Dear Captain Matthew A Barker
It was an absolute pleasure to have you join us as our guest speaker at the British Club Bangkok for our annual Trafalgar Dinner on October 19 2019. Your speech taught me a lot about the historic Naval victory over France and Spain and, prior to that, the gentlemanly conduct of Rear-Admiral Horatio Nelson and his once captor, Lieutenant-General Antonio Gutiérrez. I did not get the chance to tell you of my own connections to the sea. As well as being an ardent water sports enthusiast and qualified sailing instructor, my first job after completing my D.Phil at Oxford University was to oversee the safety of the reactors of the British Navy’s fleet of nuclear submarines.
Unfortunately, it seems that with the advent of submarine warfare, Naval chivalry has declined dramatically, as exemplified by the Royal Navy sinking the General Belgrano during the conflict with Argentina to restore British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands. As I mentioned when we met, I am from Mauritius, the location of Naponleon’s only naval victory, and our own fight to restore our sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago has not been a military battle but a legal odyssey. It has required patience and endurance that would have tested the limits of any naval hero. Moreover, the duplicitous tactics of successive British leaders in this matter would undoubtedly have brought tears to his eyes of more principled predecessors like Nelson.
Our heroes are not men of war but men and women of faith, like my Chagossian friend Olivier Bancoult who has fought tirelessly for the rights of his people to return to their islands. Too many times his legal triumphs have been subverted by British subterfuge and too many of his compatriots have died of disappointment and old age along the way.
It was therefore encouraging to hear you extol the virtues of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and emphasise the condemnatory judgements against China for illegally appropriating disputed islands in the South China Sea. The United Kingdom has similarly been condemned, not only under UNCLOS but also by the International Court of Justice for its illegal actions with respect to the Chagos islands. When I approached your counterpart from the UK, Colonel Roger G Lewis for comment on your fine words, he turned his back on me and fled. How would Lord Nelson have responded to that?
Sir you are no coward. You stood your ground, listened to my words and promised to convey them to the appropriate authorities for response. I thank you for that and repeat them below. As a Mauritian fortunate to be educated in the UK, a long time friend of the Chagossians and a sustainability strategist, I may be uniquely placed to untangle the complex web of conflicting interests in the islands. I believe that the majority of Mauritians and Chagossians would concur with my words, so forgive me for being presumptuous and speaking on their behalf.
There is no doubt that the US Navy plays a vital role in protecting free trade on the high seas throughout the world and we do not see that changing any time soon. Mauritius is a tiny country of only 2000 square kilometres but our islands create a contiguous, undisputed Exclusive Economic Zone of over 2,000,000 square kilometres. We have an open economy and therefore rely on trade and the help of our friends to ensure the free flow of goods to and through our waters. We have expressed our gratitude to those friends for freeing the seas around East Africa of modern day pirates by hosting the court where they are brought to justice.
Rest assured that your base on Diego Garcia, the largest island in the archipelago is not considered a subject of dispute but a source of regional security. However, we have some conditions that justice, international commitments, human compassion and environmental stewardship compel us to require:
- Decolonisation. The UK must respect international law and restore sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritius.
- Denuclearisation. Mauritian ratification of the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty requires that any nuclear weapons stored at Diego Garcia be removed.
- Dual Use. With the risk of catastrophic consequences of unforeseen activities eliminated, there is no barrier to the return of the few Chagossians who still demand it to Diego Garcia – the only island in the archipelago where they can be protected from rising sea levels.
- Ecological Protection. The remaining islands comprise probably the most pristine tropical coral ecosystems on earth. In the absence of additional human-induced stressors, they have the potential to survive the coral bleaching events that will plague a warming planet and could be used as a nursery to restore reefs around the world once we have succeeded in decarbonising our global economy and atmosphere. It would be an injustice to future generations to exploit these treasure troves and so they will remain a Marine Protected Area with a strict exclusion zone.
While point 1 is beyond the US’ sphere of control, it is well within your sphere of influence and we request that you exercise it on our behalf. Once that is complete, we ask that you understand our position and implement points 2 and 3. As good, global citizens we are committed to point 4. In sum, we believe they represent a fair compromise of which Lord Nelson would approve. Do you not agree?
Dr Richard L Munisamy