The UK’s Case: Legally Questionable, Morally Untenable

Proceedings at the International Court of Justice

The struggle for the complete decolonization of the country will not be complete until the sovereignty of Mauritius on the Chagos Archipelago is fully recognized by the international community. This is basically the case of Mauritius as we go to the International Court of Justice.

After the declaration of independence followed by the accession to the status of a Republic, a black spot remained, namely the forcible occupation of Diego Garcia by foreign powers. People not very familiar with the legal issues involved, including the author of these lines, are generally convinced that, in a “civilized” world, such glaring inhuman treatment as was meted out to the Mauritians/Chagossians cannot possibly in the end enjoy the cover of “legality.”

Admittedly a somewhat naïve stand but one which avoids the trap of what the hugely respected philosopher Jan Myrdal once stated – all too often those motivated by the best intentions turn out to be “not the bearers of consciousness… but merely the whores of reason”. For there will remain an inescapable truth that people were “ejected” from their homes and livelihood to be packed abroad under indescribably inhuman conditions.

This is why beyond the legal arguments that the British may put forward at the Hague we are faced here with one of those stories which will constantly come to haunt them because human beings were treated as mere chattels so reminiscent of the “slave trade” era.

In this context it is a frightening irony that among the prominent “supporters” of the United Kingdom government are the Australians, the Americans and the Israelis. Each of these nations has at some time in their history been involved in some form or other of massive population displacements of autochthonous populations under almost similar conditions. In fact, the most recent and on-going case which involves the occupation of Palestine by Israel bears strikingly similar characteristics with the Diego case only on a larger scale.

The stories being told by the Chagossian representatives could well have been coming from the mouths of Palestinian refugees who one day left their homes and could not ever return. In fact, like the Chagossians, they too can in most cases actually identify their properties, place of birth and the burial places of their parents…

Diego Garcia military base: History and Context

Mauritians are generally extremely supportive of the fight for the return of the Chagos Archipelago in the fold of the national territory. The ongoing case before the ICJ is therefore a determining moment in that struggle. Although we are all aware that even a favourable decision will be advisory and will not be enforceable, it remains that such a decision will effectively put Mauritius on the high moral ground.

Where consensus is amiss relates to the actual negotiation tactics when it comes to the “demilitarization” of the archipelago and the departure of the Americans from their base of Diego Garcia. The debate is about whether we need to insist on the three conditions at one go: recognition of Mauritian sovereignty on the archipelago, right of return for all the Chagossians who so desire, and demilitarization.

At The Hague, the official position has already been clearly stated: sovereignty and right of return are the objectives which we are seeking. In fact, SAJ as leader of the delegation has mentioned that the presence of the American base in Diego Garcia is not contested. We are therefore a far cry from the early demands of the party of the same SAJ who, as leader of the MMM in the 1970s, endorsed the slogan “ran nu Diego. Ocean Indien Zone De Paix” which implied that the two issues were intertwined.

It would be trite to state that the whole world has changed since those early days and the issues which need to be considered have therefore changed in their very nature. Economic globalization, the fall of the Berlin wall and the demise of the USSR, the central question of energy security and the constant shifting of the centre of gravity of global economic power towards the East and Asia have all contributed to a fundamental change and a growing complexity in the geo-strategic equation as regards the Indian Ocean, its regions and the players who count.

In the present context, it is perhaps timely, given the present shenanigans of President Trump and his open hostility to the Iranian regime, to consider the following statement extracted from Robert Kaplan’s ‘Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power’ –

“The US Air Force guards Iraq and Afghanistan from bases in the Persian Gulf, and from the island of Diego Garcia, smack in the centre of the Indian Ocean. Any American strike against Iran — and its aftershocks, regarding the flow of oil — will have an Indian Ocean address.”

The US Marine Corps “Vision and Strategy” statement, unveiled in June 2008, covering the years to 2025, also concludes in so many words “that the Indian Ocean and its adjacent waters will be the central theatre of conflict and competition. Along its continued dominance in the Pacific, the US clearly seeks to be the preeminent South Asian power.”

It is in the face of such determination and strategic intent that the Mauritian negotiators need to make the decision about whether to insist on “demilitarization” or give grounds on the issue with the hope of securing the first two of our objectives, namely sovereignty and the right of return.


* Published in print edition on 7 September 2018

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