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Victory on Chagos/Diego Garcia issue at UN General Assembly: Who won it?


LALIT, and the other organizations that have over a period of nearly 50 years kept the issue of the illegal occupation of Chagos, including Diego Garcia, on the political agenda, were yesterday vindicated when the United Nations General Assembly voted in favour of the Mauritian resolution on the issue. We, over the decades, argued, petitioned, mobilized, held congresses and vigils, hunger strikes and street demonstrations, culminating in the 1981 fight between some 150 women (Chagossians and LALIT women) and the Riot Police, leading to charges of illegal demonstration against eight women, including two LALIT members. And from then on, LALIT and other organizations have kept at it.

 In particular, since 1985, from our written archives, we see the first LALIT appeals for the Mauritian State to find a way to put the matter before the International Court of Justice at The Hague. These have been supported by International Conferences organized by LALIT in 2010 and in 2016, and at international forums LALIT has attended in Sydney, Johannesburg, Cape Town, Mumbai, San Francisco and Los Angeles, London, Vienna, and elsewhere.

 Homage to those who have contributed

As well as LALIT, which has probably been the most tenacious as is testified, if by nothing else, by the British State’s barrister attacking LALIT for one hour in one of the cases brought by the Chagos Refugees Group, the organizations which must be mentioned are: the Organization Fraternel grouped around the Sylvio and Elie Michel, the MMM which held big demonstrations until about 1980 and then its Port Louis branches for a few more years, Komite Morisyin Losean Indyin around Kishore Mundil, The Chagos Refugees Group around Olivier Bancoult, Aurelie Talate, Ansie Andre, the Comite Social Chagosyin around the late Fernand Mandarin and Herve Lasemillante, Sahringon around Lindsay Morvan and Shyam Reedha, the common fronts Rann nu Diego (Chagos Refugee Group which was re-invigorated by this common front, Muvman Liberasyon Fam, LALIT and Alain Laridon) and more recently Komite Diego (Konfederasyon Travayer Sekter Prive, MLF, Muvman pu Progre Ros Bwa, LALIT).

 Journalists like Gerard Cateau, Henri Marimootoo who studied the Diego Files when the 50 years Official Secrets’ Act in the UK finally delivered some of the more mendatious and duplicitous secrets of the British State, Patrick Michel, Shenaz Patel and others, have contributed to keeping the issue politically alive. And the academic writer David Vine for his two major works, Island of Shame and Base Nation.

 Musicians from the 1970’s onwards like Bam Cuttayen, Odile Chevraux, Mennwar, Rajni Lallah and Joelle Hoseiny and A4, Charlesia Alexis, Cassiya, Peros Verte, Ram Joganah, Zul Ramiah, Aurelie Talate, and many others have added an important dimension to the struggle.

 Novels like Peter Benson’s A Lesser Dependency was an early example, and then other literary works by Shenaz Patel and others.

 Even visual artists have concentrated on Diego Garcia and the fate of Chagos. Krishna Luchoomun had a memorable installation of a larger-than-life American soldier resembling then US President Barack Obama standing boots-and-all on Diego Garcia, and Jean-Claude Baissac created a haunting painting of the spirits that haunt Diego Garcia – to name just two.

 And then of course successive Mauritian Governments have taken steps, each timid. Paul Bérenger announced that Mauritius would take the UK to the ICJ years ago for a binding judgment, by Mauritius leaving the Commonwealth, whose countries the UK did not accept ICJ jurisdiction for. Britain promptly, like any dictatorship might do, the next day changed its commitments to the United Nations by stipulating that it would from then on no longer accept jurisdiction for disputes with any country that had ever been in the Commonwealth.

 The Navin Ramgoolam Government took the UK to the UNCLOS Tribunal and won an important judgment that said, despite the lies the UK tells on this, the UK does not even have enough sovereignty on Chagos to declare even a Marine Protected Area there. A minority judgment (2/5) stated in addition to signing up to the main judgment that, in their view, the Tribunal was habilitated to statute on actual sovereignty and that Mauritius has sovereignty.

 And Aneerood Jugnauth has been loyal to the issue until he finally addressed the UN General Assembly yesterday in his old age, as Mentor Minister. 

 It must be said that without the Mauritian Permanent Representative, Jugdish Koonjul’s consistent work, this victory would not have been won.  

 And the support of the African union was a key matter. When the AU agreed to co-sponsor the Mauritian resolution, it squarely placed the issue on the decolonisation of Africa, rather than on a bi-lateral disagreement between Mauritius and the U.K. As the Kenyan representative put it, in understatement, referring to the UK and US’s refusal to accept the General Assembly making a collective call for a legal statement from its own Court, “What is so unpalatable about an advisory opinion?” And the representative of El Salvadore did a fine requisitory of the UK’s absurd argumentation that it is a dispute between “two parties”, when sovereignty is in question during a process of decolonization. He also subtly exposed the pressure put on him, even referring to the UK saying how they had offered (we add, ever so kindly) to let Mauritius share looking after the Marine Protected Area that Britain has set up around Chagos, ignoring the fact that this Marine Park has already been declared illegal under international law by the UNCLOS Tribunal.

 So, this vote, this victory, despite what the short-sighted epoch we live in might make of it, is the fruit of decades of struggle, by far-sighted people, brave people, people prepared to face up to the constant derision of “You’re wasting your time” from all those who tend to submit to Power, people with staying power, mainly in Mauritius, including Chagossians, especially women, but also people from all over the world. In 1981, I recall by way of example, that LALIT and the MLF had support via telegrams from organizations in Togo, India, the US and Mexico, to name just four from memory at the time of the arrest and trial of eight women who had demonstrated in the streets of Port Louis and ended up in a physical confrontation with baton-and-shield Riot Police.

 Lindsey Collen


 PS For anyone I have not mentioned by name for their contribution, I ask for clemency, and add that they are in good company because I have not referred to my personal contribution, if any, either.