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Letter to Friend who found New Internationalist Article on Chagos “Sober”


Dear Friend, Thanks for the link to the New Internationalist article on the International Court of Justice findings. I hadn’t, in fact, seen it. Very, very interesting. I’ll forward it to all LALIT members who read English. (I once had a long telephone call with the author.)

Anyway, I find her article a bit threadbare and wholly disappointing. The article does not seem to register what a cringing, humiliating, outright, total, shocking defeat it is for the UK-USA. The N.I. article moves on in too much haste. It leaves no feeling whatsoever for what this judgment actually says. Let alone for what it means. There is not even a split-second’s reflection by the journalist that an apology might be necessary from Britain to the entire world’s people, including to Mauritians and, more than us all, to those Mauritians amongst us who are from that part of Mauritius called Chagos. The article does not even ponder what the UN General Assembly should now do about Britain after the judgment. Has she absorbed what is in the judgment? It is strange just to glide over its contents like?

But then again, the mainstream Press has, for 50 years, been so stingy, at best, on this issue that it is not easy for reporters to catch up. In 2016, as Mauritius was preparing to go to the UN General Assembly, in LALIT three of us had to spend a week full-time, challenging all the journalists in the UK media we could get hold of – often gradually moving from warm politeness to cold politeness and then to near-rudeness about colonial mentalities in the press – back-and-forth by e-mail. Until finally there was a breakthrough in The Guardian in November that year. Owen Bowcott broke the omerta. Good for him. And the flood-gates began at once the very same day to give. The article was taken up by dozens and dozens of main media outlets world-wide over the next 48 hours. But reporting was all still low key. The flood-gates have opened now, with the judgment. But no doubt there will be a big move to close them again. But flood-gates don’t close easy.

It is, of course, hard for the British State to face up to being colonialist. And the British State is trying to postpone facing up to it, once again. The US State is pretending it’s got nothing to do with it. Luckily, many British and American people, including journalists, are now, finally, dissociating from this colonialist attitude.

The difficulty for reporters and intellectuals, I suppose, also involves getting out of the [(“single issue”) x 3] problem. Reporters know that there are political currents that say, “Close the base on Diego Garcia”. In a separate compartment in their heads, they know that, if you have an ounce of humanity in you, you oppose the forcible removal of thousands of Chagossians. And in a third separate compartment, journalists have recently found out – often just now with this very judgment – that, if you are against colonialism, you, since the 1960s at least, say, “Decolonize the whole of country, respecting territorial integrity!” Often knowing each of these three things doesn’t mean that people can get their heads around the wholeness of the issue i.e.:

Because the UK was retreating from its fallen empire, and because it was being taken under the wing of the rising US empire, which in turn wanted a bit of the territory the UK was retreating from – in order to set up a big military base outside of any democratic control, the UK-USA got together and jointly hatched a plot:

a) to break Mauritius in two, (illegally, as the ICJ now states categorically that it was – even if some commentators refuse to pause a moment to accept that they, themselves, were blind to this until now);

b) to remove all the people forcibly, in a totally inexcusably cruel and inhuman way, and it follows from the judgment that this, too, was unlawful, as well as shameful,

Remember that this was done in order that the UK-USA could then in cold blood:

i) set up a their planned “secret hole on the planet” outside of democratic over-view of any kind, for a brand new illegal colony (BIOT) set up as late in history as 1965,

ii) so that it could, in turn, set up a military base there, and then

iii) from there, later gaily send B-52s to bomb civilians illegally, even in illegal wars, and on which territory, they would later commit illegal renditions and torture, and lie about it for years, and stock nuclear materials in defiance of the binding Pelindaba Treaty, not to mention pouring re-enforced concrete on half of the pristine coral of Diego Garcia island – all of this outside any democratic control by the peoples of Mauritius, UK or USA – and meanwhile

iv) to rely on bribing successive Mauritian governments by the usual means of bribing, with various quotas and guaranteed prices, the real powers-that-be in the country i.e. the sugar barons and other capitalists, and

v) to rely, no doubt, upon a mixture of the following that they still try to rely on: the 30-year Official Secrets rules, D-notices, and generalized lethargy, and rely upon the rest of the world turning a blind eye to, or not being bothered to understand, all the issues.

It is a tall order to keep that in mind all the time. Note that even John Pilger’s otherwise outstanding film Stealing a Nation, for example, avoids quite unnecessarily the issue of the unlawful decolonization, thus weakening the entire truly excellent film. He did know about it. I know because I told him. Only the Irish TV film – Irish intellectuals being acutely aware of colonization, no doubt – weaves this issue gently in with the other two issues. The film by Paedar King is called The Islands Are Closed. The New Internationalist article’s content and tone, is, as you say “sober”, but it, curiously does not really inform readers about the stark content of the findings.

It gives space to what is the UK State’s own reaction, that is, “This is an advisory opinion, not a judgment.” The UK’s reaction is not so much sober, as the lashing out of a cornered bully. Of course it’s an advisory opinion, Mr. UK’s Foreign Office spokesman, because that is what was requested, Stupid. What else can the UK Government say when it has been publicly whipped like that in a judgment? And when it is hardly free to act with contrition as it should when it is pad-locked at the ankle to a chain to Donald Trump’s USA?

We hear the same cowering narrative from the elite in Mauritius i.e. “It’s only advisory”. Do they expect the Mauritian Police Commissioner, Mario Nobin to send RIOT police over and evict the US military and the BIOT staff? Or perhaps for the UN to send Blue Helmets to Diego Garcia to evict the USA, despite its veto? Anyway, we can understand the British Foreign Office spokesman having to cover the shame of the State he represents, by quickly saying as if to Standard I children, “An advisory opinion is an advisory opinion”, but we cannot understand journalists in Mauritius or abroad doing so. It is also interesting to note that “raison d’etat” has a long reach: even Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn carefully avoids speaking about the decolonization issue, and sticks to the Chagossians issue as much as possible. Remember, it was a Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson who did the dirty in 1965?

To try to break the hegemony in British politics, by the way, in LALIT we have been contacting British MPs (and other party members) from Labour, SNP, Liberals, the Green Party and have been, over time, building support for the triple-issues. In fact, Corbyn’s shadow foreign minister speaks eminently reasonably, linking up the issues. The Independent says: ‘Describing the verdict as “damning”, the shadow foreign affairs minister Helen Goodman added: “Will the government therefore heed the call of the ICJ to hand back the islands to Mauritius, or will it continue to pander to the United States’ military?” (2 days ago).

But, why should journalists or all manner of intellectuals who should know better, go on and on saying it’s only advisory, instead of going into what exactly the findings say Britain has done illegally. Of course it is only advisory. But then again, it is not so easy for journalists to bear in mind that empires are not eternal. They fall. So, you don’t have to bow down to them. Just as the British Empire’s fall caused the Chagos/Diego Garcia problem in the first place, so the US empire is now, in turn, wobbling, partly from military over-reach, partly from economic problems. How can you run 800 bases abroad with debt like the US has, and debt like the US Government budget has, too, has? Just print dollars?

Journalists must bear in mind that we, and they, must prepare in our long-term political thinking and in our daily words and actions for the moment when the empires begin to lose impunity. Obviously, when we have been literally struggling for literally 40 years (as one of a hundred tactics in an overall strategy) for the Mauritian Government to go to the OAU, later called the African union, and to get this body to be the one to put a Resolution in the UN General Assembly to call, in turn, for the ICJ to issue an Advisory Opinion, we knew that what would come out would be an “advisory opinion”. Lordy. You ask for an Advisory Opinion, therefore you get an advisory opinion.

We called for this and campaigned for this for nearly 40 years, together with the other hundred things, to help to get the broad masses of the people, especially in Mauritius, in Africa, the UK and USA, but world-wide too, to know about the issue – and hopefully to get a stinging judgment at the same time. And we did. So, it is a victory. Not a victory like in some soccer match, but a victory in changing the balance of forces, in denting the impunity of the empire in question, an impunity that has lasted for more than 50 years on this issue. Can people not celebrate for one nano-second? Before, once again, falling back into the colonialist logic?

The judgment is a rare and bitter defeat for the powerful. It must be savoured. It is a resounding defeat for the UK and the USA. This is what needs to be said loudest. Not just that it was unlawful to do a land grab, and keep half of Mauritius when it was a colony, and to forcibly remove the people at the same time. But also that Britain must get out of there, and do so fast. Whoever formally told Britain that before? Do readers of newspapers not deserve to hear that? Not only that. But also that other UN member states have a duty to see that Britain moves out, and moves out fast. And not only that. But also, that the BIOT is and always was unlawful.

All this to say, and say loudly, that the balance of forces is changed against the state apparatus of the UK and of the USA.  And the UK and USA know it.

The UK-USA tandem was so terrified of exactly this kind of judgment, or maybe of a less damning one, that it published an unprecedented joint communiqué (in October 2016) threatening Mauritius with a fate worse than death if it went ahead to seek a mere advisory opinion. This remedy, which has brought such disrepute on Britain and the US, is indeed so weak a remedy that it is not just an opinion, nor is it just advisory, but “an advisory opinion”. Journalists need to expose the UK’s statement that “it’s only advisory” for what it is: something the UK puts out when it has strictly nothing else it could possibly say, words that are simply abject. In Kreol this is called a “koze dekuyone” on the part of the UK – words uttered in order to cover total loss of face. And as for the UK’s long preparation of its “Plan B”, also implied in the article, that, too, is a bit abject. The UK Plan B, however, may have just gone past its expiry date having also been declared unlawful by this very judgment. (In ordinary English, I call the 13-1 findings their “judgment” on the matter – and indeed who can judge better what the international law is than the judges of the ICJ? Judges judge.) Britain’s Plan B has all along been, and still is perhaps, though its shelf-life is over, to separate Chagossians from the rest of Mauritians and hold a ... referendum amongst those from one part of the Mauritian territory, preferably when most of those born on this Chagos part of Mauritius are dead, and to get them to choose between Mauritius and Britain. But the Plan B, as well as now being declared unlawful, is politically dodgy what with the pretty mess that Theresa May finds herself in after last time the Tories resorted, when politically cornered, to holding a referendum! In reality, what the ICJ victory means for Chagossians is that, when they return, one day, they can hold their heads high and not just get the right to return to a British “colony” called BIOT. Already, in LALIT we are calling for a Constituency for Chagossians to be set up in March, during electoral reform Constitutional amendments, as are Chagossians. Academic Laura Jeffrey might have made this kind of point instead of, even now, refusing to see the issue of decolonization – even after the judgment. Why do we mention all this? It is important because the political “defect”, a nearly fatal one, of the Chagossian leadership’s tactic of going to the UK courts as “British subjects” (during the slot from 1999 to 2016, during the course of the long struggle from 1965-2019 and still ongoing) in order to gain the right of “return” to the BIOT colony, especially when embarked upon without clearly argued political aims, often got them ensnared in their own tactic, and even resorting to waving union Jacks!

While most Chagossians have always been involved in, and adhered to, the 3-pronged struggle: against the base (ferm baz), for re-unification of the country (rann nu Diego), and for the right of return), by contrast, the various leaderships of the main organizations have often, for opportunist reasons, taken up just one issue, for a time. In its favour, the Chagos Refugee Group’s leadership (and this is the largest group now) has transcended this for the past year or two, by throwing its weight behind the strategy of going via the African union to the UNGA to the ICJ, and thus unifying at least 2 of the 3 issues. So, it is important to stop a moment, and think. It is important for journalists and other intellectuals to register the historic moment of the defeat that this colonialist status quo has just suffered at the hands of the ICJ, the highest UN Court. And for people – journalists and others – to take stock and, though it may be more difficult, to recognize if they have, themselves, been part of this appalling ideological hegemony when they ignored its crimes. So that they stop promoting the colonial project unconsciously.

Today, the Mauritian Government and some Chagossian leaders are still, even now, even after the judgment, obsequiously and with indecent haste as well, reassuring the USA and the UK that the military base, the root cause of all the crimes on Chagos, is most welcome to stay put. It is not. We call on these people, too, to take stock, to re-read the judgment, and re-think their position on whether we, as a people in Mauritius, can house a military base over which we have no control. Does Donald Trump as President not highlight the inadvisability of this? What kind of moral turpitude allows a people to welcome a base over which they have no control? And ignorance is not a possible excuse. The Diego Garcia base has been used to bombard wedding parties in Afghanistan and whole cities in Iraq. It has been the place where torture has been carried out.

All this to say, that an “advisory opinion” of such an unequivocal nature has come and changed the balance of forces against the UK-USA who have acted as bandit States over Chagos. But, that is all it does. And that is all we ever hoped it would do. And all it could do. It is not a magic wand. But it does something very important. It changes relative power relations. Then again, that’s massive.

 And the content of the ruling is much more damning for the UK than even the most ardent seekers of the “advisory opinion”, like us in LALIT, ever expected. It is huge.

 And it is 13-1, to boot. And, 14-0 that the Court has the jurisdiction. This means even the USA’s judge on the panel actually agreed that the ICJ has the right to consider the dispute in the interests of the entire international community, as represented by the General Assembly of the UN.

 And yet now even after the judgment, the UK foreign minister Alan Duncan, in yet another “cornered-bully” statement, claims that there is merely a “bilateral dispute”, and that the fault is even further back, “For the General Assembly to seek an advisory opinion by the ICJ was therefore a misuse of powers ...” (Same The Independent article.) Lordy. When all the countries in the African union propose a UN Resolution for an Advisory Opinion, and the UK Foreign Minister maintains it’s a “bilateral dispute”, this is indeed an example of a truly fine colonialist tumbril. Tumbrils, for those not in the know, were originally carts that opened at the back to dump garbage or human waste, and metaphorically speaking are defined by Christopher Hitchens in a witty essay on them, as the remarks that reveal the “essence” of the “subconscious mentality of the uncontrollably well-off” when they expose “the polite upper-class incredulity at the sheer inconvenience of having to put up with other people”. Like Princess Margaret’s tumbril (which I learnt from an LSE Professor who witnessed it personally) when she said in the 1960s that she likes going to Jamaica because, “There’s absolutely nobody there.” As the film The Bank Job showed 40 years later in 2008, once the D-notices calmed down, there were people there. Alan Duncan is like Princess Margaret. 55 countries’ representatives formally propose a Resolution to see if Britain has acted unlawfully, 55 countries’ representatives argue that Africa as a whole is not decolonized yet because of this unlawful act, 94 countries’ representatives vote in favour and 15 against, 13-1 judges say Britain acted unlawfully relative to the whole of the international community including Africa, 14 out of 14 judges said they have the jurisdiction to judge this as an international issue, and then a British foreign minister comes along with his dump-cart and says, blithely unaware of his blunder, that the dispute is bilateral? Lordy.

The struggle goes on!

 Thank you so much for prompting me to reply to the political currents that persist in minimizing the importance of the ICJ findings.


Lindsey Collen