In an editorial, in l’Express Dimanche of 7 March 2010, Jean Claude de l’Estrac, commenting on the decision of the UK government to establish a “Marine Protected Area” in the so-called British Indian Ocean Territory, wrote:
« Une tempête dans un verre d’eau, suis-je tenté d’écrire après avoir étudié la nouvelle affaire Chagos. « Le chef du gouvernement et le leader de l’opposition rivalisent de trémolos pour dire leur colère à l’égard de la Grande-Bretagne, taxée – c’est toujours facile – de perfidie. La décision du gouvernement britannique de proposer une consultation publique sur l’opportunité de créer un immense parc marin dans l’archipel des Chagos est présentée comme un complot visant à saper la revendication mauricienne de souveraineté. On ajoute que ce projet risque de compromettre un éventuel retour des Chagossiens dans leurs îles. (…) Mais il n’est pas utile pour autant d’exhiber de faux contentieux au point de prendre le risque de nuire aux intérêts à long terme de tous. (…)
And he concluded by stating: « Et à long terme, l’existence d’un parc marin autour de l’archipel des Chagos, au coeur de l’océan Indien, est une excellente initiative (…)
Mr de l’Estrac was clearly misled to believe, as the WikiLeaks cables reveal, that the UK government’s intention in establishing a Marine Protected Area, was to conserve the ecosystem surrounding the Chagos. The true purpose of the MPA is now known. It is a colourable device to prevent the Chagossians from returning to their homeland.
The affirmations of Colin Roberts, Head of the overseas territories desk at the Foreign Commonwealth Office, to the US government, confirm that the plan to establish a Marine Protected Area around the Chagos would in effect put an end to the islanders’ resettlement claim. We may recall that the US and the UK had conspired before over the same issue before the House of Lords, when the UK government produced two letters emanating from the US Secretary of State to sustain the UK’s contention that the presence of the Chagossians on the other islands forming part of the Chagos would jeopardize the defence facilities over Diego Garcia.
It serves no purpose to be wiser and tax Mr de l’Estrac as being naïve now that the truth about the MPA is out in the open. In the same manner, it serves no purpose to pass a value judgment on Sir Seewoosagur and his colleagues who participated in the Constitutional conference of September 1965 when the UK government excised unlawfully the Chagos from the Mauritian territory.
In 1965, Mauritius was still under colonial rule and divided along ethnic lines. The context is therefore important. The so-called Council of Ministers was presided over by the then Governor. More importantly, in his account given to l’Express Dimanche, last Sunday, as to how our former leaders “sold” Chagos, he makes total abstraction of the fact that in 1964, prior to the constitutional talks, the UK had already negotiated with the US government for allowing it to use and occupy Diego Garcia as a military base. In consideration for the military base, UK was assured of Polaris missiles for its own defence.
The UK knew all along that it was acting in breach of international laws and in violation of the UN Charter. This explains the conduct of the UK, making persistent attempts to obtain some form of consent from Mauritius in order to claim that there had been an agreement justifying the retention of British sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago.
The Mauritian leaders did not cede an inch to the British manoeuvres. A 99-year lease upon specified conditions was proposed. When this was turned down, further negotiations led to the final memorandum referred to in l’Express Dimanche. The British never gave a final nod to these proposals save to repeat ad nauseam that Chagos will be returned to Mauritius when no longer required for defence purposes.
Last week I argued that the UK government has been caught in its own web. The return of the Chagossians, if ever it takes place, cannot be done without Mauritius being allowed to exercise its sovereignty over the islands, since the return of the Chagossians to Chagos would mean that the islands would no longer be required for defence purposes. This is a commitment which binds the UK government.
Mr Bancoult should realise that fact even when he wears a UK citizenship hat. There can be no return to Peros Banhos or Solomon islands unless the islands revert to Mauritius. The question of sovereignty and the return to the Chagos are inextricably linked.
It is easy, far too easy, to make value judgments and lay the blame on Sir Seewoossagur and his colleagues especially when the history of the Chagos is a catalogue of official lies and misrepresentations. Mr de l’Estrac has himself a lot of explanations to offer for signing the 1982 agreement with the UK which provided for an ex gratia payment to the Chagossians to the tune of £4 million in full and final settlement of all claims whatsoever pursuant to the closure of the plantations over the Chagos and their preclusion from returning to the Chagos Archipelago.
In other words, the compensation in the 1982 agreement, under the signature of Jean Claude de l’Estrac, provided for compensation prohibiting implicitly the return of the Chagossians to the Chagos Archipelago. Who would imagine that in 1982, as Sir Satcam wrote in the columns of this very paper, that sovereign Mauritius would enter into this deal which sealed the fate of the Chagossians? In a judgment before the English courts entered by Mr Vencatessen, the Chagossians were denied compensation of any kind whatsoever on the basis of the 1982 agreement.
Fortunately for the Government of Mauritius, the 1982 agreement does not bind it under international law, just as the so-called consent given by the Council of Ministers presided by Sir John Shaw Rennie in 1965 to excise the Chagos Archipelago from the Mauritian territory, could not constitute lawful consent.
* Published in print edition on 30 December 2010