to restore its legitimate territorial claim by obtaining an Advisory from the ICJ, it “would cause lasting damage to Mauritius’ bilateral relations with both the UK and the USA.” The US representative went as far as to state that it does not recognise “the Republic of Mauritius’ claim to sovereignty of that Territory”.
The “lasting damage” the US representative mentioned cannot be divorced from existing trade relations Mauritius has with the US by virtue of the AGOA. The message clearly is: do not seek legal clarification of your position on Chagos at the risk of seeing your trade access to US markets compromised.
Even if this country has developed important trade ties over the years with the UK and after the UK’s association with the EU, and we’ve been doing business with the US under the African Growth and Opportunity Act under preferential market access terms, Mauritius however would not be cowed down, for the hypocrisy has lasted too long.
What former Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam had initiated during his tenure with the case entered before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, following the British government’s unilateral declaration in 2009 of a marine protected area around the Chagos Islands proved to be a “game changer”, as pointed out by TP Saran last week in this column, helping to clear the way to the ICJ.
What is crucial, and commendable, is that Mauritius has spoken with a single voice in front of the ICJ, its position clearly and forcefully articulated by Minister Mentor Sir Anerood Jugnauth. There is general consensus across all parties concerned, and the Mauritian population at large, that SAJ has ably defended the country and the cause of the Chagossians who are of Mauritian origin after all. All the more credit is due to him in view of his advanced age, which is testimony to his commitment and his determination to not let go of the struggle.
Noteworthy also is the full-fledged support given to Mauritius by several countries, especially the African continent through the African Union. It must be recalled that the opening to Africa was the work of Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, and the links with Africa must not be weakened by the absence of Mauritius at important regional meetings where the country ought to be present. India, of course, has consistently backed the Mauritian stand from the beginning of the struggle.
On the other hand, there is no doubt that meticulous and comprehensive groundwork was done in the preparation of the dossier to be presented at The Hague. All told, this fact, along with the conviction in SAJ’s presentation and the equally solid and coherent interventions of the other members of the Mauritian side, give us confidence that things are going in the right direction, and some optimism that there may be a positive outcome for Mauritius on the part of ICJ.
For the moment, our case rests.
* Published in print edition on 7 September 2018