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Cameron has every reason to back Chagos Islands sovereignty

Human Rights

Cameron has every reason to back Chagos Islands sovereignty

David Cameron meets the prime minister of Mauritius Navin Ramgoolam at Downing Street. Photograph: Sean Dempsey/PA The UK has a great opportunity based on realpolitik and human rights to restore the Chagos archipelago to its rightful owners

Sean Carey

"The wind of change is blowing through this continent," said British prime minister Harold Macmillan when he addressed the South African parliament in Cape Town February 1960. "Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact."

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On Friday, that wind changed direction and blew across the Indian Ocean when another Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, met his Mauritian counterpart, Navin Ramgoolam, for a 30-minute meeting at 10 Downing Street, which focused on the sovereignty of the disputed Chagos archipelago.

There was a degree of cautious optimism on the Mauritian side that progress could be made – speaking earlier today on the BBC World Service Mauritius, UN ambassador Milan Meetarbhan stated that the occasion "was an important opportunity to discuss how we can resolve these issues" and so it proved. "It was a friendly, cordial and open meeting," a source told me. "David Cameron has agreed to restart dialogue with Mauritius over Chagos. It's something of a breakthrough."

Successive governments in Port Louis have pointed out to anyone who would listen that the dismemberment of its territory as a condition of the country's independence in March 1968, was in blatant contravention of UN resolution 1514 of 1960, which states that "any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the charter of the United Nations".

Those words were coined more than half a century ago – the same year as Macmillan made his speech in South Africa, which inaugurated a second wave of decolonisation by Britain in sub-Saharan Africa. Now, Cameron appears to be willing to sanction a change of policy towards Chagos. Here are four big reasons why he should continue in this direction.

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The first is that since 1998 successive UK governments have been involved in a no-expense-spared battle with Olivier Bancoult, leader of the Port Louis-based Chagos Refugees Group, which is seeking the right of return for around 700 surviving islanders and their descendants, who were forcibly removed from their ancestral homeland by the British authorities between 1968 and 1971 and dumped in Mauritius and the Seychelles. After a spectacular series of victories in the high court and court of appeal, Bancoult lost by a narrow 3-2 verdict in the House of Lords in 2008. The case is now before the European court of human rights and a judgement is expected soon. Even the zealots in the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, who have maintained a consistently hostile attitude towards Chagossian resettlement, must be in fear that the court in Strasbourg will find against the UK.

The second reason is that Mauritius is contesting the right of former UK foreign secretary, David Miliband, to have unilaterally declared Chagos a full "no take" marine-protected area on 1 April, 2011. As WikiLeaks later revealed, the policy, which outlaws all forms of fishing, was in part motivated to put paid to the right of return of the Chagossians, described as "Man Fridays" by Colin Roberts, the British Indian Ocean Territory commissioner. Evidence of an unreconstructed colonial mentality and a strategy straight out of Machiavelli's The Prince is unlikely to go down well at the forthcoming tribunal, which will hear the case under the UN convention on the law of the sea (UNCLOS). Furthermore, it is of some significance that Mauritius will be represented by the formidable Philippe Sands QC, professor of international law at UCL. If the judgement goes against the UK, it will have significant implications for the Diego Garcia base, where an extension to the existing agreement between the UK and US has to be agreed by December 2014.

The third reason is that Mauritius, which is about the size of the Isle of Wight and has a population of nearly 1.3 million, has experienced the shift of economic power from west to east and south. The palm-fringed island is being wooed by China and India as an important gateway to fast-growing consumer markets in mainland Africa, comprising over 1 billion people. The courtship means that Mauritius is no longer obliged to play a subservient role to the former colonial master (or the US) out of fear that its vital trading interests could come under pressure.

That leads to the final point. Although the threat from the Soviet Union in the Indian Ocean has long since disappeared, the new powers, China and India, are both flexing their ever growing military muscles. These old rivals, along with the US, are competing to secure the shipping lanes transporting goods and raw materials, especially oil and gas, between Africa and Asia. And the competition is not just limited to blue water. India now has the capacity with its Agni-111 rocket capable of carrying a 1.5 tonne nuclear warhead more than 3,000 kilometres, which would bring the Chinese cities of Beijing and Shanghai, but also Diego Garcia within range.

David Cameron would do well to consider, then, whether the UK might be better to have Mauritius as a partner rather than an enemy. For strategic reasons, Port Louis has already indicated that the return of the Chagos archipelago to its control will not impact on the use of the Diego Garcia base. This would secure its future, rather than to leaving it to chance, with the risk that something might go badly wrong for western interests in the Indian Ocean because of the rivalry between China and India.

The UK has a golden opportunity based on realpolitik, but also by supporting human rights and international law, to restore the Chagos archipelago to its rightful owners: the islanders who once possessed their homes and land by virtue of customary title, and Mauritius from which it was illegally excised. Harold Macmillan, the great Tory pragmatist and trend spotter, would surely approve.

Source: The Guardian UK, 09 June 2012



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