The Port Louis Municipal Chamber was packed over-full with standing room only both downstairs and in the upstairs gallery during the Amnesty Forum on "The Chagos and Human Rights" on Tuesday 9 February. The Speakers were Minister of Foreign Affairs Arvind Boolell, Opposition Leader Paul Berenger, Lindsey Collen for LALIT, Olivier Bancoult for the Chagos Refugees Group, the present majority group, Fernand Mandarin for Chagos Social Group, the present minority group, and Lindley Couronne for Amnesty. The chair was assured by Barrister, Michel Ahnee, an Amnesty member. The audience was made up of Chagossians supporting the two different groups, LALIT supporters, Amnesty youth, a handful of MMM members and MP's Hon Ariane Navarre and Hon. Barbier, a handful of government political advisors, a few artists and trade unionists, and some of the usual "Forum-goers". The former UN representative, Mr. Coonjal, famous for having questioned the legality of the US-led invasion of Iraq when Mauritius was on the UN Security Council, was also present.
The hot issue of the moment right now is the British State's outrageous ruse, insulting the Mauritian State, by calling for a Marine Protected Area in the whole of the Chagos, thus announcing in action that the territory is under British control, the part where the base is, and the rest, too. It is a direct snub. If ridicule could kill, surely any State insisting on a Marine Protected Area around nuclear military base that is barracks to thousands of soldiers and staff to get the B-52s, B-2's, Stealths, and nuclear-headed submarines into action, would have been long dead. And, on top of it all, the British State is, by this same Marine Protected Area charade, threatening all Chagossians with their eternal banishment from their home islands.
Yet, the debate was characterised by the patent reluctance of the Minister of Foreign Affairs and even more so of the Opposition Leader to take any initiative at all that might help change the balance of forces against the UK and USA Governments. In their speeches and replies to questions, they both made it clear that they intend to continue with the usual bowing to the imperialists while pleading a pathetic sotto voce case, all the usual behavior that has unfortunately been characteristic of successive Mauritian Governments since the time of the illegal sundering of Mauritius by Harold Wilson's Labour Government in 1965 and the criminal removing of all the inhabitants by a combined USA and UK conspiracy to make way for a base around the same time.
And yet, they hesitate to take action for the re-unification of the State of Mauritius, and they fear to mention closing the base, even when the Mauritian State has the high moral ground. What with the Chilcot Commission hearings, often referred to during the debate, exposing the Bush and Blair regime brutally and rather unexpectedly, and opening up wide the question of war crimes charges. It is really shocking that they refuse to take action, or even a stand against the military base illegally on Mauritian territory.
In fact, the UK has only been perturbed a few times since its theft of Chagos, the US (the receiver of the stolen goods) never. The UK is disturbed only if you act against it. As indeed the US will be. This was LALIT's point in the debate.
Here, for the record, are some of the occasions on which the UK was shaken. Once was by the mass demonstrations that Chagossians and LALIT people built up from 1978 to 1981, culminating in the arrests and prosecution of Chagossians and LALIT women members (compensation was won, as a direct result of the movement); a second time was probably when LALIT and the Rann Nu Diego Group were preparing a Greenpeace visit for March 1999, a visit that got thwarted by the vessel concerned getting iced in to the Antarctica; a third time was when Olivier Bancoult put his Case for the right to return in the UK Courts and won a number of judgments (the UK then gave British passports to Chagossians, thus starting an assimilation process as a form of counter-attack, and they seem to have recruited Mr. Vencatassen); fourth, when the Peace Flotilla was being prepared so as to take the Chagossians home (the UK State itself took 100 Chagossians for a visit instead; the representative of the Executive of the British State also spent an hour during the Bancoult Court Case before the House of Lords stating how terrified they supposedly were about LALIT and the Peace Flotilla going to Diego Garcia). Now, the British are worried about two things: there is Olivier Bancoult's appeal to the European Union Human Rights Court, and there is LALIT's agitation for two political moves by the Mauritian State.
At Tuesday's Forum, LALIT member, Lindsey Collen called for the Mauritian Government to do these two things immediately: to call for UN inspections, and to stop messing about and to inscribe on to the Agenda of the UN General Assembly a resolution to send a case before the ICJ at the Hague.
By calling for IAEA inspections of Diego Garcia, the Mauritian State would be clearly stating its sovereignty. The Minister said he has a committee working on this, but that it is secret. We cannot see why it is secret.
The ICJ case will only have "Advisory Opinion" status, but the moral power of a judgment in Mauritius' favour would be very strong, politically. It would be strengthened by the need, during the course of preparation of the UN General Assembly resolution, everyone worldwide will learn what Paul Berenger mentioned at the Forum i.e. although the UK accepts the ICJ for binding decisions (not just opinions) except for cases from Commonwealth members, but when he was Prime Minister of Mauritius, he reminded the audience, he had announced that Mauritius would leave the Commonwealth so as to put in a binding case. Tony Blair immediately applied new rules to include "ex-Commonwealth members" in the exception as well, for binding cases in the ICJ. And, putting in a case today would bring all this out into the open, as well as the original British triple crimes of breaking a country of Mauritius, displacing the Chagossians, and conspiring with the US to set up a military base. Political progress could thus be made.
Paul Berenger proposes a group of Chagossians going to the International Criminal Court instead. LALIT member, Lindsey Collen, said that was an interesting proposal. But, why does the Mauritian State not act. Instead, both the Minister and the Opposition Leader want to "negotiate"; but to negotiate, you have to be in a position of power and that involves action.
We do not see why the Mauritian Government and even the Opposition are so scared, so cowardly, so abject about the miltiary base and about the ICJ. When pushed by a question from Rajni Lallah of LALIT about the timing of actions relative to the UN International Atomic Energy Agency, the Minister started talking about "committees" and "secret diplomatic strategies". The Leader of the Opposition also brought up the real tragedy of the accidental death of Barrister Brownlee, the Government's legal advisor in the UK on Diego. This is certainly a set-back. But, the fact remains, the Mauritian State does not act. And when it does, it does it in total or relative secrecy, or it acts at the level of charades.
The only conclusion is that we will have to build up enough popular mobilization in Mauritius in order to force the Government to act.
One of the reasons for a certain additional veneer of extra-politeness between the Government and Opposition spokesmen on the evening of the debate was that their two parties are trying right now to patch together a pre-electoral alliance, and it is not easy. So, the theme of the debate, the Diego Garcia issue became the subtext of their political overtures to each other.
The LALIT's speaker, Lindsey Collen, fortunately recentred the debate on the military base, which is at the heart of the issue. It was and still is because of the base that there is a problem. She said how the struggle for sovereignty and for the right to return was made stronger by our constant call for base closure. She reminded everyone that the reason for the problems was the military base, so, the military base is what has to be closed. No permanent military base of a foreign power can be accepted on a country's soil, she said, "because it means the facility is not under anyone's democratic control." And the bigger the power differential between the two States, she added, the worse the situation. She said the base had had "pretexts" succeeding one another with vertigenous speed over the past 40 years:
First, she said, it was for communications, they said.
Second, it was against the communists, they said.
Third, it was to protect the oil route, they say.
Fourth, it was against terrorists, they say.
Fifth, it is against pirates, they say.
Soon, she said sarcastically, it would be needed in order to police the supposed "Marine Protected Area", the one with a nuclear base thriving in its middle.
"The giant has feet of clay," she said at the Forum. "The US-UK financial system has collapsed, and not been re-built but only put into the ICU. Their economies waver. Their bases are bankupting them." The time is ripe to call for base closure, world-wide, she said. "This is what will get us allies," she said. "The entire anti-war movement world-wide will be with us. Over 75% of Americans do not agree with bases like Diego Garcia. The bases remain only because they are secret. We must act to get the message to the people there! And work to close all military bases!" In fact, many bases are closed each year. Lindsey Collen was on the march in Manta in March 2007, and the base, that controlled the key area of Columbia, Bolivie and Ecuador, has since been closed down. Many other have too. Lindsey Collen mentioned that already the US was trying to find a fall-back place, an Island off the coast of Yemen, as they realized that Diego Garcia is not so sure.
Olivier Bancoult, speaking for the Chagos Refugee Group said that he is a Mauritian, and as a Mauritian he supports the Government claim for sovereignty. In LALIT, we welcome this stand. Olivier Bancoult also said that he thought the UK was afraid of the EU Human Rights Case he had put in, and that the Marine Park was an attempt to pre-empt their potential victory.
Fernand Mandarin spoke of his personal knowledge of the Islands and called for a map to be prepared on which they could, as Chagossians, inscribe their knowledge of place names.
Towards the end of the Forum, Vinesh Hookoomsing, former Pro Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mauritius, one of those in the audience, noted the increasing strength of the anti-militarist movement world-wide and called for a "Common Front" of all present. Paul Berenger immediately interpreted the proposal as a call for a front between Government and Opposition, which he clearly is desperate for. LALIT would not be in favour of such a close collaboration with the State.
Other questions were by Ram Seegobin to the Minister and the Opposition Leader, both of whom squirmed out of the questions, Serge Rayapoulle, Rajni Lallah, and other members of the public.
The chairman, Michel Ahnee, would have been an able chair had he not been somewhat ill-at-ease, especially when he had to summarise any speaker's argument, with the admittedly complicated subject matter: colonial history, the breaking up of Mauritius, the UN Charter forbidding this kind of breaking up of territory, different kinds of sovereignty, the changing military strategies since the withdrawal of Britain from East of Aden and then after the defeat of the US in Vietnam, how the Seychelles got its Islands back from out of the figment the UK and US set up called the British Indian Ocean Territory, the way in which the "depopulation" was carried out, and all the struggles, many heroic, by Chagossians and Mauritians over 40 years, always attempting to expose this, and correct the wrongs done, and often building up a great deal of support from peoples' organizations all over the world, and culminating in recent years in very complex legal cases in the UK Courts, now in the European Human Rights Court, and in attempts to take yachts there in March 1999 with Greenpeace, and in 2004 with a whole Flotilla that was under preparation.
A LALIT Report