MAURITIUS: The battle for the Chagos archipelago
Mauritius is preparing to go to the International Court of Justice to re-claim its sovereignty over the Chagos archipelago. Nasseem Ackbarally reports from Port-Louis.
Prior to Mauritius’ independence in 1968, the colonial power, Great Britain, divested the Chagos archipelago from Mauritian territory, renaming the islands part of the ‘British Indian Overseas Territory’ (BIOT).
Then they evicted the Chagossians who had inhabited these islands for centuries. It was all part of a 1965 secret deal between the UK and US that would provide the Americans with a military base in the Indian Ocean midway between Africa and India.
Ever since, the Chagossian peoples, who were forced to leave the islands, have been engaged in a struggle to reclaim their homelands.
Last July, the latest chapter in this struggle took place when demonstrators gathered in front of the British High Commission in Port-Louis demanding that Great Britain allow them to return home. The Chagossians have warned that they will return to the streets to ask for justice unless their demands are met.
‘Ram nou Diego’ (Give us back our Diego) shouted the hundreds of demonstrators carrying placards and posters denouncing British injustice. They accuse the British government of having stolen their land and giving one of the 65 islands, Diego Garcia, to the US. Diego Garcia has since been transformed into a huge US military base. US bomber planes stationed on the island were used in the 1991 Gulf War, and more recently to launch Cruise missiles and bombing sorties to attack Afghanistan and Iraq.
LIFE OF ABJECT POVERTY
Most Chagossians, who presently number some 5,000, have lived in abject poverty on the outskirts of Port-Louis – at Cassis, Cité Vallijee, Pte-aux-Sables and Baie-du-Tombeau – since their enforced exile between 1965 and 1973.
“For more than five generations, they had lived on their islands on copra and fishing. Everybody had a job, and their quality of life was relatively good,” says Olivier Bancoult, leader of the Chagos Refugees Group (GRC).
“Then they were dumped in Mauritius and the Seychelles, to live in the poorest areas where they face many difficulties such as drugs, alcohol, unemployment and prostitution,” he adds.
According to Bancoult, the scars of exile and suffering are not only in the hearts of Chagossians but also reflected in their poor standards of living. “We have tried to integrate with Mauritian society but in vain”, he says. Twice – in 1973 and 1979 – Chagossians obtained grants of £650,000 and £1.25m from the UK, and received state land to build new homes in Mauritius. But this was not sufficient to help them prosper within the local economy.
Mauritian journalist Thierry Château has been researching the fate of Chagossians for a number of years. Two years ago he wrote that the Chagossians were not prepared for the Mauritian lifestyle. “Uprooted from their traditional environment, they could not start a new life in Mauritius, falling easy prey to social ills,” he wrote.
In Cassis, near Port-Louis, Charlésia Alexis and Aurélie Talat, now in their 60s, recount how they were forced to leave their homes, their animals and their land at gunpoint.
“The British launched several raids on our islands to arrest those who resisted deportation. Others who came to Mauritius to buy food or to get medical treatment were forced to stay as there were no ships leaving for the Chagos,” the two women said.
BRITAIN RENEGES ON DEAL
The Chagossians began their campaign immediately after landing in Mauritius by staging demonstrations and hunger strikes in Port-Louis.
They were supported by local political parties like the Mouvement Militant Mauricien (MMM) of Prime Minister Paul Bérenger, presently in power.
Many Chagossians were arrested and jailed, but the struggle continued. In 1998, the GRC took legal action challenging the BIOT’s immigration legislation of 1971, which denied them access to the Chagos archipelago.
On November 3, 2000, the London High Court delivered a ruling in their favour, stating that the removal of Chagossians from their homeland was unlawful under the British Constitution. The law was amended to allow them access to the islands, and they were also entitled to British passports. Chagossians thought their sufferings were over. Some of them took advantage of the British passport and emigrated to the UK – although many returned to Mauritius, unable to cope with life in Britain. However, on June 10, the British Government passed two Orders in Councils denying them access to the Chagos despite the London High Court ruling. This decision even bypassed the UK parliament. The Orders provided for a total ban on all Chagossians returning to their islands declaring that “no person has the right of abode in the BIOT”.
“They argue that our islands would be submerged soon due to the rising of the sea level [due to global warming] and that there are frequent seismic activities there which makes it impossible for us to live there”, Bancoult says.
Yet, he adds, there is no sign of any US soldier leaving Diego Garcia. “Instead, further investments worth $100m are being made, and more soldiers are brought in. We hear also that war prisoners are being tortured there,” he emphasises. Bancoult criticises the UK and the US governments that send soldiers to Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq to put an end to human rights violations. “Yet, they themselves are violating human rights in their own backyard.”
Considering themselves citizens of the BIOT, the Chagossians sent a petition to the British sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II, on July 12. The petition asked for the revocation of the two Orders in Councils and for immediate arrangements to be made for them to visit the Chagos archipelago, including Diego Garcia.
Other demands included the construction of infrastructure to accommodate fishing and agricultural activities for the use of 500 Chagossians; employment at the US military base of Diego Garcia for at least 1,000 people; the payment of a monthly £1,000 ($1,800) pension for each native Chagossian and £500 for each Chagossian child as well as the provision of healthcare, social services, education and training.
The petition also called for immediate negotiations “for compensation due to Chagossians as a result of the unlawful actions of the UK government which have caused such extreme sufferings and prejudice to Chagossians and their children”.
SEPARATION DECREE NOT LEGAL
Meanwhile, international lawyers have recently concluded that the BIOT decree which separated the Chagos archipelago from Mauritian territory prior to independence in 1968 was illegal and contrary to international law.
The United Nations has also condemned Britain’s actions as being contrary to the general principal that the division of any country before independence is unlawful.
With international support growing for Mauritius in its struggle for sovereignty over the Chagos, the country is currently formulating policy on how best to reclaim the islands.
Prime Minister Bérenger stated in parliament on July 20 that “The US military base of Diego Garcia does not pose a problem for us. We already have sovereignty over the Chagos; it is London which is preventing us from exercising our right.”
Bérenger emphasised that following legal advice from British lawyer Ian Brownlie, it is now established that Mauritius can take its case to the International Court of Justice without leaving the Commonwealth, as had previously been suggested. “The government has already initiated the necessary actions to go to the ICJ unless there is positive development from London.
We will not rush, we will take our time and proceed step by step,” he stated. The Commonwealth’s secretary-general Don McKinnon, who met Bérenger early in July in London, criticised the Orders in Councils and supported Mauritius in its struggle to recover its sovereignty over the Chagos. McKinon offered Mauritius the support of the Commonwealth Legal Advice Office to take the case to the ICJ.
Successive British governments have always argued that the Chagos would be ceded to Mauritius “only when it will be of no use in the defence of our interests”.
Bill Rammell, Britain’s undersecretary for foreign affairs, told the British parliament that under agreements reached in 1966, the whole territory of the Chagos is to remain available for the defence of the UK and US for an initial period of 50 years and thereafter for a further period of 20 years unless either party has given prior notice to terminate it.
However, the Chagossians do have a supporter in Britain. He is the British MP Jeremy Corbyn who raised the Chagos issue in the British parliament in mid July before expressing his support to Chagossians. “What happened in the 1960s is a disgrace to humanity. We should correct this injustice,” he said. Corbyn observed that the compensation paid to Chagossians, at the time of their removal, was “peanuts”. The MP said that the two governments of Great Britain and Mauritius should hold talks to sort out this case. But it is more important, he added, for the British Government to talk to Chasossians.
Copyright International Communications Aug/Sep 2004
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved