New Delhi: With Mauritius preparing for another confrontation at the United Nations General Assembly, India is back in the thick of the backroom negotiations. The US and UK are trying to convince New Delhi’s close ally in the Indian Ocean to modify and even dilute the provisions of the draft resolution.
On February 25, UN’s judicial organ, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) opined that the UK should give up control of the Chagos archipelago “as rapidly and possible” and said that it had wrongfully evicted islanders to pave way for leasing a military base to the US on the largest island, Diego Garcia.
Three months after the ICJ advisory opinion, Mauritius – and its supporters – are going back to the General Assembly. On May 22, Mauritius’s 89-year-old minister mentor, Anerood Jugnauth, will again lead his delegation to table a resolution that calls on the UK to implement the resolution. The resolution will be introduced on by Senegal on behalf of African Union.
Indian officials expect the resolution to be passed with a large majority.
Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Kumar Jugnauth had announced in parliament on May 3 that his country was proceeding with the tabling of the draft resolution, after the UK formally conveyed that it was going to disregard the ICJ opinion.
In a letter from Prime Minister Theresa May and a phone conversation with foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, both stated that the UK cannot hand over the Chagos archipelago, as long as it was required for defence purposes.
This effectively means the island group will not see any change of hand, as it is difficult to understand how its ‘purpose’ as a US military base could end given the current security implications in the Indian Ocean.
Mauritius was also told that Brexit negotiations had made it difficult to schedule a visit by a UK minister.
The Mauritian prime minister also added that Hunt cautioned that “if Mauritius were to proceed with action at the United Nations, this could adversely impact on relations between Mauritius and the UK”.
The text of the draft resolution was circulated in New York earlier this week, which further peaked an intense period of lobbying by the UK, buoyed by the US’s diplomatic muscle.
With Mauritius known to have very close consultations with India on every stage, the UK and US have been leaning on New Delhi to help dilute the resolution.
Indian officials had pointed out that Mauritius backing off from the resolution was out of the question, given the political reality in the island nation.
In seven months, Mauritius will go to elect a new parliament in December. This will mean that Pravind Jugnauth, who had taken over his father’s place at the party and official position, will be seeking re-election for the first time.
“The ICJ opinion has already been a political victory for Anerood Jugnauth. Now he would like to cap it to ensure certain outcome at the polls for his son,” said a senior government official.
Therefore, the Mauritian government would certainly like the resolution to have “strong language”.
Last time in 2017, there had been high-level requests at the level of National Security Advisor to Indian officials to use their good offices with Mauritius to withdraw the resolution referring the Chagos issue to the ICJ.
Officials indicated that India has been active behind the scenes to facilitate communication between the parties.
Sources also said that India had helped Mauritius to talk to each other face-to-face convey directly to high-level officials in Washington about their assurance of continuity of the Diego Garcia base. India had been behind Mauritius publicly making this assurance at the United Nations in 2017.
“Mauritius had said this publicly several times, but they wanted to make this assurance face-to-face at higher levels in US than they were getting access, so we helped out,” said a senior government official.
India supports Mauritius due to their intensely close bilateral relationship. At that same time, New Delhi wants to have an uninterrupted American presence in the region, especially with China continuing to make inroads in the Indian Ocean.
Indian officials felt that the sense of urgency was different between the Washington and London, with a worried UK using its diplomatic levers for a more diluted text.
“While a UNGA resolution is not binding, it does set a legal precedence. Therefore, UK is trying its best to keep the text as favourable as possible,” the official said.
The original draft had provided a deadline of six months for the implementation of the ICJ advisory opinion, which is also “under negotiation”.
India would prefer a formula that refers the matter to the UN Special Committee of Decolonisation, which could discuss the Chagos issue in detail. This would allow for a breathing space as all the stakeholders contemplate a possible solution.
A referral to Committee of Decolonisation would be a step down for UK, as it does not consider Chagos to have been “colonised”.
About its own vote, India has very limited option. It had voted in favour of the 2017 General Assembly resolution, but had not been a co-sponsor in order to keep “the channels open” with the other side. Officials indicated that it was not feasible for India to abstain keeping in minds its relations with Mauritius and history in decolonisation – and therefore, a yes vote was the only possibility.
When contacted, a spokesperson of the British High Commission in New Delhi told The Wire asserted that the joint defence facility “helps to keep people in Britain and around the world safe from some of the most challenging threats to international peace and security, including those from terrorism, organised crime and piracy.”
On the ICJ order, she noted that the Advisory Opinion is not a legally binding judgment, but advice provided to the United Nations General Assembly at its request. “The Government respects the ICJ and has considered the content of the Opinion carefully but does not share the Court’s approach”.
Echoing the official position, the BHC spokesperson said that UK stands by the commitment to return Chagos when no longer required for defence purposes. “Mauritius is a valued friend, trading partner and member of the Commonwealth. We are fully committed to our bilateral relationship with Mauritius and want to deepen and intensify engagement,” she added.