A strong message of disapproval was delivered yesterday to Princess Anne at the start of her four-day visit to Mauritius.
The princess is visiting the palm-fringed Indian Ocean island to commemorate the landing of the British army forces there 200 years ago, which led to the transfer of sovereignty to the UK from France.
However, in a major breach of diplomatic protocol, the prime minister of Mauritius, Dr Navin Ramgoolam, did not attend either the ceremony at the Bain-Boeuf public beach in the north of the island, or the reception held later at the British high commissioner’s residence.
The Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation conspicuously omitted any video footage of the event on both its English or Hindi language news bulletins.
Why the snub? Well, Mauritius is not pleased about the UK’s continued refusal to settle the long-standing dispute about the Chagos Archipelago, which was detached from its territory in 1965, in breach of international law before independence in 1968, and now forms the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).
By contrast, France agreed this year to manage jointly with Mauritius another disputed territory in the Indian Ocean, the island of Tromelin. It only adds to the sense of grievance about the behaviour of the former colonial master.
The frustration felt in Mauritius about the use of Diego Garcia, the largest and southernmost island in the archipelago, by the US military, and the failure by successive British governments to allow the 700 or so surviving Chagos Islanders and their descendants to return to their homeland, despite pre-election promises by the current UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, boiled over at a ceremony to mark the “Special Day for the Commemoration of the Deportation of the Chagos Community” from their homeland at Quay C in Port Louis on 3 November.
Ramgoolam accused the former prime minister Gordon Brown and his foreign secretary, David Miliband, of bad faith for failing to keep a promise, made at the last Commonwealth Summit in Trinidad at the end of last year, to consult his government about the plan to turn the BIOT into the world’s largest marine protected area (MPA). Instead, a unilateral announcement about the marine reserve was made by Miliband on 1 April.
“It is an odious act of provocation against Mauritius,” declared Ramgoolam, adding that he was delighted that Miliband had lost the recent Labour leadership election.
The Mauritian leader also stated that he regarded the UK’s “indifference” towards the suffering of the Chagossian exiles as a “crime against humanity”. He said he had listened to the islanders’ accounts of how they were forcibly removed from their homeland by the British authorities between 1968 and 1973 so that the US could build its military base, and “you cannot be insensitive”.
“There are nuclear submarines and warships that are polluting the sea,” said the prime minister. “They want to protect fish and the corals, which have become more important than human beings. They talk about human rights and their own court [the high court and the Court of Appeal] said that they do not even respect human rights. They are hypocrites.”
The Mauritian prime minister’s uncharacteristically strong language caused astonishment among foreign diplomats on the island and in some parts of the Westminister village.
Nevertheless, Ramgoolam was right to highlight UK duplicity. In fact, the WikiLeaks disclosure on Chagos released yesterday shows how, at a meeting in May 2009, British Foreign and Commonwealth officials insisted on establishing the marine reserve as “the most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands’ former inhabitants and their descendants from resettling in the BIOT”.
They calculated that the “environmental lobby is far more powerful than the Chagossians’ advocates”. And so, pressing the feel-good buttons of environmentalists – Greenpeace at al – by officials at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was deliberately used as a tactic to override the human rights of the Chagos Islanders. Cynical? You bet.
There is a further point. Princess Anne cannot claim that this diplomatic spat has nothing to do with the royal family. After all, it was her mother who signed the order in council detaching the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius, establishing the British Indian Ocean Territory, and another order in 2004, on Jack Straw’s watch, banning the Chagos Islanders from returning to their homeland.
Sean Carey is a research fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM), Roehampton University.