“The UK has never had and does not have any sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago

They are themselves an unlawful occupier of, a squatter on part of the Republic of Mauritius”

Interview: Sateeaved Seebaluck, Former Secretary to Cabinet and Head of the Civil Service

* ‘I do not trust the British in these matters. We have had the experience before when, at their behest, we engaged in negotiations on the implementation of the award of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea on the illegal MPA’

* ‘India could act as a catalyst in the process of decolonization of Mauritius’

* Agalega military base: ‘Until and unless both governments come forward with a joint statement on the issue, we shall have to live with the confusion’

The invitation extended by PM Modi to the Mauritian PM, as to several others from Africa and the global “South”, to attend as observers the G20 summit was an opportunity for our sherpas to lay the groundwork for a number of high-level productive meetings that usually take place on the sidelines and corridors of such events. Most notably around the many complex questions relating to the end of the British illegal occupation of the Chagos and the full restoration of our national sovereignty over an island space that has been leased since the sixties towards a US military and naval base. As former Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of the Civil Service as well as Special Adviser to the Prime Minister and later Minister Mentor, Sateeaved Seebaluck was ideally placed to comment on what he terms the state of confusion regarding what real progress has been achieved in those talks announced for conclusion early 2023 by the UK Foreign Minister and the real possibility that, true to form, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office may be paying lip-service to the engagement process while playing to the international community. He also comments on the similar confusion regarding the military/naval status of Agalega and the role India could play on both fronts and on the security of our extensive maritime domain.

Mauritius Times: The Prime Minister attended, last weekend, the G20 Summit which saw the participation of the heads of states of most of the powerful countries in the world. One would think that such occasions provide rare opportunities to meet on the sidelines with a few of these top leaders with a view to advancing the country’s interests. Is it how it really works, and if so, how effective are such meetings?

Sateeaved Seebaluck: A lot can and does happen in the margins of international meetings. In fact, when heads of governments or ministers come back from such meetings announcing that they have brought back funding pledges amounting to millions of dollars, etc., it is rarely, if at all, an outcome of the conference, unless it was a meeting specifically held to approve the funding of projects for the country, for example by the European Investment Bank or the African Development Bank.

Such outcomes are mainly results of successful talks in the fringe of the main meetings. Those meetings are an ongoing process until the very last day of conferences or summits. Leaders of ‘great’ countries are in great demand, which also explains their absence from the plenary room for most of the time. It is also a good opportunity to flag and canvass the country’s interests in the context of the main meeting.

Many of the difficult issues are sorted out during such engagements in the margins of the meetings. Take the example of the lobbying undertaken by SAJ on the Chagos Archipelago. At every conference he attended, whether at the UN itself or other fora, he would spend hours in morning and afternoon meetings, on a one-to-one basis, with the heads of other delegations to explain our position and seek their full support in all the instances involved. That is how we obtained those sweeping majorities at vote counts.

There are also other informal activities that take place in the corridors like showcasing by NGOs, industry (in the context of COPs) and other interests, often with important take-aways. At the New Delhi G20 meeting, our Prime Minister was an invited observer, but he got the opportunity on the sidelines of the Summit to engage with the UK Prime Minister on progress relating to the Chagos ongoing discussions.

Therefore, attending an international conference requires a well-defined strategy based on the outcome/s expected not only from the main agenda, but perhaps more importantly from the bilateral interactions on the sides.

* We are not aware whether the Chagos issue, which remains unresolved to this day, could have been raised on the sidelines in New Delhi, the more so since the Mauritian government is pinning its hope on obtaining a lease agreement with the US for its continued occupation of Diego Garcia for its military base. What can we learn from past attempts by the Mauritius government to engage with the US with regard to this issue?

It is important to go back in history to understand the US immutable stand on the Chagos.

The US had spotted Diego Garcia since the early sixties, if not earlier. Centrally situated in quite a remote region in the Indian Ocean where all the other four continents were within sight and reach was an ideal spot for a military base from where the USSR, China and other countries of South and Southeast Asia could be kept under surveillance, which was at that time much needed in the context of the Cold War.

The US thus talked the UK into excising the Chagos Archipelago to create the so-called British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) from Mauritian territory and drive away all the inhabitants from the island. That was “chose faite” as a result of a shameful arm-twisting exercise and that too done shamelessly behind the back of the United Nations in contravention of all the provisions of resolution 1514, the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.

The UK and the US signed a deal in 1966 which allowed the US to use Diego Garcia for the setting up of a military base or for “defence purposes”, as they put it. Since then, whenever any of our former prime ministers had raised the question of the return of the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritius with any of the former presidents of the USA, their answer has invariably been that the US recognizes the UK’s sovereignty over the BIOT, your dispute is with the UK, talk to them. And you know the old and stale song of the UK, that it has no doubt about its sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago and that it will be ceded back to Mauritius when no longer required for “defence purposes”.

* Diplomacy has failed so far to bring Mauritius to get the UK and the USA to agree to Mauritius’ participation in the negotiations in the renewal of the lease agreement between these two countries. How can we hope the Americans would be willing to adopt a more conciliatory attitude vis-à-vis Mauritius?

Mauritius has always used international law and diplomacy to seek redress over the Chagos issue.

Diplomacy has failed because we were all the time engaged in a “dialogue de sourds” with the UK and the US. Every government since independence tried its level best at the UN, the then OAU, the Non-Aligned movement, AU, the Commonwealth, you name it and indeed bilaterally.

When nothing worked, Mauritius took the legal route. It all started with the case of the Marine Protected Area (MPA) around the Chagos Archipelago at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which found that the setting up of the MPA was in breach of the provisions of the Convention. Then ensued a series of defeats by the UK including the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, the related UN resolutions and, recently, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea award on the delimitation of the maritime boundaries between Mauritius and the Maldives.

The law and international public opinion were firmly on our side. We also gave them an extremely important face-saving device by assuaging the US’s fears by offering a 99-year long-term lease to the US or to the US and the UK. Added to these facts were also statements made by Joe Biden and Boris Johnson respectively.
In its strategic framework, as outlined in ‘Global Britain in a competitive age’, the UK takes the moral high ground to state that “democratic societies are the strongest supporters of an open and resilient international order, in which global institutions prove their ability to protect human rights, manage tensions between great powers, address conflict…”, etc. Biden, on the other hand, spelled out his vision for a nation leading “not just by the example of its power, but by the power of our example”. These assertions and their unequivocal condemnation of both China, with regard to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and Russia on its annexation of Crimea must have put them in an awkward situation internally and vis-à-vis the international community.

We should not, however forget the hard line taken by Mauritius following the International Court of Justice’s award both at the international level in such fora like the UN, the AU, the international Postal Union, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, among others, as well as bilaterally. Moreover, the Americans, I believe, are not comfortable at all with the idea that their most important military base is standing on shaky grounds. They will have to come round sooner or later.

* The US base on Diego Garcia needn’t be an obstacle to a negotiated settlement of a longstanding sovereignty dispute – that has been the position of successive Mauritian governments down the years. But could be that it’s the non-opposition to that base is what the Americans want to hear from Mauritius, and that’s indeed coming in the way of a just settlement of the contentious issues?

Mauritius could not have been clearer in its intent on the question of a long-term lease to the US or the US and the UK together in order to maintain the operation of the military base in Diego Garcia. When I say Mauritius, I mean the State of Mauritius – there is buy-in from all relevant quarters.

However, the resettlement of the Chagossians and other Mauritians on the islands remains a sore issue, which I am sure is now on the negotiations table. They are still allergic to the presence of human beings anywhere near their base. But do they have a choice given the unequivocal rulings of the International Court of Justice and International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea?

On the other hand, there are presently concerns raised at various levels in both the US and UK. The Pentagon is worried about the alleged growing Chinese influence in Mauritius and fear that eventual return of the Chagos archipelago to Mauritius could undermine the security of their vital military base at Diego Garcia. They are also concerned about the growing influence of China in the vicinity, especially as regards its base in Djibouti and its proximity with Pakistan. The UK has given the assurance that these concerns would be duly taken into consideration during the negotiations with Mauritius.

There are also troublemakers in the UK like Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski who has voiced concern about our “deepening economic ties with Beijing” which “offer no guarantee that China won’t soon have its own base on the island chain”. That statement may seem risible or naïve, but it represents a nuisance potential to the negotiations underway. Let us hope that the discussions are genuine, and those concerns are dealt with and disposed of at the very outset so that progress may be achieved on the other subjects on the table.

* As a small state, Mauritius has relied on the tools of international law and diplomacy to confront a major power. Has it been envisaged by the Mauritian authorities during your time in office that it might be plausible to adopt a harder line beyond what was undertaken at the level of the International Court of Justice?

Mauritius has always been and remains a democracy where the rule of law dictates our action in full respect of international institutions. We have always been on the right side of the law. All governments have held that any dispute should be resolved through diplomatic channels or if the circumstances so dictate through legal channels.

The outcome in the Chagos process has proved us right. But then, what harder line option could we envisage? Take a shipload of Chagossians and leave them on Diego Garcia? The credit goes to Sir Anerood Jugnauth whose determination and calculated risk brought us where we stand today with the rest of the world behind us all the way.

* The UK has lately agreed, in a major reversal of policy, to open negotiations with Mauritius over the future handover of the Chagos Islands, but the British have dragged their feet for more than 40 years with regard to the sovereignty issue. Why should we believe in their good faith this time round?

I must confess that I do not trust the British in these matters. We have had the experience before when, at their behest, we engaged in negotiations on the implementation of the award of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea on the illegal Marine Protected Area they had created around the Chagos Archipelago.

I was leading the Mauritius side, and I can tell you that they have been the most unproductive lot to discuss with. To agree on the agenda was like an obstacle race. To agree on the minutes of proceedings was the worst of nightmares. We would move one step forward, five steps backwards. But they were caught in their own game.

When discussions stalled inspite of the then Prime Minister SAJ giving the then UK Secretary for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Boris Johnson, a deferment of six months before taking the matter to the International Court of Justice through the UN General Assembly, they refused to discuss the question of sovereignty as agreed by Johnson himself. That took them where they are today. Serves them right!

I hope and pray that I am wrong, but I have a gut feeling that they are at it again. How seriously could you take anyone who suggests, nay, affirms that discussions on such a matter of handing back the sovereignty over a territory they have illegally occupied for five decades would be concluded in just less than six months? And that too, including discussions on a long list of issues — I call them “conditions” — relating to resettlement, protection of the marine environment, security, just to mention these. Who in his right mind would buy that?

I would be pleasantly surprised if they have even agreed on an acceptable agenda. To me, the UK’s readiness to engage in these discussions looks very much like a trick to shut Mauritius up at the international level where it musters support and its voice is heard, to halt action underway at the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC), among others, while putting the UN General Assembly at rest by showing that progress is being made.

I fear, as you say, that they could be dragging their feet again.

* There is a new player in the Chagos imbroglio and in the larger Indian Ocean great power competition: India, which is said to be no longer opposed to the US presence in Diego Garcia, due to its rising threat perceptions of China in the Indian Ocean. It’s also perceived as “a key enabler for US strategic and operational interests” in this part of the world. It seems there is a window of opportunity in the new situation that has developed in the Indian Ocean with India as a facilitator for resolving the sovereignty and lease issues… What do you think?

India has major interests to defend. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace informs us that it is custodian to about 40% of the Indian ocean waters while around 80% of the world’s maritime oil and 9.84 billion tons of cargo pass through the Indian Ocean region annually. The Indian Ocean has now taken geopolitical, economic and environmental importance with focus turning towards South and Southeast Asia and the Pacific, and Africa which constitute the largest pool of consumers in the world.

With threat perceptions from both Pakistan and China, which has enhanced its influence in the region, India is consolidating its position in the region, and it is quite natural that it conveniently allies itself with the US. Against this backdrop, why would India not be interested in all that is going on in the region and more particularly around the “unsinkable carrier” named Diego Garcia where Indian navy drills also take place?

Given the extremely good, more than diplomatic, relations that we have with India, the latter finds itself not in just a privileged position, but in an all-win situation in this context. Given the dynamic geopolitical situation in the region, India would be more comfortable with an American base in Diego Garcia belonging to Mauritius than as it is now under lease from the UK, albeit unlawful and with a strong foothold in Agalega, if not a base, at least for the works that have been carried out there. And with the trump card Russia up its sleeve, India could be able to loudmouth the US should the need be felt, which is not the case right now. The bottom line is that India could act as a catalyst in the process of decolonization of Mauritius.

* Olivier Bancoult has so far gone along with the government as regards Mauritius’ sovereignty claims. But there’s the British passport being dangled before the Chagossians, there is the Chagossian flag, and there are at times “velléités” of independence in that community… How do you see things evolving on that front over the next years or decades?

Olivier Bancoult is a determined fighter for a just cause and deserves all our admiration. He and his Groupe Réfugiés Chagos have realised that the right way to resettlement is through decolonization, after all the ‘coups bas’ inflicted by the various UK governments including their monarch. They have worked with government, each one in its role and the result is eloquent. As free citizens of the state they have freedom of speech and of association and freedom to float the flag of their “mouvement”.

With regard to the “velléités” you mention, let me say this: those who are looking up to the UK for whatever opening that would allow them to return to the Chagos Archipelago or to be included in the discussions are knocking at the wrong door. The UK has never had and does not have any sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago. They are themselves an unlawful occupier of, a squatter on part of the Republic of Mauritius.

It is matter for the state, let the state deal with it. As for resettlement, the government has said it is consulting the Chagossian community.

* Unlike the presence and operation of the military bases of other foreign powers in the Indian Ocean, it’s India’s interests in this part of the world, especially its alleged military base in Agalega, that have become a focus of critical attention of the media here and elsewhere. Do you think we would eventually have to come to terms with the presence of another base on Mauritian soil in light of the evolving maritime security situation in our region?

What we know officially so far is what the Prime Minister has said in the National Assembly and in public. What we see and hear in the media are mere speculations, although satellite pictures and what is described by people living on the island tend to justify the speculations. This is further fuelled by the Indian press alleging that Agalega will host a military base, and which remains undenied by the Indian authorities.

Until and unless both governments come forward with a joint statement on the issue, we shall have to live with the confusion. The “tenants et aboutissants” of any potential agreement, existing or future, will tell us if it is good or bad. However, one thing is certain: we do need extensive assistance for the surveillance of our maritime zone with all that is happening in the region.          

* One of the major announcements on the sidelines of the G20 summit relates to the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, which is already being seen as the “first global connectivity project to rival China’s Belt and Road Initiative”. We do not know whether parts of Africa, including Mauritius, will eventually be roped in into that corridor. Do we have much of a choice in this matter?

The India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor is a very interesting concept in as much as it seeks to provide safe and cheaper transportation of freight between and among countries in the corridor and around. However, it is an ambitious project still at the inception stage and it’s not known which other countries would be invited to join in and how it is going to be operated. One thing is certain and that is it will involve heavy investments in infrastructure by all the countries involved and the funds would only be mobilised when the cost for each country is known.

To answer your question, the corridor will be a freight route like the existing air, sea and land routes operating presently. It is not really important to be part of it or not. If it turns out to be cheaper and safer, as expected, Mauritius like the other countries within its catchment will definitely be able to benefit from it in different ways.

First, it would definitely give a boost to exports from Mauritius by making our products more competitive in terms of cost, visibility and timeliness. Second, the cost of imported goods will go down with reduced freight costs. Third, assuming that there is vision and ambition that are now lacking, Port Louis can develop into a real regional hub with appropriate upgrading to provide excellence in service and reducing turnround time to the absolute minimum, and at competitive prices. This is also where the eventual regional shipping line would come in handy.

The foregoing is not an exhaustive enumeration. All these will no doubt have an accelerating effect on our economy. We should start strategising so as to benefit fully from the eventual corridor when it comes into operation.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 15 September 2023

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