The Diego Issue


Political gamesmanship or opacity or secrecy over such issues as our sovereignty and national security, over the naval/military/surveillance bases on our outer islands would ultimately reflect on the trust of our leaders in democracy

By Jan Arden

Diego Garcia base Page1 . Pic – CNN

There have been few press reports since the rather surprise announcement of the UK wishing to put an end sometime during early 2023 to the Diego Garcia excision and unlawful occupation and concurrent lease to the US naval/military base on the artificial and contrived British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) for defence purposes. We would have to assume that discussions involving the two (or three if the US is involved) capitals and their respective diplomatic teams and competent legal advisors are by necessity hushed but they must have by now progressed somewhat beyond agreeing on a common agenda of several complex issues that need to be addressed and resolved.

With an announced target date of 2023, an memorandum of understanding (MoU) might therefore be expected to define the cadre or framework agreement between Mauritius and the UK, while detailed negotiations of each component constituent of that MOU may have different timescales, mechanisms, negotiating partners and perhaps even “honest brokers”.

Despite its 60-year history of staunch resistance to any change in status quo and its several attempts to derail any process aiming at the complete decolonisation of Mauritius through the retrocession of sovereignty to Mauritius over the Chagos Archipelago as per successive international reprimands culminating with the latest UN resolutions, we trust that the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office is bringing good faith to the negotiating table.

After all, whatever the disparity in our economic realities, it is up to the UK to take the strategic perspective, reclaim some of the moral heights it had somewhat cynically abandoned and show the goodwill that friends and allies should be able to count upon, when we both, as other amicable states in the region like France and India, share fundamentally the same geopolitical and economic development concerns over a stable and secure Indian Ocean.

Assurances to that effect and, in particular, the continuation for defence purposes of the US naval base lease agreement on Diego directly with sovereign Mauritius rather than through the illegality of the BIOT contraption has always enjoyed large cross-party support locally and seems to have been on offer by all successive political regimes in Mauritius.

The issue is about restoring our sovereign rights over that archipelago but there are bound to be many questions of some complexity relating to the tragic consequences of the displacement and dumping of the original Chagos islanders, their families and the inter-mingling that would have taken place over the past 60 years. Or the terrible ‘tracasseries’ they had to endure attending various international courts, in particular the International Court of Justice in the Hague under the guidance of human rights legal specialists like Philippe Sands, whose book ‘The Last Colony’ sums up their immense sacrifices and Britain’s shame.

We won’t venture into how the negotiators would approach the complexity of necessary reparations, financial and otherwise, that should be shouldered by the UK with respect to the poignancy of the dramas the descendants of that community settled here, in Seychelles and some even in the UK, had to endure. But the issue, however complex, cannot be skirted.

On a separate front our island-state has over those decades also paid a price for loss of sovereignty, the resources and costs mustered for the unending international legal battles against an obdurate former colonial power and the potential revenues foregone through that illegal lease by the UK to the US being perhaps only part of the story. The release of UK official papers has certainly shed light on the pressure that was exerted on the Mauritian delegation by the colonial masters to accept independence after that illegal excision but much less is known about what Britain stood to gain in that early sixties period from what it clearly knew was a subterfuge to suit its budding “nuclear special relationship” with the US for its national security, partaking in the latter’s nuclear umbrella and a continued albeit diminishing role on the world stage. 

From what we read, in that nuclear dependence on the US that the UK-US “special relationship” implied, Britain had in 1960 secured permission to buy nuclear US Skybolt missiles and, in return, the Americans could base the US Navy’s Polaris ballistic missile submarines in the Holy Loch in Scotland. A nuclear missile acquisition trade-off against a naval base facility was therefore familiar to both countries.

It could well have spurred them in the mid-sixties to consider a future Diego Garcia base as a similar trade-off in the package deal for the UK missile acquisition of US Polaris ballistic nuclear missiles to be launched from submarines. We may never know whether that is a far-fetched or plausible hypothesis as that Polaris agreement (later extended to the Trident systems) was secret as were its annexes. But it does, if true, provide some guide to the long-term and strategic benefits for the UK to be aligned and become dependent on the US nuclear umbrella in monetary terms. If reparations to the State of Mauritius are on the cards, they would run far deeper than any accumulated monetary annual lease the US may or may not have paid to the UK for exclusive use of the Diego atoll, expunged of its“Man Fridays”.

As for the direct long-term lease of Diego to the US, we obviously cannot use as gauge the current payments, if any, by the US to the UK as a junior partner in exchange for the “nuclear special relationship” it enjoys with the US. There are several military/naval US bases around the world and our team would be cognizant with annual rates being practised say at Djibouti or elsewhere. Correction being made for the exclusivity features of Diego, these could provide a better basis for a negotiated lease that could be periodically reviewed.

Of course, such high-level negotiations involve some degree of give-and-take and although no agreement is ever fully satisfactory, it would certainly be a major step forward in smoothing our strategic relations with key partners and allies in this part of the world. Our current signatory status to any international treaty or agreement that would preclude us now or in the future to do what is in our sovereign national security interest may have to be circumvented or updated with provisions for the latter.

An inevitable major issue relates to how mature our democracy is with respect to the authorities keeping, even under special confidentiality conditions, our main political leaders and other key stakeholders briefed about developments being planned on such a fundamental cross-party national question. Seychelles has and can still teach us a lesson or two in that respect. Political gamesmanship or opacity or secrecy over such issues as our sovereignty and national security, over the naval/military/surveillance bases on our outer islands and the control over the vast expanse of our maritime economic zone would ultimately reflect on our political maturity and the trust of our leaders in democracy.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 20 January 2023

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