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“Obstacles in Chagos struggle” by Ram Seegobin


We have pleasure in publishing notes of the speech delivered by Ram Seegobin, during the International Conference on Diego Garcia and Chagos. The Conference was organised by LALIT and was held at Grande Riviere, Port Louis, from 30 October to 2 November 2010, (see full speech in original Kreol version on the site).

These are the notes to which Ram Seegobin spoke for his speech;

The ultimate object of this conference on the Chagos Archipelago is to debate and think of ways to move the struggle forwards. In this context it seems rather odd that we should be putting any emphasis on the difficulties: but then it is obvious that unless we identify the problems and obstacles we face at the present time, we are unlikely to come up with concrete propositions as to the way to move forward, especially as the obstacles and problems keep changing over time. In fact we would be well advised to anticipate any new difficulties that may come up in the future.

The three fundamental aspects of the struggle
The Chagos were illegally detached by the UK government from Mauritian territory prior to independence to make it available for a US military base; the Chagossians were forcibly removed from the islands in the late 60s and early 70s, because the US military wanted "uninhabited" islands for their base. It is obvious that decolonisation and Mauritian sovereignty, the right to return and reparation for the Chagossians, and the unwanted and dangerous presence of a massive US military base on Diego Garcia, are issues that are inextricably related. We, in LALIT, have constantly maintained a political articulation around these three issues. This is definitely our fundamental problem: how to build a platform that keeps all three issues in a dynamic articulation. The general tendency has been to separate the three issues, sometimes in the mistaken hope that each issue can be more easily tackled in isolation, one after the other, sometimes for downright opportunistic reasons.

The stance of successive Mauritian governments has consistently been to highlight the sovereignty issue, neglecting the plight of the uprooted Chagossians, and giving tacit agreement to the presence of the US military base, to the extent of allowing Mauritian firms to participate in the provision of fresh foodstuffs and building materials for the base. The present parliamentary opposition party (MMM) has in the past given some support to the struggles of the Chagossians, but their present position on the sovereignty issue is to claim control on the other islands of the archipelago, and agreeing to disagree on the question of the Diego Garcia island, thus postponing the issue of the military base. The main Chagossian organisation has opted for a legalistic approach on the reparation and right to return for the Chagossians, with an ambiguous attitude on the sovereignty issue, and actually demanding the right to employment on the US military base of Diego.

The move by the UK government (past and present) to set up a "Marine Protected Area around the islands other than Diego Garcia, thus making it quite plain that they will not allow any re-settlement on or sharing of sovereignty for the other islands, should expose the erroneous tactic of separating the three issues. Surely it must be obvious to anybody that if one accepts the principle of the presence of the military base on Diego, one is very weak arguing against the US "security exigencies for the base: be it UK (NATO) sovereignty, be it uninhabited islands all round.

The usual argument against articulating all three issues: base closure, right to return, and decolonisation, is that "the sun will never set on the US military base on Diego", and by tying up all three issues together, we are not likely to move forward on the other two issues. But then this is a common misinterpretation of what "articulation really means: a dynamic articulation of the three issues aims to strengthen the pressure over each one of the issues.

And this will continue to be the stand of LALIT, and our problem will be to convince all concerned on the correctness of this approach.

Countering economic and environmental blackmail
Successive Mauritian governments have always been very exposed to UK economic/diplomatic pressures over the export of sugar to the UK market, and this has constituted a serious (even if self-imposed) brake on the vigour with which the Chagos issue has been pursued. But with the disappearance of preferential markets, this pressure is no longer operational. But a new one has come up: the US African Growth and Opportunity Act, which gives duty-free access to the US market for manufactured goods to 48 African countries, on condition that they do not "engage in activities that undermine US national security or foreign policy interests. AGOA came into force at about the same time as the European preferential markets were being phased down! LALIT denounced this potential blackmail when we campaigned against the AGOA.

The latest blackmail move came from the UK, in the form of a Marine Protected Area around the Chagos islands (other than Diego), and this in keeping with the recent justified environmentalist concern over marine resources. The UK campaign over this issue was so successful " that even Greenpeace fell it, when they had been quite willing in the past to contribute in a "direct action challenge against the US/UK military presence on the Chagos. But it does look as if Greenpeace has reconsidered its position after a number of organisations, including LALIT, challenged them.

How to get out of the rut
The being a ritualised series of speeches and resolutions in international and multinational venues, then waiting for bi-lateral negotiations: in other words, the kind of quiet diplomacy that is very hard on the knee-caps. With Prime Ministers more interested in "warm and cordial handshakes, and photo opportunities with the leaders of the planet, it is not surprising that 40 years later, there has been no progress on the Chagos issue.

There was also a stupid hope that the new Con-Lib-Dem coalition UK government would somehow have a more "reasonable" approach over the Chagos issue: but then that was based on the illusion that British foreign policy is decided by the (Yes) Minister, rather than by the faceless mandarins in the Foreign Office who act in the interests of the permanent state.

Getting the Mauritian government and parliamentary opposition out of this will require a lot of argument and mobilisation.

Not single issue campaign
More and more people are becoming aware of the inherent dangers in treating the Chagos issue as a single issue campaign, on humanitarian grounds, as just a human rights issue. The court cases in London, however successful in terms of making more people aware of the inhuman treatment meted out to the inhabitants of Chagos, are nevertheless claims put in by British subjects against the British state. Over the past years, a significant proportion of the Chagossian population have already migrated to the suburbs of London. Court cases in the US have failed because the US national interest was involved, and the initial victories in the London Courts have been reversed by the Queen, through the archaic Orders in Council. The legalistic path has also pushed the Chagossians into taking an ambiguous position in relation to the sovereignty claim by Mauritius: eventual victory at the European Court of Human Rights will mean the right to return, as British Subjects, to the fictitious British Indian Ocean Territory.

Our work here will be to integrate the Chagos campaign into a political program that aims at eliminating the problems and obstacles, and at the same time allow the Chagossians to see a future in a re-united territory of the Republic of Mauritius.

Ram Seegobin, LALIT
28 October 2010