Chagos - Lalit brings the struggle home

by Nicholas Rainer


Port Louis — At the end of this month, Lalit will hold an international conference on the thorny Chagos issue. It will be a wonderful opportunity to come up with a global strategy to correct this monumental injustice.

There's a lot to be said for people power. Even in the face of overwhelming might, well coordinated grassroots actions, coupled of course with a hefty dollop of political will, can yield remarkable results. Take the Manta Air Base in Ecuador for instance. Widespread public opposition to the presence of the US military in this Latin American country culminated in a nationwide anti-base campaign in 2007. Barely two years later, the Ecuadorian president, Hugo Correa, decided not to renew its contract. Lalit's Lindsey Collen was part of that historical event. By organizing an international conference on the Chagos later this month, she and her fellow members of Lalit hope to create the same sort of impetus here.

"This conference can really make a difference," opines the author and political activist. Her optimism is attributable, in large part, to timing. "The US military is currently overstretched and there's a lot of pressure to shut down some of its bases." Indeed, the country's massive indebtedness and protracted military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan mean that now is as good a time as any to bring pressure to bear on its government. "Every year a commission looks at which bases should be closed," adds Lindsey Collen.

The conference, which will take place from October 30 to November 2, will be the opportunity to treat several issues - the closure of the military base, the right of return and the payment of compensation to Chagossians - concomitantly. This approach is not fortuitous. By covering all the, ahem, bases, Lalit wants to enlist the support of as many organizations as possible.

A cursory look at the list of speakers that have been enrolled seems to indicate that this course of action is paying off. Experts on geopolitical matters will rub shoulders with peace activists and, if everything goes according to plan, outspoken British MP Jeremy Corbyn.

Several cultural events and a national forum involving the minister of Foreign Affairs, Arvin Boolell and the leader of the opposition, Paul Bérenger, have also been programmed. Although he won't be present at the conference, journalist and filmmaker John Pilger of "Stealing a Nation" has pledged his support to this ambitious initiative. "Justice for the people of the Chagos is one of those rare issues about which there are no 'ifs' and buts'. Never in my lifetime have the rights and demands of people been clearer. And the people of the Chagos and their supportersare remarkable. They have fought back tenaciously and courageously, and they will win - I have no doubt about that.

"Yes, sometimes it seems the world never changes, that great power is invincible but the world is always changing and the great power that denies justice to the Chagossians and despoils their homeland is rotten at the heart. It is time for all freedom- loving peoples to stand up for the return of the Chagos - Mauritians, British, Americans. A victory for the Chagos will be a victory for every one of us," he wrote in an email.

Over and above the financial and military problems currently being faced by the US, several other developments give reason to hope that the situation will be unblocked. Lalit cites namely Arvin Boolell's robust recent intervention at the UN General Assembly, the Chagos Refugee Group's case in front of the European Court of Human Rights and the entry into force of the Pelindaba Treaty, which aims to make Africa a nuclear weapon free zone.

"We've got to pressurize the Mauritian government into using this mechanism," asserts Lindsey Collen. Indeed, this treaty, in principle, affords, Mauritius the right to request the conduct of weapons inspections on Diego Garcia. For some reason, Port Louis has chosen not to pursue this avenue with any perceptible amount of zeal. Hopefully, Lalit's international conference will make this inertia untenable and motivate the authorities to take the bull by the horns. The gathering will also be the perfect opportunity to thrash out a "global strategy" for how best to get the Chagos back. Creative thinking is vital. With regard to the creation of a Marine Protected Area, for instance, Lalit believes government can show the plan up for the subterfuge it is by submitting an application to transform Diego Garcia, one of the largest coral atolls in the world, into a UNESCO world natural heritage site.

The horseshoe-shaped island would also make a wonderful weather station for the detection of tsunamis in the western Indian Ocean. In isolation, these proposals might seem incongruous, outlandish even but, taken together, they could contribute to building a head of steam against the presence of the US military in the Chagos.

"We're trying to enlarge our support base, to come up with a series of initiatives that will help pile pressure on the authorities," explains Ram Seegobin. He argues convincingly that the traditional approach to the issue has been glaringly ineffective. "Since the 1970s there has been a tendency to focus on bilateral discussions. The problem with such negotiations is that they imply a power relationship."

And as the minnow of this relationship, Mauritius usually ends up drawing the short straw. In addition, the US and the UK have been very adept at using economic arguments (think sugar and textiles) to prevent Port Louis from succumbing to any nationalist fervour. As the balance of world power shifts eastwards, such forms of dissuasion will become increasingly tenuous. Ram Seegobin is also quick to dismiss the recent election of a Tory/LibDem government in the UK as yet another false dawn. "Every one knows that foreign policy is decided by the mandarins at the Foreign Office, by the same people who decided on the dismemberment of the Chagos."

For Alain Ah-Vee, the moral imperative to shut down the military base on Diego Garcia is more powerful than ever. "The base is the root of the suffering of the Chagossian people. Closing down the base will be the beginning of the end of their suffering." And Lalit has very little time for those peddling the official line that the archipelago will be restored to Mauritius once it is no longer needed for military purposes. For, as Lindsey Collen explains, the US and UK governments will always find a reason to retain control over Diego Garcia.

"At first, they said they needed the base in the fight against communism, then as a control base for the Global Positioning System and then in the war on terror. Next, they'll argue that it's needed in the fight against piracy." Lalit is one of the only political parties to have shown any sort of consistency on the issue over the years and the upcoming international conference is in tying with its indefatigable advocacy for the Chagossian community. As the example of Manta Air Base in Ecuador shows, it's never too late to right a wrong, even when the high and mighty of the world are doing their utmost to perpetuate it. Yet, the Ecuadorian example offers another salutary lesson: even people power has its limits government also has to play its part in the fight for justice. The international conference will certainly drive that message home.

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