Chagos: Sir Satcam was right

By R.V.

In my last article on Chagos (Mauritius Times, 28 Dec 12), I referred to the concerns expressed by late Sir Satcam Boolell in an article written in this paper in May 2002 entitled ‘Chagos: The Danger of a Referendum’. It is high time that we reflect seriously on the fears expressed by Sir Satcam in the light of recent developments in the Falklands.

Earlier this month Cristina Kirchner, President of Argentina, renewed her demand for the Falklands to be handed back to Argentina. In a letter addressed to the British press, she made it clear that the territorial integrity of the Falklands should be restored since the islands were forcibly stripped from Argentina. The British response made by David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, was as to be expected. “The future of the Falklands,” he said, “should be determined by the Falkland islanders themselves, the people who live there.”

Cameron went on to mention that the islanders are holding a referendum this year, and that the President of Argentina should listen to that referendum and it is for the islanders to decide about their future and that they will enjoy the backing of the UK as long as they choose to stay with the UK.

The UK government has already hinted, after the recent Strasbourg judgment in the plea brought before the court by the Chagossians, that they would want to negotiate with the Chagossians for a possible resettlement. This is a language they never held prior to the judgment. The situation as regards to the Chagossians must however be contrasted with that of the Falklanders. In the case of the Chagossians, soon after the colonial power had decided to strip Mauritius of the Chagos, which formed part of Mauritian territory, they created the so-called British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). Their first subterfuge was to come up with a colourable device to assert that there were no permanent inhabitants on the Chagos islands. It was of utmost importance to avoid their obligation under Chapter XI of the Charter of the United Nations which imposed a duty on the colonial power to seek the consent of the inhabitants of the islands before a change in the status of the islands.

We recall the famous telegram Lord Caradon addressed to the UK Foreign Office where he insisted that it should be made clear that there were no PERMANENT INHABITANTS on the Chagos Islands prior to the creation of the so-called BIOT. The 1,500 or so islanders were conveniently described as labourers from Mauritius and Seychelles (or “Man Fridays”) who had gone there to work on a contractual basis. During the last few days preceding the proclamation of Independence, the Colonial Office took the trouble to send a constitutional expert to Mauritius to put final touches to the Mauritian Constitution. The latter made sure that under the part dealing with citizenship, section 20 (4) deemed all the Chagos islanders who were displaced from the Chagos and unlawfully dumped in Mauritius, to be Mauritian citizens. This provision was meant to buttress the contention of the UK to the effect that the islanders were Mauritians and have always been so just in case there were any doubt as to their nationality.

The irony today is that the UK government considers all Chagossians to be UK citizens. The British Consulate has been dishing out the UK passports to them at “Les Cascades”, Edith Cavell Street, Port Louis, at a frenetic pace. They choose to ignore the fact that the Chagossians are Mauritian citizens not only for having lived in Mauritius since 1968 but also due to the fact that the Chagos Islands form part of the Mauritian territory. Before making this move to confer British citizenship on them, the colonial power saw the Chagossians as an embarrassment in their artificial BIOT scheme.

We should here refer to Sir Satcam Boolell, who read the situation impeccably well: “The risk of disclosure of the presence of permanent inhabitants in the Chagos Islands before their excision in 1965 was a source of great embarrassment to the British at the Trusteeship Council of the United Nations especially as they feared Argentina and Spain would find analogy with the Falklands and Gibraltar. The British position in regard to both Falklands and Gibraltar has been that their inhabitants did not wish to be either under Argentinian or Spanish sovereignty and that their opinion could not be ignored.”

Moreover, he added: “… with the proclamation of Chagos as BIOT and the inhabitants declared aliens following their Mauritian citizenship, the British considered themselves juridically warranted to put them in a boat and dump them where they were supposed to legally belong to. The most callous act on the part of a civilized power, which proclaims so loudly its concerns about human rights, met with only timid condemnation by the international community. Had the Ilois been of the same stock as the Falklanders and the Gibraltarians i.e. Caucasians, the British sense of justice would have dictated a course inspired by humanitarianism.”

The dilemma the UK is now facing concerns their commitment which they have been repeating ad nauseam that the islands will be reverted back to Mauritius when no longer required for defence purposes. How can the UK propose resettlement on Solomon or Peros Banhos without returning the islands to Mauritius?

It is inevitable for them to come out of their own impasse by acknowledging that the Chagossians were the inhabitants of the Chagos, and secondly by ensuring that there is a referendum that goes their way. They will then be able to say, as they are saying today to Argentina — “… the future of the Chagos Islands should be determined by the islanders themselves, the people who had been the inhabitants.”

The agenda was clear when UK citizenship was on offer. A resettlement program will soon be in the pipeline to create great expectations for the Chagossians. Otherwise how on earth would they keep the islands since they will no longer be required for defence purposes?

* Published in print edition on 18 January 2013

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