Apart from its chief architects, the US and the UK, the resolution against Sri Lanka tabled at the UN Human Rights Council earlier this month had the sponsorship of three others — Montenegro, Macedonia and Mauritius. The enlistment of the two Southeast European states is easily explained by the fact that both states are candidates [...]



Anti-Lanka resolution, Diego Garcia and the Mauritius factor


Apart from its chief architects, the US and the UK, the resolution against Sri Lanka tabled at the UN Human Rights Council earlier this month had the sponsorship of three others — Montenegro, Macedonia and Mauritius. The enlistment of the two Southeast European states is easily explained by the fact that both states are candidates awaiting membership of the EU and NATO. However the basis on which Mauritius was taken on board remains something of a puzzle. 

Unlike the other four sponsors Mauritius is not a member of the HRC. Last November Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam announced his intention to skip the Commonwealth summit in Colombo just days ahead of the event, citing human rights concerns. The decision came as a surprise because it was only a week since it was reported that Mauritius’ Foreign Minister had discussions with his Sri Lankan counterpart at the Indian Ocean Rim Association meeting in Australia, where he confirmed that his PM would attend. How is this sudden turnaround explained? Is it related to a web of negotiations with the UK and the US that will determine the issue of Mauritius’ sovereignty over the Chagos Islands in the months ahead?

In a shameful chapter of British history yet to be closed, the Chagos archipelago was ‘removed’ from the territory of Mauritius shortly before it gained independence in 1968. The islands were designated a ‘British Indian Ocean Territory’ (BIOT). Britain then leased the biggest island of Diego Garcia to the US to be used as a military base. In exchange, Britain got a substantial discount from the US on the purchase of Polaris nuclear missiles.

The Chagos islanders numbering around 2,000 were forcibly deported to Mauritius and Seychelles. The horrendous manner in which this expulsion was carried out, though documented, is not exactly public knowledge. This is not an episode from Britain’s distant colonial history but something that happened in modern times, upto the early 1970s.

To this day the islanders whose numbers have increased, and some of whom live in Britain, continue to fight legal battles to establish their right of return to the islands. Britain’s hypocritical rhetoric about human rights in the world does not sit well with any raking up of this episode, and Britain would understandably want to bury the episode as soon as possible.

This year will be decisive for all stakeholders because the US lease on Diego Garcia ends in 2016, and any renegotiation of the deal has to be finalised by December. There has been increasing pressure on Britain to return Diego Garcia and the other islands. Mauritius’ sovereignty claim is strengthened by the fact that Diego Garcia was used to refuel the CIA’s illegal rendition flights. It was also used to launch long distance bombing raids on Iraq and Afghanistan. The timeline of this story is full of secret, deceitful and illegal acts on the part of the two western powers.

Chagos islanders fighting their forced expulsion won a UK High Court case in 2006. David Miliband who was Foreign Secretary at the time challenged the ruling and in 2008 it was overturned. Then in 2010 Miliband had a ‘Marine Protected Area’ (MPA) declared around the Chagos Islands. A 2009 Wikileaks cable has revealed that the main reason for the unilateral declaration of an MPA was to prevent the Chagos islanders from returning. Fishing would have to be the main livelihood of islanders who hoped to return, and the prohibition on fishing resulting from the MPA made this impossible. (Personnel on the military base however are allowed to fish for sport.)

In the cable dated 15 May 2009 Colin Roberts, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Director, Overseas Territories “asserted that establishing a marine park would, in effect, put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago’s former residents.” Noting that the BIOT had served the shared US-UK strategic security objectives very well over the past several decades, he said “We do not regret the removal of the population,” since removal was necessary for the BIOT to fulfill its strategic purpose.”

In 2012 the European Court of Human Rights decided that it had no jurisdiction to look into the Chagossians’ claims. Last year the British High Court upheld Britain’s decision to create the marine reserve, ruling that the Wikileaks cable was inadmissible as evidence. The islanders last hope for legal redress probably lies in an upcoming hearing by an international tribunal on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. “Britain is now obliged to explain highly sensitive political decisions dating back to 1965″ ‘the Guardian’ reported. Ramgoolam welcomed the news saying “Never before have [the UK] had to explain why they detached the Chagos Islands from Mauritius.”

In a new development, Britain in January announced that consultants will be sent to assess the possibility of re-settling the islanders including Diego Garcia. They will study the cost of the exercise and an assortment of environmental factors that might make life impossible for returnees ranging from sea-level rise to tropical cyclones. (These however have not deterred the US military personnel on the base for decades.)

It would appear that the relations between Britain, the US and Mauritius have reached a critical stage when much hangs in the balance. Britain would want to lay to rest any further raking up of the islanders’ issue while it lectures other states on human rights and introduces resolutions against them in the UNHRC. The US would want to cut its losses in negotiations over a vital Indian Ocean base at a time when its strategic focus has shifted to Asia. It is in this context that the question arises as to whether discreet pressure has been used on Mauritius to contribute to the anti-Lanka campaign — for which the western powers would be eager to show there is ‘cross regional support’ — in exchange for a favourable deal on the sovereignty issue.

The future of the military base on Diego Garcia hangs in the balance at a time when the Maldives has rejected a ‘Status of Forces Agreement’ proposed by US that would have given them an alternative foothold in the Indian Ocean. Geopolitics suggests that Sri Lanka is yet another alternative. Former UN ambassador Tamara Kunanayakam, for one, has cogently argued the case that this is the real motive behind the resolution, and that R2P will be the weapon that will be used to secure it. It’s anybody’s guess as to what trade-offs may be in the process of being negotiated by western powers with Mauritius, another small and vulnerable Indian Ocean island state.

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