Holding colonial power to account

UK-US "treaty obligations" are no obstacle to Mauritius regaining sovereignty of the Chagos Islands

The use earlier this decade of a British territory, Diego Garcia, by the US for the purpose of "extraordinary rendition" continues to make waves. A few days ago, a group of British MPs led by Conservative, Andrew Tyrie, announced that it was suing the CIA in the American courts to force it to disclose information about the precise role of the Indian Ocean island and other UK-controlled airports and airspace in the rendition programme.

But along with Tyrie's unprecedented legal initiative the announcement in November by Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, of a consultation with interested parties about a proposal to turn the British Indian Ocean Territory into a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in order to preserve one of the planet's last great ocean wildernesses seems destined to give the issue of the Chagos Islanders' right of return to their homeland from which they were exiled over 40 years ago and Mauritius' claim to sovereignty of the Chagos Archipelago a much higher international profile than before.

Three points are relevant here: firstly, there is a widespread misconception that there is a formal "lease" between Britain and the US concerning the use of the Chagos Archipelago. In fact, there is no such thing -- no rent is paid by the Americans for the use of the territory, for example. The agreement between the two countries signed in 1965 was simply an exchange of letters in which Britain gave permission for the US to establish a military base on Diego Garcia, the largest and southernmost island in the Archipelago.

Secondly, the US never asked the UK to evacuate all of the islands; it simply wanted Diego Garcia uninhabited. It was the British authorities who decided to forcibly remove an entire population of at least 1600 indigenous inhabitants between 1968 and 1973 from the Archipelago and dump them at the docks in Mauritius and the Seychelles in what can only be described as one of the most shameful acts in recent colonial history. It is for this reason that it is Britain (rather than, say, Mauritius or the Seychelles) which bears primary responsibility for the resultant misery and suffering inflicted on the Chagos Islanders.

Thirdly, at the time of the original agreement between Britain and the US it was thought prudent that the remaining Chagos Islands should remain available in case it was deemed necessary to expand the military facilities in the future. Yet the outer islands of the Archipelago have never been used for military purposes, and it is evident that the US has no such intention, otherwise it would have done so at some point in the last 43 years.
The present position seems clear enough, then. There is no sensible defence or security reason for either the US or the UK why the outer Chagos Islands which lie around 140 miles north of Diego Garcia should not be transferred from Britain to Mauritius.

Furthermore, the Mauritian government has already said that it will foot the bill for resettlement so the objection trotted out at regular intervals in recent years by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office that it is not prepared to get involved in an open-ended financial commitment to the Islanders is readily disposed of.

Another objection put forward by a number of environmentalists that any permanent settlement of a small number of people living on some of the outer Chagos Islands like Peros Banhos and Salomon could somehow jeopardise or threaten the pristine qualities of the proposed MPA is frankly ludicrous.

In any case, policies that safeguard the environment and regulate habitation, waste disposal, fishing rights, mineral extraction and travel and could be agreed beforehand by all interested parties and put in place well before any of the Islanders return.

The agreement between Britain and the US over the use of the British Indian Ocean Territory comes up for renewal in 2016, and if either party wants to suggest changes they must do so by 2014. However, as with all bilateral agreements there is nothing to stop either country asking the other if it would be willing to make changes at an earlier date.

It would be very easy, therefore, for the UK authorities to say to the US that they would now like to re-negotiate the 1966 agreement. If the US agreed to this all well and good; if it did not then the British government could make its proposals in 2014, and could give notice, for example, that they planned to transfer sovereignty of the outer Chagos Islands to Mauritius in 2016.

Interestingly, David Miliband has been very keen in recent months to stress the importance and significance of "treaty obligations" between Britain and the US in relation to the use of the British Indian Ocean Territory. This is a red herring. No one should be in any doubt that the use of the grandiose term "treaty obligations" is a blatant attempt to gain an advantage over Mauritius and other interested parties before substantive negotiations get under way.

In theory, the UK could say that it will not renew the agreement in 2016 which would pave the way for the closure of the Diego Garcia base. Realistically this is not going to happen while the Indian Ocean is of such strategic military and commercial value to the US and its allies (especially because decades old rivals China and India are now vying for naval supremacy in order to secure the shipping lanes transporting goods and raw materials between Africa and Asia). It is very certain, therefore, that the US will be provided by Britain with a further 20 years use of the island for its military use which is in any case provided for in the 1966 exchange of letters.

Just before his departure for the UN climate summit in Copenhagen, Mauritian Prime Minister Navinchandra Ramgoolam stated that any discussion on the proposed MPA which ignored the exiled Chagos Islanders' right of return and his country's claim to sovereignty over the Archipelago was "out of the question". He also said that from discussions at the recent Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Trinidad and Tobago that "the British Prime Minister understood our point of view".

Mauritius would be well advised to keep Gordon Brown to his word when negotiations with the UK and the US begin in some form in the New Year.
Successive British governments have been able to get away with a policy that is not only in breach of international law but which has also wrecked the lives of the indigenous population which once inhabited Diego Garcia and other Chagos Islands simply because they have been able to.

For the first time since independence Mauritius has a real opportunity of holding its former colonial power to account. It should do so.

A version of this article has also appeared in l'express.

Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM) at Roehampton University