Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The Future of Chagos and Agalega

The sovereignty of, and territorial rights over, the Chagos Archipelago is a matter of contention between Mauritius and the United Kingdom for more than half a century now. Before granting national independence to Mauritius in 1968, the retreating colonial power played shady games to retain its strategic interests in the Indian Ocean region. As it happened, two years before the granting of Independence, the colonial power decided to retain a land foothold in the region for the longer term and hence excised the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius. During the pre-independence political negotiations between Mauritius national leaders and the British government, the continued British-control over the Islands was legitimated through questionable deals- thanks to the obvious unequal bargaining power between the parties- the Conquerors leveraging their heft of power and their political subjects on the negotiating table desperately seeking freedom from colonial yoke. Through offering best relations beyond independence, paying 'peanuts' as immediate compensation and a vague promise of returning the Islands to Mauritius at an unspecified future date when the facility at the Islands would no longer be needed for 'defence purposes', Britain sought to retain its control over the Chagos Archipelago for the indefinite future. 

Responding to global shifts in power and the emerging equation with the US in the post-second World War/ Cold War  scenario, the UK later through a bilateral agreement, leased the strategic Islands to the United States for establishing its grand military base in the heart of the Indian Ocean- the Diego Garcia Naval Base. Almost in parallel, within a decade (1967-1973), Britain ensured that Chagossian villagers were systematically and stealthily ousted from their homes and lands permanently, without any opportunity of returning to their homeland forever! British national security and strategic interests trumped over the rights of poor and vulnerable islanders. Even as the Big Powers- the United States and the United Kingdom- consolidated their strategic interests and military control of the region, the hapless Chagossian people were left to languish in the wilderness of their own catastrophe- in mainland Mauritius, Seychelles,  the UK and elsewhere. No wonder, the British colonial excesses in the region continue to scar the national spirit of the formerly subjugated people, the Chagossians in particular.

The fact that such inhuman deportation practices under post-colonial hubris was taking place at a time when International Law itself has undergone radical change- with the evolving norms in global order outlawing colonial exploitation; foreign domination and racial injustice; recognizing the right of self-determination for peoples; privileging fundamental human dignity or the right of everyone for humane treatment and recognition as a legal person- meant that these despicable practices would be challenged. Indeed, the recent international legal and political processes concerning the Chagos Archipelago could be seen against this backdrop of a people's resistance against imperial arrogance. In February 2019, the International Court of Justice (ICJ)- the highest authority on the interpretation and application of international law- agreed that the United Kingdom's excision of the Islands violated the international norms of decolonization, especially the duty to respect the integrity of colonial territories at the time of granting independence. 

On 22 May 2019, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) also adopted a resolution that demanded the UK withdraw its “colonial administration” from the Chagos Archipelago unconditionally within six months, supporting Mauritius in its quest for the restoration of sovereignty over the island chain in the Indian Ocean. While the ICJ provided an 'Advisory Opinion'- morally persuasive, legally non-binding decision; the UNGA gave a non-binding resolution. Despite the non-binding legal character of the international procedures on the Chagos Dispute, the global public conscience is clearly in favour of the complete decolonization of Africa- the  UK administration of the Chagos Archipelago being clearly identified as an aberration to the prevailing normative architecture. 
Notwithstanding the moral/legal recognition of the Mauritius case on global forums, and the euphoria these developments seem to have created in the political circles of Mauritius, the return of the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritian sovereignty is unlikely to materialize any time soon, given the intransigence of the UK government on the issue. Though the UK suffered a moral and legal defeat both at the ICJ and the UNGA, the enforcement of the Awards are a 'separate' and different matter under international law. Considering that the UK itself- and also, its partner-in this crime, the United States- are powerful States (with 'veto' privilege as well in the UN Security Council), no legal solution- ironically enough- could be effected or enforced without the willing cooperation of these same States. The structural biases that inform modern international law casts its long shadow over the enforcement of rights that belong to the global South, including smaller Island States (such as Mauritius) and/ or indigenous communities (such as the Chagossians). So much for the justice-orientation of international law in a power-centric global order today!   

The national political leadership in Mauritius would do well to reflect hard on its long-standing struggle for the retrieval of the Chagos Archipelago from the UK, if only to be careful and prudent in future- especially in framing the terms of engagement with outside powers- including India- that are seeking a foothold on Mauritius territory such as the Agalega Islands. In his Friday Sermon of 31 May 2019~25 Ramadan 1440 AH Imam-Jamaat Ul Sahih Al Islam International, Hadhrat Munir Ahmad Azim Saheb (atba) of Mauritius made some pertinent remarks with regard to the Chagos Question, and also with regard to the secrecy shrouding the bilateral agreement between India and Mauritius impacting the future of the Agalega Islands.  

Read the Public Remarks Below: 

After the victory at the UN, the Prime Minister of Mauritius, Pravind Jugnauth and his delegation were welcomed as heroes at the airport of Plaisance, last Saturday May 25th. They are delighted that 116 countries, members of the UN have voted in favour of the resolution of Mauritius on the Chagos dispute, Wednesday the 22 of May at night, in New York. 56 countries abstained from voting and only 6 nations voted against the resolution.

Keep in mind that in 2017, many European countries had abstained from voting, but this time they voted. Among these countries, there are Austria, Greece, Ireland, Switzerland etc.

When one sees this situation, theoretically speaking, it is a very great victory [a historic victory] for our country (Mauritius) after the United Nations General Assembly has established the modalities that aim to complete decolonization for the United Kingdom, ending its administration in the Chagos Archipelago in six months.

It is truly a great victory for the Republic of Mauritius as a whole, and also for all the citizens of Chagos, because these Chagossians had been expelled from their country, and where Mauritius had to return the archipelago of Chagos in its fight to gain independence. It is certainly a dark episode in the history of Mauritius and humanity as a whole. I am extremely disappointed by the position of the UK in this matter!

And of course, this is also a political strategy, as this year [very soon] there will be the general election in Mauritius. The Prime Minister and his Government know very well how to divert the Mauritians’ attention to the Chagos and to show this Prime Minister as a Hero. All governments in the past have also fought the United Kingdom to gain back the Chagos Archipelago. Despite all these political strategies, we are very pleased that this struggle for the resurgence of humanity - on a humanitarian basis - has been successful and therefore it is a great victory, not only for Mauritius, but for all those poor Chagossians who were forced to abandon their country.

The Future of Agalega Islands

But now, dear Prime Minister ... do not take us - the people of Mauritius - for fools. Come and tell us what’s going on about Agalega! Explain what is happening between Mauritius and India, between you and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. 

It is not possible that India will invest so much money in Agalega for nothing; to build an airport and make other developments, in a small island like this - leaving his country, his people who are suffering. 

There is something fishy...'