How British Journalists and MP’s start to acknowledge and oppose Chagos Colonisation
We are living in difficult and challenging times. Yet there are in such times, opportunities for international action that open up that were not there before. What is happening on the Chagos front is a case in point. Prior to Mauritian independence as has now been established by the ICJ, Chagos was dismembered from the rest of Mauritius, everyone living there driven out by the UK-US military, and kept under colonial US-UK rule. What happened on Diego Garcia was kept secret by both the US and UK. For decades the UK and US have systematically refused to admit what had and was happening on the Chagos until they were cornered enough to have to admit it.
Over 50 years of struggle in Mauritius
There has been over 50 years of political struggle in Mauritius, in Britain and internationally to get the UK on such shaky ground. This 50-year struggle is well-documented on LALIT's website (as an introduction, read https://www.lalitmauritius.org/en/newsarticle/1884/about-the-diego-garciachagos-struggles-by-kisna-kistnasamy/).
50 years of Struggle in the UK
There has also been mobilisation for democratic control over Diego Garcia/Chagos in the UK particularly in the anti-war and peace movements. This mobilisation over these 50 years, even though constrained by the UK doing all it could to keep its continued colonisation, driving out people and militarisation of the Chagos a secret, was strong enough to get UK MP's to ask PQ's, take political stands as from the early 1970's on all kinds of matters relating to Diego Garcia and the Chagos. This included questions about how it got changed from a “communications station” to a military base, on the kinds of weapons are kept on Diego Garcia, on the plight of former inhabitants of the Chagos, on whether there was destruction of coral reefs around Diego Garcia by US military, on the use of torture and rendition on Diego Garcia, on negotiations concerning the future of Chagos with the Mauritian State, on the UK-US agreement, on the effects of the different Court judgements on the Chagos, on UN resolutions concerning the Chagos and various regional Indian Ocean State initiatives during the 1970-90 period to make the Indian Ocean a zone of Peace. A search in the UK Parliament website using as a keyword “Diego Garcia” yields 3,650 results. UK governments of all ilk resisted most of these questions, resisted the most elementary principles of democratic control over the Chagos, giving vague replies, lying when vagueness was not enough, and when inexorably cornered, resorting to base tactics including Queen's Orders in Council, trying to blackmail the Mauritian State, bribery attempts on Chagossian organisations. LALIT militant Lindsey Collen has analysed how the UK government continues to do this in our website article: https://www.lalitmauritius.org/en/newsarticle/1909/uk-press-breaks-silence-while-british-ministers-deceive-uk-parliament-re-diego-garcia/ .
The struggle for democratic control over the Chagos entered into a new phase of international political struggle once the Mauritian government decided to go ahead with the process of getting an ICJ Advisory Opinion on Chagos decolonisation together with the Chagossian Refugee Group. And even more so once the ICJ Advisory Opinion was out. For people in Britain, after the ICJ Advisory Opinion, this means more co-ordination with forces in Mauritius in the struggle to decolonise, demilitarise the Chagos and to bring it under democratic control of working people in Mauritius.
International mainstream media's reporting on the illegal military occupation of the Chagos 51 years after its colonial excision by the UK-US is recent. They did not do so before. Now they do. This makes it possible for people the world over know the truth about Britain colonising part of Mauritius, i.e. Chagos including Diego Garcia. Once people in Britain, for example, begin to know what their Government has done, they, too, can begin to act.
But, this sudden reporting did not happen all on its own. It took, firstly, getting the Mauritian Government to go to the African union and then to the UN General Assembly and then to go to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague, and then to win there. LALIT’s role in getting that to happen is well known.
But that, too was not enough to make journalists write or for British Members of Parliament (MP’s) to act. It took some considerable work from LALIT militants and from our international allies to set them in motion.
More and more British MP’s are now calling on the UK government to respect the ICJ Advisory Opinion by completing the decolonisation of Mauritius as rapidly as possible and restoring Chagos to Mauritius. This kind of action on the part of British MPs is also new. And this did not happen all on its own either. It took the ICJ case, and there again, it took more political work from LALIT to help bring about this radical changes. This article analyses how.
Interplay between national and international context
We have to remember that the recent changes over the past three years that LALIT helped bring about, were possible only because of LALIT’s previous construction of international support for over 35 years of relationships, nurtured constantly. Then, the seeds could be sown for the campaign that led to the international media and British MP’s acknowledging colonial occupation of part of Mauritius and opposing it i.e. the Chagos. They were sown at LALIT’s Second International Conference on Diego Garcia held in Grande Riviere in October 2016. What made this conference particularly fertile in terms of international action?
Firstly, the conference was held at a propitious time:
* The Mauritian State had finally after 50 years of Independence, and after LALIT had campaigned for this for some 30 years, gone ahead with placing a Resolution on the UN General Assembly agenda in June of 2016 for the ICJ to give an advisory opinion on Chagos/Mauritian decolonisation. In fact, the Mauritian State had done what LALIT had been proposing, in that the Resolution was actually proposed by the African union. The Chagossian Refugee Group (CRG) was part of the official Mauritian delegation at the UN symbolising a new unity between the struggle for Chagos decolonisation and freedom of movement to and from Chagos for its people. This was a wonderful victory in itself, but still very fragile as the UN motion had then been put on hold for 6 months.
* The UK State was still shell-shocked after the Brexit referendum with a “leave” majority, a political event that would isolate it politically from its European allies;
* LALIT, union federations, and the national women’s liberation association Muvman Liberasyon Fam, had been garnering political support for the Mauritian decolonisation motion in Africa and internationally on the basis of the interlinked demands for Chagos decolonisation, Diego Garcia base closure and the right of return of Chagossians as well as freedom of movement of people here between the Chagos and the rest of Mauritius. At the same time, given that the UN General Assembly motion was “on hold”, we were all mobilising for the Mauritian government not to capitulate under UK and US pressure, which was overt and publicly denounced by both the CRG and the Mauritian Prime Minister.
So, the time was right.
The political strength of LALIT's conference
Secondly, LALIT's 2016 Second International Conference was a politically powerful one. It brought together LALIT militants, the national women’s association MLF, the union federation CTSP, Chagossian Group GRC, amongst other organisations, together with international activists and intellectuals like Wilbert Van der Zeidjen who is active internationally in the struggle against militarism, David Vine who had just published a book on Diego Garcia called “Base Nation”, Jammu Narayana Rao from India active in the International movement against space militarisation, Clare Bayard, anti-militarist activist who had mobilised support for the conference in the US, and Maricela Guzman, who had worked on Diego Garcia when she engaged in the US military to pay for her university fees and was now part of the anti-militarist movement. There was video participation of Joseph Gerson, internationally known for his work against military bases world-wide including a key book, and Noel Stott spoke on using the Pelindaba Treaty for an African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (just as the possibility of Diego Garcia becoming part of Mauritius was nearing closer and closer).
All these experienced individual people, representing experienced organisations gave the conference a strong political content bringing together in the two days of the conference: analysis of past phases of struggle for Diego Garcia, analysis of the present phase, and opportunities that could open up for this struggle to make way both nationally and internationally in dynamic action. One of the points of consensus reached was the importance of getting the truth about Chagos known by people in other countries. (Site visitors can read the content of the conference speeches by clicking on MORE just next to the LATEST NEWS heading on the home page, and then clicking on “2016”.)
Is there a chink in the British State?
LALIT member Alain Ah-Vee’s speech on “Who are our allies in the struggle over Diego Garcia?” in particular, after having spoken about true allies, then made a point about how sometimes there is a chink in the armour of the State. While the bourgeois State can never be an “ally” that you can rely on in the struggle for socialism – in the final analysis it defends national capitalist class interests – it is, nonetheless, not a monolithic bloc. Even a colonial State like Britain is not monolithic. He explained, as an example, how in the more democratic part of the British State (even if this democracy is very limited), there are Members of Parliament, who are elected to represent people. In Britain some are even organized, he said, to show support for the right of return of Chagossians. He also explained how since 2008, in the UK, there has been an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on the Chagos bringing MP’s of different UK parties together, and which defends their right of return. So, we decided to work through them for one of our two-pronged outreaches: to journalists and to MP’s.
International political campaign
The analyses that came out of LALIT’s Conference triggered beautiful and potent political energy that can only take shape and get momentum within a political organisation, and within one that had already developed its clear three-pronged campaign – to unify the struggle for decolonization, base closure and the right of return. And so this campaign was a new form of international political work, based upon the overlap (however minimal) of the interests of British journalists and some elected MPs and LALIT’s program on Chagos. What did this political campaign consist of?
Breaking the colonial omerta in the Press
Firstly, we aimed to get the mainstream press and media in the UK and US to register the fact that there was a challenge to the prolonged UK (and US) colonisation of part of Mauritius i.e. the Chagos. Even though the Mauritian State, with considerable support from other States, had put this Resolution on to the UN General Assembly agenda, the UK media (that after all, is part of the UK State, in the accurate Marxist interpretation of the State) was still sticking to the omerta it had maintained consistently these last 50 years. It was silent. In other words the media kept hiding ugly acts of UK colonialism from the people in Britain for as long as possible, or until they got too publicly exposed some other way to be able to continue to hide them. You would have thought this would have normally made mainstream news for a day or two. It is so shocking. But the omerto continued. So, for hours and hours, for weeks on end, we wrote to all UK and US reporters we could find the email addresses of, including those who had written articles on the Chagos question without mentioning a single word on the UN General Assembly Resolution. We also wrote to reporters in charge of the African News section of the media outlet they worked for. Then finally, we got a response from one of them: Owen Bowcott of The Guardian. He wrote an article. His article of 16 November 2016 on the UN General Assembly Resolution challenge from the Mauritian State broke the colonial omerta in the international media. This news was within hours and then during the following week taken up not only in Britain, but all over the world – people would now get to know what the British State was still, 50 years later, trying to cover up so that they can help mobilise against it.
Bringing decolonisation on to UK Parliament agenda
Secondly, LALIT militants did something we do not often do. We wrote to British MP’s. We chose those whose party was in the APPG on the Chagos, or who were personally as MP’s involved in it. We made it clear from the very opening that we are not writing to them as their “constituents” but as organised citizens of an independent country dismembered by the UK with part of our land still under colonial UK-US occupation. We at the same time, importantly, wrote to all our political contacts in the UK, contacts that we have developed over the years to ask them to join in campaign calling on British parties and MP’s to act, which they also did from their end. So, some MP’s were being contacted by their constituents, by trade unions, and by LALIT in Mauritius.
This is one of the ways that helped British MP’s start putting the decolonisation of the Chagos on the UK Parliament agenda. They did this in several ways: Parliamentary Questions, sponsoring and/or supporting two Early Day motions or through the APPG on Chagos to get the British State to respect the ICJ Advisory Opinion when it came out. And this is how a Labour Party MP Bambos Charabambous came to write a letter to us taking a bold stand on decolonisation.
Post-ICJ Advisory Opinion effects after our campaign
And when the ICJ finally came out with its Advisory Opinion on 25 February this year, it was scathing towards British colonisation: it ruled that UK’s continued administration of the Chagos is a “wrongful act” that should be brought to an end “as rapidly as possible”. The ICJ also ruled that “all UN member States must co-operate with the UN to complete the decolonisation of Mauritius”. By then, the omerta had been broken. The news was in all the international Press. Not just in the UK and USA, but in France, Germany, China, India, Pakistan and on all the news networks. Our work thus contributed to MP’s like Labour Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Helen Goodman qualifying the ICJ Advisory Opinion as being “damning” and asking the Theresa May government in Parliament: “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?”
This is how in direct response to our call, the Deputy leader of the Scottish National Party Parliamentary group wrote us the following letter:
“Thank you for your email; Mrs Blackman has asked that I respond on her behalf.
“The International Court of Justice’s rejection of the UK’s claim of sovereignty over the Chagos Islands must be upheld. The UK - as a country that often cites its commitment to the international rules-based order - has a moral obligation to sustain this ruling even if, as the Government has claimed, it is not legally compelled to do so. The SNP completely supports the UN’s ruling, and calls on the Government to give effect to relinquishing its sovereignty over the islands as quickly as possible. The unambiguous clarity of the judges ruling can leave little doubt that the people of the Chagos Islands were not rightly given any free and genuine expression over the decision to cede sovereignty to the UK.
“Furthermore, Mrs Blackman and her SNP MP colleagues call on the government to recognise that Diego Garcia is part of the internationally-recognised African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone and to give assurances that no nuclear weapons or other forms of WMD have ever been placed there. “SNP MPs have protested the situation in the Chagos Islands no less than 28 times since May 2015, including most recent by Patrick Grady MP on 7 March who protested the forced eviction of Chagossian islanders and the UK's failure to award citizenship to all the islanders, despite making the island a sovereign part of the UK. “Please be assured that Mrs Blackman and her SNP MP colleagues will continue to call on the UK government to enter into fully transparent and unconditional dialogue with Mauritius on the return of British Indian Ocean Territory to their authority.
Senior Caseworker for Kirsty Blackman MP”
UK MP’s in APPG on Chagos
In April, the UK APPG on the Chagos met for the first time after the ICJ Advisory Opinion to discuss it. LALIT has addressed a letter which we were formally told would be circulated to APPG members calling on them ensure that firstly, the UK respects the ICJ Advisory Opinion and that, secondly, a date is set to end UK-US military occupation of the Chagos that was and still is the cause of continued illegal occupation of the Chagos.
The catalyst to getting articles in the Press, and getting British MP’s to be cognisant enough with the issues to be able to take a clear stand, was our political activism on the international arena over the past three years. But it would not have been possible had we not the experience and momentum of 40 years’ struggle behind us.
In these times, when the old “Internationals”, from the First International at the time of Marx, and then the Second International that set up May Day, and the 3rd International originally set up by Lenin and at the time of Lenin when the second international was split into “nation state” bits by the conflicts of the First World War, and the Fourth International set up by Leon Trotsky, have all lost their leadership role, it is important that we find different ways of rebuilding internationalism, or even international campaigns like the Chagos/Diego Garcia campaign. This article, together with the other two on our site – one on shared struggles on decolonization and against militarism, and one on working class organization’s role in these times – begin to give body to building internationalism. As Labour Day approaches, we will be receiving messages from organizations like ours around the world, as a reminder, when we sing the L’Internationale that internationalism is our aim, and our method. It is important with the new rise, imaging the rise of fascism in the West in the 1930’s, of nationalism and xenophobia, this time world-wide.
Rajni Lallah, for LALIT.