Praise has been heaped on newly installed British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, for taking a principled stand against Robert Mugabe attending the EU-Africa Summit in Lisbon in December.
Brown, who described himself as a “conviction politician” at Labour’s annual conference, said he intends to stay away if Mugabe turns up and wants the leaders of other countries to follow his example.
He has also urged the European Union to widen travel and banking sanctions against the wives and children of 131 leading members of Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF party in order to put additional pressure on the regime.
According to Glenys Kinnock MEP, a close Brown ally, these measures are yet further evidence of the British premier’s “strong and practical commitment to combating poverty and fostering freedom and opportunity in Africa”.
The latest intervention by Gordon Brown may or may not help the long-suffering citizens of Zimbabwe – only time will tell – but this attempt to foster freedom and opportunity in Africa would be a bit more convincing if he did something about the shameful treatment meted out by successive British governments to the inhabitants of the Chagos Islands since their eviction which started some 40 years ago under another Labour government, led by Harold Wilson.
At the height of the Cold War in 1964 a secret deal was struck between British and US officials that would allow the Americans to construct a naval and air base in the Indian Ocean in order to keep a watchful eye on the Soviet Union’s forces that roamed the area.
To facilitate this, the 60 plus islands of the Chagos archipelago which lie some 2200 miles east of Mombasa, were detached from the British Colony of Mauritius in 1965 prior to the country’s independence in 1968.
They came to form part of the British Indian Ocean Territory. (This land grab was in blatant contravention of United Nations Resolution 1514 which states that all colonial peoples have the right to nationhood without pre-conditions.)
The largest and southernmost island in the group, Diego Garcia, was eventually chosen as the location for the US base.
The 2000 or so inhabitants of the Chagos Islands – les Ilois (literally “the islanders”) as they were then called – whose slave ancestors had been transported to the archipelago from Senegal and Mozambique by the French in the late eighteenth century to work on the coconut plantations were dumped without any help or resources in Mauritius and the Seychelles by the British authorities between 1965 and 1971.
The legal process was extremely slow to get going but the Chagossians have now won two cases against the British government in the High Court in 2000 and 2006. They also achieved a comprehensive victory in the Court of Appeal in May this year when three senior judges, including the Master of the Rolls, Sir Anthony Clarke, stated that the government had undoubtedly abused its power in evicting the islanders four decades ago. The judgement allowed the Chagossians an immediate right of return to the archipelago.
A few days after the Court of Appeal’s decision, David Snoxell, the former British High Commissioner to Mauritius, 2000- 2004, in a letter to The Times called on the US and British governments to “resolve these issues diplomatically rather than through the courts. It should bring together representatives of the US, Mauritius and the Chagossians to work out a just solution, and rectify one of the worst violations of fundamental human rights perpetrated by the UK in the 20th century”.
However, although the British government was refused leave to appeal, on 23 May the Foreign and Commonwealth Office declared that it would petition the House of Lords in order to challenge the latest legal ruling – a move which also blocked the Chagossians returning to their homeland.
Earlier this month the British Prime Minister’s office put out an additional statement saying that clarification of the status of all British Overseas Territories – not just the British Indian Ocean Territory – was now required after the Court of Appeal’s judgement in order to avoid confusion and potential conflicts within the British constitutional and legal system.
There were also some other comments about the difficulty of resettling people on the Chagos islands because of the potential problems related to rising sea levels caused by global warming.
So instead of taking the ex-High Commissioner’s advice and negotiating with members of the US and Mauritian administrations, Gordon Brown’s government has referred the case to the House of Lords in a pretty obvious attempt to keep the legal manoeuvrings going for as long as possible.
Why? Well, without wanting to come across too much like a wild-eyed conspiracy theorist, the big factor in the mix undoubtedly concerns Iran. Sources within the Pentagon indicated as long ago as last summer that the Diego Garcia base would be the preferred location to launch air strikes on the country’s underground uranium enrichment facilities should President George W. Bush and his advisors conclude that a combination of economic sanctions, diplomatic initiatives and a fair amount of sabre rattling has failed to resolve the issue of the Islamic republic’s suspected nuclear weapons programme.
Bush’s little noticed visit in the company of Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to Diego Garcia on September 4 to celebrate American Labor Day with American service personnel – the first by an American president for many years – would seem to confirm the island’s critical significance in any future military operation.
And because Britain (as the freeholder, as it were) has to give permission for any American military intervention, the visit by Bush may also have served as a “friendly” reminder to the British government – and to its people, although most of them it is fair to say remain completely unaware of the details of this relationship – not to delay or hinder in any way the US’s ability to launch a military attack against Iran from the island if it decides to do so.
What political lessons can be drawn from this? Well, on the one hand, it seems it is very easy for the British Prime Minister to denounce Robert Mugabe.
He’s the head of a country where the economy has virtually collapsed and who has almost no political capital left to use in important, western-dominated political circles for crimes against his people.
On the other hand, it seems that Gordon Brown finds it much more difficult to stand up to more economically and politically powerful players – his American allies, in this case – and allow another long-suffering group of African people, the Chagossians, to return to their ancestral homeland even when it is clearly within his power to sit down with representatives of the Mauritian government and settle the issue of the status and sovereignty of the Chagos islands once and for all.
So the big lesson is that initiatives by the British government that foster freedom and opportunity in Africa have to be applied consistently if Gordon Brown is to win more rather than just a few of the plaudits – in other words, it isn’t just a matter of bashing the politically weak – that isn’t hard.
It’s a case of standing up to the politically powerful as well if the cause is just. This is what conviction politics is meant to be about, after all.
Dr Sean Carey has been writing about Diego Garcia since he met some of the exiled Chagossians and their families on a visit to Mauritius in 1983. He was first alerted to the Chagos issue after watching Granada’s World in Action programme, Britain’s Other Islanders, which was broadcast in 1982
A version of this article was first published in the Mauritius Times