Time to resolve the Chagos saga
— Sean Carey
It was crafty of David Miliband to announce the establishment of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the British Indian Ocean Territory on the afternoon of Maundy Thursday, April 1. It certainly wrong-footed a significant number of MPs from all the major parties who had attended a debate on the Chagos Islands in Westminster Hall on March 10 and who were given the impression by Ivan Lewis, the then Foreign Office Minister, that the issue would be debated in the Commons before any decision was reached. Significantly, it also caught out the authorities in Mauritius where, because Parliament had been dissolved on the morning of Maundy Thursday in preparation for the general election on May 5, it was too late for the UK’s decision to be debated. Nevertheless the decision had very predictable consequences in the palm-fringed Indian Ocean island, one of Africa’s great economic success stories, where there was uproar and a revival of the idea of taking the Mauritian sovereignty claim to the International Court of Justice in the Hague.
Ever since a public consultation for the marine reserve in the Chagos Archipelago was announced by the Foreign Office last November, the Mauritian Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party, Dr Navin Ramgoolam, made it abundantly clear that his government would not sign up to the UK plan for a marine reserve, designed to be a lasting legacy for outgoing British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, without an agreement with the UK over sovereignty.
The Chagos Islands, as Mauritius has been quick to remind anyone who would listen, had been excised in breach of international law from the British colony in 1965 prior to the country’s independence in 1968 when the current Mauritian leader’s father, the late Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, a UK-trained medical doctor, became Prime Minister.
Navin Ramgoolam had also made it plain that the UK government would have to restore the right of return of the Chagos Islanders, 2000 of whom had been forced into exile in Mauritius and the Seychelles by the British authorities between 1968 and 1973, so that the largest southernmost island, Diego Garcia, could be transformed into a key US military base.
Chagos did not play a divisive role in the recent Mauritian election because both Ramgoolam and Paul Bérenger, the leader of the main opposition party, the Mouvement Militant Mauricien, had agreed a common platform on the issue before the campaign got underway. However, the new Ramgoolam government, a coalition between the Labour Party and the Mouvement Socialiste Mauricien, led by Pravind Jugnauth, the son of current President, Sir Anerood Jugnauth, has now informed the new UK government of its conditions for a resumption of the Anglo-Mauritian talks which were suspended last year over the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s MPA consultation.
Back in the UK, in the run-up to the general election both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats made it clear in written statements that they wanted the Chagos issue, including the future of the exiled islanders, resolved as quickly as possible. In his capacity as Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said in a reply to a letter from a long-standing supporter of the Chagos Islanders’ right of return: “I can assure you that if elected… we will work to ensure a fair settlement of this long-standing dispute.”
Nick Clegg’s office additionally poured scorn on the cost of the protracted legal process which has kept the islanders from returning to their homeland. “Liberal Democrats take the view that removing the Chagossians in the 1960s was a scandalous decision and this (Labour) Government has continued to mistreat these people… in the face of opposition from the UN,” I was informed. “Regardless of the legal arguments, Nick and the Liberal Democrats believe that the Government has a moral responsibility to allow these people to at last return home. We have actively supported their cause in the past and we will continue to aid their campaign to see justice done. We have been appalled that the government has wasted time, money and effort defending the indefensible. It is a disgrace that £2m of taxpayers’ money… has been squandered in order to uphold this injustice.”
Last weekend, newly installed UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, met US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in Washington and it would be surprising if Chagos was not discussed given the strategic importance of the Diego Garcia base in the Indian Ocean and the Middle East regions, especially because of current concerns with Iran.
But it is clear that the current Obama Administration has no objection to the Chagossians returning to the outer islands of the Chagos Archipelago like Peros Banhos and Salomon. Of course, how many islanders want to do so, and what infrastructure would need to be put in place to make their return viable, remain vital questions that will need to be looked at in the near future.
Nevertheless, the UK’s new political arrangement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats appears likely to succeed in bringing to an end this most shameful episode of recent British colonial history which three successive foreign secretaries in the former Labour government, with the notable exception of the late Robin Cook, conspicuously failed to resolve despite the obligations imposed by an “ethical foreign policy”.
An early indication that things are moving in the right direction will be given if the new UK coalition government signals that the current case before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg concerning the alleged violation of the human rights of the Chagos Islanders will be withdrawn in favour of a “friendly settlement” as the court has suggested. For the 700 or so original inhabitants of the Chagos Islands, many of whom are well advanced in years but who never gave up hope of returning to their tropical paradise, it can’t come quickly enough. Alas, for others it is too late.
Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM) at Roehampton University
A version of this article has also appeared in New Statesman