Mauritian PM snubs Princess Anne over Chagos Islands.The whole point about a visit by a member of the British Royal Family to a country within the Commonwealth is that it should take place without incident. However, things did not go to plan on Princess Anne's official four-day trip to Mauritius in December, when she became entangled in a fast-moving political storm regarding the disputed Chagos Archipelago, reports Sean Carey.
THE PRINCESS ROYAL WAS VISITING the palm-fringed Indian Ocean island of Mauritius to commemorate the landing of the British Army 200 years ago, which led to the transfer of Mauritian sovereignty to the UK from France under the Treaty of Paris in 1814. Little did she or her officials know that her arrival would coincide with the release of the first of approximately 200 Wikileaks of US embassy cables concerning Diego Garcia and the other Chagos Islands.
Although the Mauritian prime minister, Dr Navin Ramgoolam, met and exchanged gifts with the Princess Royal in his office and attended the state banquet held by President Sir Anerood Jugnauth in the evening, he did not attend either the ceremony at Bain-Boeuf beach in the north of the island or the reception that was held later at the British high commissioner's residence, the aptly named Westminster House, in Floreal.
Why the carefully crafted 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 Mauritian 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 last June to jointly manage with Mauritius another disputed territory in the Indian Ocean, the island of Tromelin, which only adds to the grievance about the behaviour of the country's most recent colonial master. In fact, the mourning 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 firm promises made before last year's British general election by the current UK foreign secretary, William Hague, and deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, boiled over at a ceremony to mark the "Special Day for the Commemoration of the Deportation of the Chagos Community" in Port Louis on 3 November.
Speaking at Quay C in the presence of Olivier Bancoult, leader of the Chagos Refugees Group, and other dignitaries, Dr Ramgoolam accused the former British prime minister, Gordon Brown, and his foreign secretary, David Miliband, of bad faith for failing to keep their promise made at the last Commonwealth Summit in Trinidad in November 2009 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 David Miliband on the afternoon of 1 April, which was deliberately timed to catch out the authorities in Mauritius where, because the National Assembly had been dissolved in preparation for the island's general election on 5 May, there was no time for a parliamentary debate or statement.
"It [the MPA] is an odious act of provocation against Mauritius," declared Ramgoolam during Princess Anne's visit in December, reiterating that his government would continue to refuse to accept the legality of either the British Indian Ocean Territory or the MPA, before adding that he was delighted that Miliband had lost the recent Labour Party leadership election. The Mauritius prime minister also stated that he regarded the UK's "indifference towards the suffering of the Chagossian exiles as a crime against humanity". He said that when he 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 strategically important military base--conveniently omitted from the marine reserve--it broke his heart.
"You cannot be insensitive," he said. "There are nuclear submarines and warships that are polluting the sea. 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, liars and cheats," the Mauritian prime minister added, fuming.
His uncharacteristically strong language caused astonishment amongst foreign diplomats on the island and in London. But Ramgoolam was absolutely right to highlight UK duplicity. In fact, the WikiLeak on Chagos released on 2 December, which coincided with the Princess Royal's visit, revealed that at a meeting with US embassy personnel in May 2009, senior British Foreign and Commonwealth officials boasted that the proposed MPA had been concocted as "the most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands' former inhabitants and their descendants from resettling in the BIOT".
But one person who flatly refused to take up the invitation to meet Princess Anne was Olivier Bancoult, 45, who was born on the island of Peros Banhos but who, along with the rest of his family, has been living in exile in Mauritius since 1968. Bancoult grew up to become the most prominent activist on behalf of his people and began the legal proceedings against the UK government in 1998, winning a series of spectacular legal victories in the High Court and Court of Appeal before narrowly losing the case by a 3-2 majority in the House of Lords in 2008.
"I did not want to meet her, especially after the Wikileak," Bancoult told New African. And he said that the revelations of Foreign Office skullduggery did not come as a surprise. "It's all very consistent with the way British officials have behaved towards us in the past," he observed. "Our fundamental rights have been trampled upon for years." Nevertheless, Bancoult thinks that the information about the true intentions of British officials concerning the establishment of the MPA has significant ramifications for the Chagossians' case which is currently before the European Court of Human Rights. "This is very important for our cause and we have instructed our lawyers to submit the new evidence contained in the WikiLeak to the court in Strasbourg."
Meanwhile, the Mauritius government is consulting its lawyers before deciding whether to take its claim of sovereignty to the Chagos Archipelago to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
A final point. After a day at Champs de Mars in Port Louis, the oldest horseracing course in the southern hemisphere, the Princess Royal flew back to London. No doubt she was relieved to go home because she would have been well aware of the furore surrounding the Chagos WikiLeak, not least because the British High Commissioner was summoned to appear at the Mauritian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But the Princess cannot claim that this major diplomatic incident has nothing to do with the Royal Family. After all, it was her mother, Queen Elizabeth II, who signed the Order in Council detaching the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius, which established the British Indian Ocean Territory, and another in 2004 when Jack Straw was Foreign Secretary, banning the Chagos Islanders from returning to their homeland.