Dear Prime Minister
My interest in the Chagos issue arose in 2004 after watching the moving documentary “Stealing a Nation”. On the day David Snoxell left Mauritius after retiring as the UK’s High Commissioner, I suggested that he devote himself to the plight of the Chagossians. This is how my habit of giving unsolicited advice started. Whether I influenced him or not, he has subsequently campaigned untiringly for their right to return – most effectively by coordinating an All Party Parliamentary Group. Their latest meeting called upon the government to complete KPMG’s study on the feasibility of resettling the islanders – a draft of which was released in February this year. You have surely read it, but with so many recent distractions, perhaps a résumé would be useful to refresh your memory.
After interviewing Chagossians in the UK, Mauritius and the Seychelles, the following consensus emerged:
The Chagossians want to return home, preferably to Diego Garcia, and have no problem sharing the island with the US military.
They are acutely aware of the ecological fragility of the Chagos archipelago and are committed to monitoring and protecting it.
They want to gain/retain UK citizenship and enjoy a UK standard of living including schooling and healthcare.
Ecologically, the study found that the Chagos islands and waters are amongst the richest in biodiversity on the planet and they contain half of the reefs in the whole Indian Ocean that remain in good condition. Moreover, the continued existence of each island depends on maintaining healthy coral reefs around it to replenish sand that is naturally lost by erosion. This requires the preservation of critical ecosystems which might be significantly disturbed by even a small human presence and a modest amount of fishing. This has already occurred in Diego Garcia which was losing 30-60cm of shoreline per year and necessitated the construction of revetment sea defences. However, on balance, Diego Garcia is the most suitable site for resettlement.
Economically, Diego Garcia is also the least expensive option – but not cheap: at least Rs 8.25M per head for initial resettlement and Rs 300,000 per head for recurrent annual costs, excluding periodic capital replacement and refurbishment. This assumes that the US military allows access to its airport and harbour, otherwise the costs roughly double.
After the UK unilaterally declared a Marine Protected Area (MPA) around the Chagos archipelago, but excluding Diego Garcia, the previous government contested it’s legality under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. A tangential claim to sovereignty was also included. The panel of judges declared the MPA illegal because it infringed Mauritius’ historical fishing rights, but a majority felt the court had no jurisdiction to consider the issue of sovereignty. Significantly, two judges gave a dissenting opinion: the court should have considered Mauritius’ sovereignty claim and if it had, they would have found in favour of Mauritius; thus encouraging us to refer the matter to the International Court of Justice.
Shockingly, the proceedings revealed crucial documents that the British government had hidden from a previous court case in which a group of Chagossians lost an appeal to the UK’s House of Lords for their right to return. On this basis, they are now making a further appeal to the UK’s Supreme Court, assisted by a very capable lawyer whose track record is overshadowed by her husband’s fame. However, in this case, any publicity is good publicity.
Hence, the way is paved for the Chagos islands to be returned to Mauritius and the Chagos islanders to be returned to their home. Right?
In an ideal world, the US would clean up and leave Diego Garcia for us to develop as the exclusive luxury tourist destination that Mauritius used to be. This would provide employment for the Chagossians and tax revenue to cover the on-going costs of resettlement. The rest of the archipelago would be declared a World Heritage Site and preserved for the benefit of future generations. No access would be allowed, except for scientific research, enabling Mauritius to obtain lucrative grants from the many environmental trusts that supported the original MPA. We would become a global leader in marine sciences, helping to realise our dream of developing an ocean economy and genuine knowledge hub.
However, right now, there is more likelihood of the Jews returning Israel to the Palestinians than there is of the US military retreating from the jewel in the crown of its 600+ overseas bases. We should recall why the US compelled the UK to remove the Chagossians in the first place. If Mauritius regained sovereignty of the Chagos, we would probably be bullied and bribed into resettling them onto any island except Diego Garcia – something the KMPG report considers unsustainable. Moreover, the US would increase the pressure on us to sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). To understand the implications of this innocuous sounding accord, it is insightful to extract two lines from its SOFA with the Seychelles:
Vessels and aircraft owned or operated by the United States Department of Defense may, upon reasonable notification, enter, exit, and move freely within the territory of Seychelles.
Seychelles authorizes the United States to exercise criminal jurisdiction over United States personnel for offences arising out of activities that occur in the Republic of the Seychelles.
If a foreign power is free to go where it wants, when it wants and its personnel are not subject to national laws, then isn’t that country under de facto military occupation? By regaining the Chagos we run the risk of losing sovereignty over all our ports and airports. Does this shed any light on the provenance of the millions of unused dollars found in a certain politician’s safe? What might he have done with the executive presidential powers granted to him under his “Second Republic”?
So my advice is this, see the bigger picture and take the higher path:
For the sake of the Chagossians, do not jeopardise their resettlement on Diego Garcia – let the British right past wrongs.
For the sake of future generations, do not jeopardise the rest of the archipelago – persuade the British to join us in declaring it a World Heritage Site.
For the sake of all Mauritians, do not jeopardise our independence – prevent a SOFA ever being signed with the United States.
For now, prioritise humanity and posterity over sovereignty. One day the British will restore the Chagos to us. History is clear: the sun sets on every empire.