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Wilbert van der Zeijden: “While military bases are hard to close, there are weaknesses we can exploit”


LALIT has pleasure in publishing the notes to which Wilbert van der Zeijden, international guest at the LALIT Conference on Diego Garcia, spoke on 2 October, 2016 at Grand River North West.

It is hard to close bases because firstly, they are very “useful” to the USA in its policy of dominating the world. Diego Garcia, looking ahead, is not likely to diminish in utility, as it had seemed to be likely to a few years ago with the shift to the Pacific. So, while the base is not indispensable, it is nevertheless “useful” to the USA. Diego Garcia is a central point for supporting US military operations in both Asia and Africa. Asia is important because of growing competition from China as it challenges US hegemony over trade routes in the Indian Ocean, and in Africa we have seen a growth in numbers of US military bases and facilities. For example, the recent one in Niger; it may be “small” and “temporary” and “just for drones”, but it is no longer zero. This is what is important about opposing SOFAs (Status of armed Forces Agreements) as was mentioned by Rada in his talk, SOFAs that the USA tries to get every country in the world to sign up to.

 Military bases have a political utility, not just a military one. They tie other States into the US security system. Allowing or even tolerating the presence of a US military base shows intent to cooperate. But it can become a bargaining chip at the same time.

 Bases also have cultural and economic utility. Symbolically, they show off American confidence. Or, if the USA allows one base to be closed down by protests, it unveils a lack of confidence, and may trigger more protest against other bases. So, we should not underestimate their symbolic importance.

 It is hard to get bases closed because for the USA, it is “costly” in both money and political terms. So, the US will only do it under strong political pressure. As in the Philippines and in Equador there was.

 There is also the problem that many host governments are complicit.

 And, at the same time, there is no international law that prohibits the stationing of troops in someone else’s country, if both countries enter into the arrangement voluntarily. So as part of a struggle, for example, there is no Court you can go to, no treaty you can invoke to argue the US and the UK out of Diego Garcia. You have to fight politically.

 This brings me to why sovereignty over Diego Garcia is such an important issue – in relation to base closure. And why what is happening at the moment in the UN is so important.

 This is because, if Mauritius has the full sovereignty and can execute it, there ARE international rules that can be invoked to push the Americans out, and to get the base closed down. But then again, winning sovereignty will not be easy precisely because it is a way to get the base closed.

 And, of course, the international system dealing with issues of sovereignty was set up by, and is still dominated by and used by, exactly the same powers that Mauritius is challenging for sovereignty. The threat letters, including the joint US-UK one, are evidence of how seriously they are taking this Mauritian effort, as was the idea of a setting up a Marine Protected Area in order to keep Mauritius at bay. This sort of pressure will only get worse.

 Either way, there is still a fair chance that Mauritius may succeed in exercising full sovereignty over the Chagos Islands. This is because, while the system that these powers have built may be hard to break, it is now old, and it is battered. The US and the UK are losing control of their system, even though it was so carefully crafted to serve their purposes. The UNCLOS verdict is an example of that, but the cracks are bigger than only that.

 In addition, there are a couple of weaknesses that we can exploit:

- The system of control is based on secrecy. It does not deal well with transparency. And now the world is no longer a place in which you can easily maintain secrecy in general, or tell contradicting stories at different places, or where you can keep certain deals a secret. So, one of the key assumptions i.e. secrecy is under siege.

- The old system of control is based on information superiority of the big powers, and the internet is undermining that, fast.  

- The system is based on economic superiority but the USA-UK are losing ground to other powers, especially China, but also a series of other countries.

- The system is based on clientelism, on the host country hoping for favours, but we can see on other issues how States can form new alliances and defy ‘the big guns’.

- The UN lately has taken up decolonisation again, framing it as an unended project.

- We have seen other struggles to close bases down win!

 Second question I want to get into, is on strategy on achieving sovereignty and the right to return.

 What we can learn from recent international campaigns that have dealt with different, but in some senses quite similar issues? And I’m thinking mostly about the so-called “humanitarian disarmament campaigns” of the past year, leading to the Cluster Munitions Convention, the Landmine Treaty, the Arms Trade Treaty and even more of the setting up of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) over the past 5 years, successfully pushing for an international treaty banning nuclear weapons, and leading to their elimination.

 What these campaigns, especially ICAN, share with your campaign is

- Longevity of the issue

- Entrenched positions

- Big powers blocking smaller powers

- Systemic injustice

- General feeling in the past that ‘it cannot be solved’.

 I’m not asking you to agree with the politics of any of these campaigns, but to think along with me and see if there are lessons that these campaigns learned that are transferable to your struggle for sovereignty and the right to return. Here’s a couple of the lessons that come from a conference I attended with strategists of these campaigns:

 1: Position the affected civilians in the forefront of your campaign and make them central to it. They are your primary constituents. Modern movements are helped by, but do not rely on, mass support, but on visible support from the people directly affected.

 2: Build you political alliance as broad as you can and nurture the weakest links. Include as many states as you can from the start and invest in keeping them on board. A group of about 15 committed states is enough to end up with a treaty.

 3: Demand full openness, especially from your allies, also from your enemies. Invest in Freedom of Information Acts, in clarifying talks and in “fact-establishing” publications. Use any unwillingness to be transparent to your favour.

 4: Build your own proposal. Instead of reacting to existing plans and visions, push your own.

 5: Make as many allies that you work with part of every little victory, as well as making other entities part of these victories. It will bind them. Be clear from the start what constitutes defeat. What are the red lines? Find them. And do not cross them.

6: And the most important one: Of course remember that it can be done! When the cluster munitions campaign started, everyone said it could never succeed. Because the big states would never join, because the technology is already out there, because the system is against you, etc. And still they succeeded. Same with the Landmine campaign. And only last week, South Africa, Mexico, New Zealand, Thailand and Brazil proposed in the UN General Assembly a resolution on behalf of 119 states that will lead to negotiations on a treaty banning all nuclear weapons in 2017. Do you know anyone who said that could be done? After 50 years inaction? Sounds familiar?

 Wilbert van der Zeijden