Verma Visit 2023

We may choose not to read much in protocolar statements, but they are undeniable pointers to what diplomats would have to take on board as the US remains the most potent force both directly and through its networked allies in the region


By Jan Arden

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Richard Rahul Verma, on a tight trip to consolidate US relations with various Indian Ocean Island states, had an intense two-day stop-over in Mauritius this week. Besides participating with the US ambassador Henry Jardine in the laying of the foundation stone of the new US Embassy complex in Bagatelle, the distinguished official had a well-packed series of meetings here: namely, a courtesy call on the President, working meeting with the PM Pravind Jugnauth on bilateral issues, a meeting with the Leader and other key members of the Opposition. The Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources also met the press in Mauritius where he placed his visit in the context of «the strong US-Mauritius relationship, and future opportunities for partnership and cooperation between our two countries.» He underlined that «this relationship is built upon shared values and democratic principles.»

It may be useful to recall here the more general context of this series of meetings which follows the Mauritian PM couple meeting with President Joe Biden at the White House in December last. Geopolitics should have hovered over both that visit and in the background to the important Richard Verma stop-over as talks with the UK towards completing the decolonisation process of Mauritius by handing over full sovereignty over Diego Garcia, host to the Anglo-American military base, were targeted to be approaching a conclusion during 2023.

Richard Verma is an Indian-origin US high official who was appointed as Obama’s distinguished Ambassador to India in 2014, and few could be more conversant with that emerging superpower’s concerns, those relating to general maritime security in the Indo-Pacific area and the strategic considerations underlying India, US, Australia and Japan in the Quad partnership to contain China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific (military pressures on Taiwan, naval claims on South China Sea and various naval bases around the African coast). 

According to a Daily Mail article filed in Dec 2022, «Lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic have raised fears that the British government’s decision to begin negotiations to hand over the islands to Mauritius could allow China the chance to build its own military facility on the archipelago — right under the nose of American forces at Diego Garcia.» Mauritian diplomacy, which has been particularly vigilant and proactive on that national, cross-party interest for Chagos sovereignty, should have perfectly briefed the PM and his foreign policy advisors on various options to assuage key US concerns and move forward constructively as the Mauritius-UK talks, if not close to completion, remain in the pipeline. It is hoped that they would have found in Richard Verma a good interface with impeccable credentials for forging the way ahead as traditional allies with similar interests for a safe and secure Indian Ocean environment for common development purposes.

Nevertheless, those advisors that may have been hanging their pegs on more confrontational tactics against the Opposition generally, namely through high-handed and arbitrary arrests of dissenting voices, or through the dysfunction and «weaponisation» of investigative agencies against opponents, the recent State Department report on human rights abuses or the distinguished visitor’s remarks about the necessary adherence to democratic values and the rule of law, should not be ignored. We may choose not to read much in protocolar statements following official visits, but they are undeniable pointers to what more seasoned diplomats would have to take on board as the US remains the most potent force both directly and through its networked allies in the region.

Mauritius may be a small speck on the world map but it has through its Extended Economic Zone an intrinsic geopolitical dimension over some 2 million sq km of Indian Ocean high-sea waters in a vital region for international maritime trade for vital resources. Our diplomacy has traditionally avoided taking sides and kept to a « friend to all, an enemy to none » but as China flexes its muscle in a global competition and confrontation with the US, we need to tread with greater caution on all fronts.

It will be recalled that Mauritius has resisted signing on to the Chinese Belt and Road Iinitiative. Further, the delicate balance between our traditional allies, including China, nearly went overboard with former DPM Vishnu Lutchmeenaraidoo’s plans in 2015 to lease a fishing-cum-naval base to the dragon at the time Richard Verma was taking his posting in India and that hairy episode, although terminated, may still rankle.

We know also of US and Indian concerns over the security of our communications and networking installations, particularly with the penetration of Huawei, a suspect in many Western capitals of transferring key data to the Chinese secret services. It may be surmised that the $300 million being invested in the Bagatelle US campus is precisely to extract and completely protect all US satellite and internet communications from prying eyes and ears.

In the new eras ahead of us, qualified and competent diplomats and analysts are more than ever a necessity to avoid missteps as we try to finalise the recovery of our sovereignty over the Chagos and, in the longer-term, maintain and improve relations with all our development partners, including France, India and China.

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Postponement of municipal councils elections: The rights of half the population confiscated

In the recent weeks, many society voices, lawyers and in the general population might be forgiven to think that under the guise of a perfunctory democracy, the authorities keep paying lip-service to those fundamental tenets while «weaponising» every instrument at its disposal, including its parliamentary majority and investigative agencies, to weaken its key tenets. From lawyers Akil Bissessur and Rama Valayden, through political opponent Bruneau Laurette, to media figure Harish Chundunsingh, there have been a series of high-handed arrests while notorious figures of government, under heavy clouds, are moving freely.

The latest to be charged, arrested and jailed for money laundering is the former close advisor and confidante Sherry Singh and his wife. The erstwhile blue-eyed boy of the regime was appointed Chief Executive of Mauritius Telecom in 2015 and fell out of grace when he resigned last year making public allegations against the Prime Minister about an alleged «sniffing team» from India into the SAFE landing station at Baie du Jacotet. Whatever the merits of these cases, the public perception is that of double standards being applied either by ICAC or the CCID/MCIT/SST nexus in the way opponents and government operatives are being treated.

In the midst of those disturbing controversies, and the continued pressures on everyday prices in pharmacies and supermarkets, government has decided to extend for the third time running and for two further years the shelf-life of all municipal councils last elected in 2015. The motion was rammed through Parliament in one sitting at the same time that the press was reporting on the judgement (dated 18th May) of a full bench of Law Lords of the Privy Council on an appeal of a citizen against a similar postponement in Trinidad and Tobago.

While government voices were quick to say that the Trinidad and Tobago situation is slightly different, some of the Privy Council remarks remain pertinent here as the rights of half the population were confiscated on rather flimsy pretexts of preparing some grand reform (which the MSM had opposed since 2000) or that an election costs money.

We cannot say how far the constitutional structures – that of Trinidad and Tobago and Mauritius’ – inherited from outgoing UK colonial administrations are different, but the Privy Council’s statement that «democratic values and the requirement for a representative democracy lie at the heart of the Constitution» suffers neither ambiguity nor colourable devices.

The Privy Council goes further to elaborate on the essential characteristics of a representative democracy at national or local levels, in particular, that electorates choose their representatives for a limited period and that the right to «vote out representatives is as important as the right to vote in representatives».  While necessarily engaging other associated rights, that elective right, say the Law Lords, is the foundation on which a democratic society is built.

We trust that, on that score, we are not way below or way different from that sister Commonwealth Island. The question is whether such a constitutional right can be waived aside or confiscated over multiple years by a simple parliamentary majority, at the whims and fancies of a ruling regime that is now anxiously looking at its final months in office.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 2 June 2023

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