Diego Garcia belongs to Mauritius, not to the UK
India supported Mauritius at the United Nations General Assembly and the ICJ in its quest to regain its territoryUpdated: Mar 20, 2019, 20:18 IST
The United States dodged its order of reparations to Nicaragua for supporting a rebellion there, while Israel cared little for its opinion on its wall in the West Bank. The United Nations’ International Court of Justice (ICJ) is widely considered a toothless tiger.
And yet, 10,000 homeless islanders are hoping that an ICJ advisory issued late February on the United Kingdom’s filthiest secret will embarrass London enough to leave their home, the Chagos archipelago, after squatting on it for more than half a century. The court ruled that the UK’s claim over Chagos — best known for its largest island, Diego Garcia — is illegal and the islands be returned to Mauritius “as rapidly as possible”. India supported Mauritius at the United Nations General Assembly and the ICJ in its quest to regain its territory.
Located roughly halfway between India and Mauritius, Chagos was once known as the “oil islands”, whose chief produce, coconut oil from copra, lit the lamps of Mauritius and beyond. In the 1960s, the United States wanted an Indian Ocean island for a military outpost to keep the former Soviet Union in check. In exchange for a US$14 million discount on Polaris missiles, London was happy to oblige. It granted Mauritius independence but kept Chagos on and assured the US of an unmanned archipelago devoid of the 2000-odd coconut farmers it called “Tarzans and a few Man Fridays” (on record in British archives ). It gassed the islanders’ house pets, terrified them by implying the same fate, forced them on ships, dumped them on the shores of Mauritius and Seychelles, where they live on the fringes of society to date, and handed over Chagos’ largest island, Diego Garcia, to the US on a 50-year lease. When the UK extended the expired lease to 2036, all parties concerned — the US, the UK and Mauritius — approached India for support. The two superpowers cited “regional security,” while Mauritius invoked old and culturally-deep bilateral ties with India The latter took precedence, with the Indian ambassador to the Netherlands underlining at the ICJ that “the Chagos archipelago throughout the pre- and post-colonial era has been part of the Mauritian territory”.
Olivier Bancoult of the Chagos Refugees Group in Cassis, a shantytown in Port Louis,has fought and won cases against the UK even in UK courts on behalf of more than 10000 — mostly poor — Chagossians in Mauritius, the Seychelles and the UK. But the British Foreign Office has repeatedly stonewalled verdicts by getting them superseded by empowered authorities in the name of security (in the last instance, Her Majesty, The Queen herself). Predictably, the ICJ’s February advisory, too, has been shrugged off by London.
But this time, the face-off is not between a clutch of poor farmers and a mighty western power but between two sovereign UN member states. Mauritius is a stakeholder backed by 17 UN member states,including the regional power, India.
Importantly, neither Port Louis nor the Chagossians want the Americans to leave Diego Garcia, with Bancoult even looking forward to hundreds of jobs for Chagossians, not Asians as at present, on the 4000-troop-strong US military base. Consequently, it’s hardly an unthinkable idea that only the title and lease deeds of Chagos and Diego Garcia change hands, while letting the tenant remain.
“We will hold talks with all but with Mauritius by our side,” Bancoult told Hindustan Times over the phone from Port Louis.”London must do the right thing now.”