Chagos: How to postpone the sovereignty issue indefinitely

Mauritius should be wary of the proposal of the British Government after years of dispute to establish some “sort” of co-management over the outer islands of the Chagos Archipelagos excluding the military base Diego Garcia. A proposal for co-management will have the consequence of postponing the issue of sovereignty indefinitely and inimical to our interests in the long run. We are not in the same situation as Tromelin; any comparison with Tromelin as a precedent would be a futile exercise. The stakes are different both as regards to title and the resettlement of the Chagossian population. Mauritius has under successive governments made it clear that the two issues are inextricably linked and the Mauritian Government can look after the interests of its citizens of chagossian origin.

 

The proposal for a co-management, let us be clear, does not arise out of some newly acquired altruistic spirit on the part of Britain but follows from the decision of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), international arbitral tribunal in March 2015 which ruled that the establishment of a Marine Protected Area around the archipelagos was a breach of international law and the Lancaster House undertakings agreed by Britain in September 1965 during the constitutional talks for independence. The implications of these binding undertakings meant that UK cannot undertake any activity which would affect the reversionary interests of Mauritius in the Chagos Archipelagos without entering into negotiations with Mauritius.

 

The Lancaster House Undertakings endorsed by Britain were constituted of four main strands which required Britain to provide for navigational and meteorological facilities, emergency landing on the islands, fishing rights and exploitation of the surrounding waters. Following the commitment of Britain to these undertakings, the Council of Ministers gave its “consent” to the detachment of the Chagos Archipelagos. Britain in turn gave assurances that the Chagos would be returned when the “facilities” are no longer required. Initially no mention was made that the islands would be used for defense purposes .

 

Since it is being contemplated that the outer islands Peros Banhos and Solomon Islands could be used to enable the chagossians to return to the islands, the question of sovereignty comes to the forefront of any discussions. It implies that the islands excluding Diego Garcia are no longer required for defense purposes, they should be returned to Mauritius to enable Mauritius to exercise its sovereignty. Mauritius has throughout made it clear that it shares the geopolitical concerns of the both US and UK in the Indian ocean region and that it will have no objection to the military base on Diego. The legal position of Mauritius it is pointed out, is that it has sovereignty under international law and it was unlawful at the time of independence for the colonial power to dismantle its territorial integrity by the detachment of the Chagos Archipelagos. This principle is so well established under the various resolutions taken by the United Nations that it stands to reason why Britain is so reticent to face the International Court of Justice albeit for an advisory opinion.

 

What would be the purpose of a co-management if on the one hand it will postpone indefinitely any judicial or arbitral proceedings to settle the question of title and on the other hand no tangible benefits will be obtained ? A co-management regime cannot be contemplated unless the issue of sovereignty is frozen or else any conduct on the part of Mauritius which comprises its sovereignty will impair any future legal action. Second the stakes involved in the short run relate to fishing rights, a joint exploitation of any minerals such as manganese nodules in the surrounding waters, the protection of the marine environment and navigational facilities. These are similar to the undertakings given by Britain at the time of the Constitutional talks in London in September 1965. It is already an acquired right. The tribunal ruled that these undertakings given in 1965 were binding on Britain,"forming part of the` quid pro quo`" through which Mauritian agreement to the detachment of the Chagos Archipelagos was procured.” There is a legal requirement for Britain to return the two islands to Mauritius now that they it is clear that there will be no objection to their eventual use for resettlement and no longer required for defense purposes. Hence the inference that co-management is a sheer decoy to postpone both the sovereignty issue and the return of the two islands outright.

 

Finally I can’t help asking whether history is catching up with those who blackmailed Sir Seewoosagur on the the issue of independence? Isn’t it also ironical that it was Sir Seewoosagur who had   drafted these undertakings (in his own handwriting on a letter-head of the Strand’s Place Hotel) and had the foresight to commit the British Government to a` quid pro quo` arrangement. At the Commonwealth Summit, which was held in 2009 in Port of Spain, I raised those undertakings with the then UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband in the presence of Lady Kinnock and our then High commissioner, Mahen Cundassamy. I also reminded him that the unilateral decision of UK to declare part of our maritime zone as a marine protected area was illegal and unnecessarily ushered in a climate of mistrust.

 

Today Mauritius, thanks to the bold decision of Navin Ramgoolam to resort to arbitration under UNCLOS, and the foresight of Sir Seewoosagur, is in a strong negotiating position. Those who through ignorance or bad faith had castigated Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam and his colleagues as “sold out” and liars should have the decency to make amends and apologize publicly. The information obtained from the Public Records Office in UK and those disclosed by Wikileaks bear testimony to the lies told by the then British government . The evidence today clearly establishes that far from being a sold out and a liar as some would want us to believe, Sir Seewoosagur had secured the best interests of Mauritius in extremely difficult and divisive circumstances.

 

By Dr Arvin Boolell, GOSK