Mauritius & the Case of the Stolen Island


Jessamy Nichols, Africa CorrespondentLast Modified: 18:40 p.m. DST, 6 March 2014

British Flag, Photo by Daniel S. HagyPORT LOUIS, Mauritius - If someone asked you to point out Mauritius on a map, would you be able to? Most would likely say they had no idea where the tiny island is located. Beyond that, most people also wouldn’t know that Mauritius is entangled in a decades-long battle with the United Kingdom and United States over an archipelago, particularly one of its smallest islands: Diego Garcia.

The dispute began when the Chagos Archipelago was given up by Mauritius during independence negotiations in 1965, coinciding with the height of the Cold War. Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the time, wanted control over the area in order to make a deal with the United States who during this tense era was looking for a military base in the Indian Ocean.

In return for letting the United States put a military base on Diego Garcia, the UK in return earned improved ties and a substantial financial contribution to their Polaris submarine program. Cold War priorities were clearly at the forefront of everyone’s agendas at the time, so the UK had no inhibitions in forcefully removing Chagos’ citizens in order to make room for the US military.

Fast forward a few decades and in 2010, the UK further overstepped their boundaries and established the world’s largest Marine Protected Area around the archipelago, reportedly in order to prevent former residents from returning. This was clearly a strategic move made in order to set the stage for the 2016 expiration date of the US lease on Diego Garcia. The lease allows for a 20 year extension if renewed, so if Mauritius wants to regain sovereignty over the islands, they have to move swiftly and effectively.

Mauritius vigorously wants to regain control over the territory for means of economic growth and development. The location serves as a gateway to the ever-expanding markets in mainland Africa, and having governmental control over the region gives Mauritius a seat at the table concerning ocean economy, development, trade, and security. The tiny country has even made vast strides in recent months to create an extensive Ocean Economy Roadmap that aims to reach Mauritius’ potential as an ocean state within the next 10 years. However, the success of this roadmap hinges on uniting Diego Garcia back under Mauritius’ territory boundaries.

In the short term, their plans include becoming a major hub for petroleum products, container shipment, port services, and seafood processing. Additionally, they aim to expand on their tourism industry and develop more commerce around ocean-based leisure. Mauritius’ fish export volume has almost doubled since 2005, so the coupling of actively pursuing their ocean economic potential with regaining access to Diego Garcia would have immense benefits on their economy.

Beyond the next few years, the government of Mauritius aims to work on renewable energy, value-added services, exploration of hydrocarbon and mineral resources, and their expanding ocean economy. The island is also striving to become a center of excellence for Ocean Knowledge by 2025. Of course, these lofty goals will be hard to obtain if Mauritius is blocked from regaining sovereignty of Diego Garcia by the self-interests of the UK and US. Discussions regarding the issue will likely occur throughout 2014, so be on the lookout to see how this battle plays out.

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