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2nd Lockdown - Day 26 –On This and That and Diego Garcia


I find the personal and the political are both fractured and flung together by a lockdown. So that, although we cannot gather – which is the essential of politics – we can put things together that otherwise we would not. When I write about our two adolescent girl-dogs, Lock and Down – registered as Lok and Dawn, of course – pulling Ram’s towel off the washing line last night and biting holes into it, or how they love eating apple peel and slightly bad avocadoes that fall off the tree overnight, I can suddenly find myself thinking of other dogs. Of how the US and UK state apparatus somehow ordered the killing of all the Chagossians’ dogs. This was part of their torture strategy to frighten people enough to make them give up and leave. This way the US and UK could set up the US Diego Garcia military base on land they had stolen by a Queen’s Order in Council in 1965. On this land, which we Mauritians have the democratic responsibility to control, the US would later torture people, including Abdel Hakim Belhaj and his pregnant wife. From this land they would later launch B-52s to bomb civilians from dizzy heights – city folk going about their business, and wedding processions. In lockdown, my mind wanders this way.

It’s Easter Sunday in lockdown mode, so Ragoo Lane is quiet. Not a bicycle going past. It’s nobody’s shopping day. Nobody at all. All the dogs snooze in the shade. Nobody has even turned their music up. The informal casino that happily replaced domestic violence, a little way away, is not yet up-and-running with its joyous guffaws bursting forth. Just birdsong. And the odd toad calling the rain. Talking about rain, the water supply in Ragoo Lane has stayed good for the past fortnight. So, no CWA lorry bringing us water via a giant hose. I hope the country gets more rain before the rainy season ends. Mauritius, like Rodrigues, is fragile this way. Once the Dutch colonizers left – they “left” twice in the language of old history books – because of a drought so prolonged they nearly died of thirst. They were also thwarted, it is said, by rats and a plague of women settlers poisoning their husbands. And then the brave woman slave Ana de Bengal and her two lieutenants, also slaves, Antoni de Malabar and Aron de Amboina, burnt down the Dutch establishment. So, whether its dogs or rain, it can bring us to colonization.

And today, for once, I’d like to quote in toto from a New York Times article written by Philippe Sands on 1 April. He is the barrister that has worked so brilliantly on the Chagos case for the Mauritian Government. He also, importantly worked for the Philippines Government in a case against China, under UNCLOS. Which gives the article he has written a special moral power. The article is excellent. Excellent until, let’s say, the last two little paragraphs. I’ll paste it whole, then, after it, right at the end, give our win-win proposal, an alternative ending to Philippe Sands’ article. 

“President Biden, speaking at the State Department’s headquarters soon after his inauguration, called the ‘rule of law’ one of America’s ‘most cherished democratic values.’ The notion, a central part of his foreign policy and his faith in treaties and international institutions, is both a riposte to the Trump administration and a useful stick with which to beat China and Russia.

“During a recent visit to Japan and South Korea, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken castigated Beijing for its ‘coercion and aggression’ — for making extreme maritime claims in the South China Sea ‘that violate international law.’

“Yet anyone who wants to weaponize the rule of law first needs to have their own house in order, and that includes being sure their closest allies do, too. Britain’s current approach to international law — especially the law of the sea — poses a serious problem for America.

The government recently published a foreign policy review on ‘Global Britain.’ The 100-plus-page document signals a shift away from Europe and toward the Indo-Pacific region, premised on a military alliance with the United States: No relationship is ‘more valuable,’ the text reads. In particular, the paper asserts Britain’s “absolute commitment to upholding the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea in all its dimensions.”

“Absolute? Not quite. Not for Britain, nor for America.

“Both appear to see the law of the sea as a particularly useful tool to clobber China, especially following a legally binding arbitral award handed down in 2016 by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. The tribunal ruled that China’s claims over vast swathes of the South China Sea, enclosed by a mythical “nine-dash line,” were illegal under international law, violating basic principles of freedom of navigation and the rights of other states.

“The case was brought by the Philippines under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, known as UNCLOS, a binding global charter on all aspects of the world’s oceans adopted in 1982 after years of negotiations. (I acted as co-counsel for the Philippines.)

“The United States is one of the few countries not to have joined the treaty — it objects to clauses about rights to mineral resources in the bed of the high seas — but it supports most provisions as reflecting general international law. The convention is cherished by the U.S. Defense Department for its clear rules on freedom of navigation, including for warships, and by others for its principles on marine conservation and fisheries, and for its system for the settlement of disputes, including over maritime boundaries.

The State Department promptly welcomed the 2016 Philippines-China award. The British prime minister at the time, David Cameron, warned China to abide by it.

“Yet today, Britain, a party to UNCLOS, is hoist with its own law of the sea petard. By ignoring its obligations under the treaty, it is undermining the Biden administration’s effort to use that same body of rules to rein in China’s maritime claims.

“The cause is a little-known group of some 55 islands in the middle of the mighty Indian Ocean known as the Chagos Archipelago. For some 150 years they were part of the British colony of Mauritius. Then, in 1965, at the instigation of President Lyndon B. Johnson, Britain decided to separate the islands from Mauritius and, at just the time that the world was agreeing the era of colonialism was over, created a new colony, called ‘the British Indian Ocean Territory.’ One of the islands, Diego Garcia, was leased to the United States for a military base.

“Mauritius got its independence in 1968, but without Chagos. The entire population of the islands — about 1,800 Black people, mostly descendants of slaves who lived and worked on copra plantations there — were forcibly removed and transported to other parts of Mauritius, the Seychelles and Britain.

The episode, which the British government itself has since called ‘shameful,’ has not been widely known. Until now, as these events come back to haunt Britain and, indirectly, America.

“Mauritius has long sought to get Chagos back, and its effort has been supported by numerous states — including India, the entire African continent, various governments in Latin America and Europe — and the many displaced Chagossians who never gave up on their hope to return to their homes.

Those efforts have borne fruit. In February 2019, the International Court of the Justice, in The Hague, ruled that Chagos has been separated from Mauritius illegally, in violation of both the right of self-determination and the territorial integrity of Mauritius. (I represented the government in that case, and continue to in related proceedings.)

The I.C.J. decision, issued at the request of the U.N. General Assembly, is not legally binding on U.N. members — so, neither on Britain nor Mauritius — but it offers an authoritative statement about the law and the U.N. itself is required to honor that. The U.N.’s official maps have been changed to show the Chagos Archipelago, including Diego Garcia, as belonging to Mauritius, not Britain.

“Three months after the I.C.J.’s advisory opinion, the U.N. General Assembly overwhelmingly voted for a resolution affirming that Chagos was an integral part of Mauritius and called on Britain to withdraw from the islands within six months, by November 2019. The resolution — which Britain and the United States opposed — also said that Chagossians should now be able to return to their homes.

“But the British have refused to leave, which has resulted in another case before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, in Hamburg, Germany, a body operating under UNCLOS — the treaty to which Britain proclaims its absolute commitment.

“That tribunal, in a case brought by Mauritius to delimit the maritime boundary between its Chagos territory and the Maldives, ruled in January that the I.C.J. decision had confirmed Mauritius’s sovereignty over Chagos and rejected Britain’s claims. Yet rather than go or allow the Chagossians to return, Britain has done a China and stuck two fingers up at the rulings and the international rule of law.

“Britain’s recent foreign policy review asserts that its military will retain a ‘permanent presence’ on Chagos. Just last week a new British Indian Ocean Territory coin was issued, featuring an effigy of Queen Elizabeth II on one side and the Chagos anemone (known as the clown fish) on the other.

“The British government’s position is in direct conflict with the principles it invoked in a diplomatic note to Beijing in September, complaining that China’s claim to having historical rights over areas of the South China Sea violates international law, UNCLOS and the 2016 arbitral award.

“Britain’s brazen double standard is grotesque, and damaging. Among other things, considering the U.S. military base on Diego Garcia, it undermines the Biden administration’s effort to use UNCLOS to hold China to account for its expansionism.

“What is to be done? Much like the Trump administration had ignored the I.C.J.’s decision, Mr. Biden and Mr. Blinken have said nothing about Chagos so far.

“And yet to bury one’s head in the sand is to endorse Britain’s clear violation of the laws and treaties that are central to the South China Sea issue and to offer tacit approval for a continuing colonial policy with racist undertones. How can the Biden administration support an ally that promotes self-determination for white people in the Falkland Islands, as Britain has done, while rejecting it for Mauritius and its Black Chagossian population?

“There is, however, a simple and effective solution — if indeed the U.S. government is truly committed to the rule of law and international treaties.

“Mauritius already has offered the United States a 99-year lease over Diego Garcia, providing a long-term security that is lacking under America’s current arrangement with Britain, which expires in 2036. In return, the Chagossians would be allowed to come back to parts of Chagos. A marine protection area could be established to conserve a pristine maritime environment. The flag would finally be lowered on Britain’s last colony in Africa.

“It’s a win-win-win proposition. Security, human rights and the marine environment are protected. The rule of law, treaties and UNCLOS are promoted. Charges of hypocrisy and double standard are cast to the wind.”

LALIT’s Proposed Ending to this article

We propose the following after the words, ‘law and international treaties.’ “The United States should meet with the United Kingdom and propose closure of this military base. It would be proof of their respect for the rule of law and international treaties. It would mark their respect for the decolonization of Africa, including Mauritius. It would go some way towards reparations for the harm done by genocidal forced removals of Chagossians, and for the cruel dismembering of Mauritius’ land during the decolonization process. The base closure would prevent ongoing US and UK infringement of the Pelindaba Treaty. It would represent respect the international pledge made to Nelson Mandela. In exchange for his dismantling of the Apartheid regime’s nuclear weapons program at Pelindaba, other nations, including the US and UK pledged a nuclear-arms-free Africa. The money the UK and US thus save by base closure could be used for an ecological clean-up, while the rest of the money could be placed in a fund so as to establish the right of return for Chagossians, who could then have Constituency Number 23 (Number 22 can be reserved for Agalega), and freedom of movement for all Mauritians over all Mauritian land and sea. Some of the infrastructure of the military base could, instead of complete dismantling and removal, be converted so as to strengthen Mauritius’ Meteorological Services as was the original expressed intention of the UK-US conspirators, when they stole and depopulated the Chagos. Such a meteo facility with, say, advanced-warning for Tsunamis, could be run like the rest of Chagos by an elected decentralized Chagossian Regional Assembly, on a basis similar to the Rodrigues Regional Assembly.”

Or something like that.

Lindsey Collen