“Mauritius has not been able to do away with the terrible colonial-era law of discrimination against gays”
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“Mauritius has not been able to do away with the terrible colonial-era law of discrimination against gays”
With the tenure of the British High Commissioner coming to an end, Weekly speaks to Jonathan Drew about his time in Mauritius. We ask him about the Chagos polemic, how his government reacted to the vote at the UN General Assembly, the political state of Mauritius and our institutions. He also talks about discrimination against the LGBT community and how his husband was perceived during his stay.
Sadly, these are your last few days on the island. Where to from here?
I will be going back to London, home which is lovely. And I will be head of the Foreign Office’s Economic Growth and Business Department.
Good. You are an economist, aren’t you?
I have an economics background but I have to say that these days I’ve done a little bit of everything and diplomats are known to be jacks of all trades and masters of none.
You seem to have mastered diplomacy, because you have managed to sail through in spite of the problems that our two countries have had recently. You came smack in the middle of the Chagos polemic. How did you manage survive unscathed?
I did come at an important moment in this ongoing issue between our two countries. What I am proud of is that in my time as British High Commissioner, the UK made two offers that it had not before: on joint management of the outer islands and forming a solid defence and security relationship. If these proposals had been accepted and we built confidence, we could have had a solution that would have satisfied both countries. What I feel sad about is that that opportunity has been missed and, in so doing, we are back where we began. Where we were in August 2014. At the time, we were waiting for the UN Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) tribunal. My successor will wait for the International Court of Justice (ICJ) opinion. What I have learnt from my time here – and some my hair has turned grey and some has been lost in the process – is that resorting to lawyers is not something that friends do and it doesn’t solve issues in a way that they need to be resolved between friends.
This friendship card has been played by the UK for decades now…
This is not my card. I would refer you to Anerood Jugnauth’s words that the UK and Mauritius were friends and that he hoped that the friendship would not be affected and that Mauritius taking the UK to court was the act of a friend. But I have not had any friends that have taken me to court. Obviously, this is therefore a very serious issue for the bilateral relationship.
We haven’t had any friends either who have taken part of our country and then told us that they want to remain friends.
The agreement was made in the 1960s…
Before Mauritius was independent…
…by the Mauritian Council of Ministers who were elected by universal sufferage. So this was not a case of the UK speaking to the UK. This agreement was made by people who were elected by universal sufferage, by the Mauritian people and there were hard negotiations over days and weeks.
What I was saying is that you cannot take part of someone else’s country and still expect that country to continue to treat you as ‘a friend’, can you?
This was an agreement between friends. And it was not like after independence the Mauritian government turned around and cried foul on day one, or day 365 or day 3,365…
Are you suggesting that there is a limit beyond which you cannot claim sovereignty over your own country?
I am simply saying that when you look at history, it’s not as one-sided as some might want it to appear.
OK, you look on your side, and we will look on ours. But at the end of the day, there was still the UNCLOS tribunal that ruled in our favour…
The UNCLOS tribunal looked at several things, including whether Mauritius was the coastal state (ie had sovereignty). The tribunal said it had no locus to do so. What it did do was cement into international law the agreement that was made. The ruling said that the UK had breached a number of law of the sea articles but that the Marine Protected Area (MPA) existed and said that we should sit down and work through the issues where there is disagreement. And there are larger non-binding paragraphs, and I would encourage everyone to read that judgement. And the tribunal said that it was an agreement.
What about the UN General Assembly (UNGA) vote?
The UNGA was voting on whether to refer two issues that Mauritius put forward to the ICJ, but Mauritius failed to win, even for this (referral rather than agreement) more than half of the member states to vote with it… despite claiming it would win 150 votes for referral.
You really are a diplomat! Look at the way you are twisting things.
(He didn’t seem amused) If you study the way that the UN works, this is actually extremely important. Mauritius failed to convince half the member-states. Less than half of the member states voted for referral and even then that did not necessarily mean they agreed with Mauritius.
And how many voted with you?
Many abstained. And some that abstained were unhappy that Mauritius put in the UN at all. Some of the permanent representatives of member states who I met in New York said that directly to me.
So you are happy with the outcome?
My government is not happy.
Why are you not happy?
We don’t think that using this mechanism is appropriate. Mauritius and the UK agreed a clause when signing onto the ICJ that states that they would not take another Commonwealth country to the ICJ. So using this mechanism of a UNGA motion was a way to circumvent this clause and is unprecedented. My government has been very clear that it will fight our case at every stage.
What exactly are you fighting for? For keeping islands that don’t belong to you?
That is obviously not my or my government’s view. We have sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago that we administer as the British Indian Ocean Territory. We have an internationally acknowledged agreement that when we no longer need the territory for defence purposes, that we will cede it.
And which century will that be in?
(Laughs) You are starting to sound a lot like you did when we spoke in 2014!
You came to Mauritius just before the general election. What are your feelings today, nearly three years after the election?
My feelings are the same as when I just came. I would still use lots of positive phrases: I think Mauritians have been enormously successful, in half a century since independence they have done marvellous things. That’s because of the people and the leadership. I have met many Mauritians and I have been impressed with the quality of their thoughts, the quality of teachers and academics, the business people and the NGOs. Not every country has that. It’s easy to criticise, but it’s also important to stop and look at the glass half full. Mauritius has a lot to offer, its people, its warmth of character and its intellectual ability and business savvy.
How do you feel about our democracy?
I have been to many, many countries. I think you have a lively system of democracy. The electoral commission works well. No one has challenged the results of an election. You have had 10 elections and five changes of power and leaders.
All from the same families. Does that not shock you?
Who am I to question electors? People stand and they vote for people to represent them. Why would you criticise people on the grounds that they are the sons or daughters of politicians if they have been elected in their own right. I don’t understand that, genuinely. Why should sons or daughters of politicians not be allowed to stand? Are you going to discriminate against people on the grounds of who their fathers were? I think in a democracy, it is important to challenge where challenge is fair and to remember that if you make an unfair challenge, you can undermine democracy. And I see Mauritius as a healthy democracy.
OK. How about a father resigning his position as prime minister, but not resigning his seat in parliament, and passing the prime ministership to his son. Is that also okay?
(Laughs) I know you are trying to trick me. I know you are asking me about a constitutional law point. I am not a constitutional lawyer. I know that Mauritian democracy is strong and healthy and when people need to make legal or constitutional points, they will do so through the right channels. The institutions are healthy…
Are you saying we have healthy and independent institutions in this country?
(Laughs) Your democratic institutions are strong – your electoral commission for instance.
(Hesitates) I have been here for three years; I can only answer for three years. I would have to be alive for 300 years to look at every single institution in Mauritius so that you don’t pull out one and say ‘Look how rotten this is and that dreadful British High Commissioner who said that all institutions are healthy.’
You qualified us as a health democracy. In a healthy democracy, you don’t just have the right to elect dictators every five years. You also have institutions that are healthy and independent and are doing the right thing. With that in mind, do you feel that that we are still a healthy democracy?
I think it is a healthy democracy.
So our institutions are fine, in your opinion, are they?
(Laughs) I have been a journalist too. I can see a headline forming in your mind that the British High Commissioner said this or that about that particular institution.
Now let’s come to your personal involvement with NGOs. In the first interview you granted us when you came, you said that you were going to work to support NGOs dealing with the rights of LGBTs. Have you been able to do anything concrete on that front?
What I said was that I would engage with all NGOs here. I have been to meetings of the Young Queer Alliance and I have been to the LGBT Pride celebrations this year. The EU, to which the UK gives funds, has supported local LGBT NGOs. In essence, being gay is not a choice; it is not a lifestyle; it’s just the way you are born. Mauritius is a rainbow nation, but there is just this bit of the rainbow that shines a little less brightly than the other parts. And I think equality is important. It is 50 years this week since the UK decriminalised homosexual sex. Last year, the Seychelles was brave enough to do the same thing. I hope Mauritius will debate and understand that everyone should be born equal and will look to change this. Communities can disagree – but should never derogate basic human rights. It is not for me as a foreigner to decide what should happen here. It is for Mauritius to decide this. I think leadership on issues which are less popular but which have a human rights component are just as important as anything else. This shouldn’t be something that divides political parties, but something that unites political leaders here. Unity through diversity can only be strengthened by respecting everyone no matter what sexuality they are born with, how they gender-identify, what community background they have or what faith they have.
Well, the law is one thing, but discrimination is another. Do you think there is discrimination against LGBT people here?
If there is no equality before the law, the answer is obvious. But this is a question you should ask your readership and Mauritian leaders.
What they tell me is nowhere as rosy as what you are telling me…
Tell me what they tell you.
That there is a lot of discrimination in all spheres, including employment.
There is a good equal opportunities law in place here that does take into account discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and which, if people feel discriminated against, they should use. If people don’t use the law, there will still be discrimination. There is discrimination everywhere, even in my country. I believe in challenging it. I have challenged it in my own country and I think that Mauritians, if they feel that it needs to be challenged, would challenge it here. Also, I did meet the leaders of the Council of Religions and I was quite impressed by the fact that even where we disagreed, I am gay so there was obvious disagreement there, they still work together to try to overcome any tensions there might be between religions. And I found myself agreeing with them, and the great texts that they represent, on so many moral issues. There is a lot more that binds us together and there should be ways to respect in disagreement.
Any nice memories you are taking back with you to the UK?
I feel like saying ‘everything’. I am going to miss those moments when I can walk quietly down these paths, seeing some of my favourite waterfalls, meandering along the south coast and seeing turtles… I have made it up Le Pouce Mountain, Piton de la Petite Riviere Noire and I have made many walks and picnics on the shores of Mauritius. I love the fact that it has so many flavours of the world: churches, temples and mosques… and who could ever forget Ganga Talao or Aapravasi Ghat. Above all, I will miss the Mauritian people.
What will you not miss?
I am not going to miss the 13 kilogrammes that I have gained from the fantastic Mauritian food. This shows the warmth of the reception I have had in Mauritius.
Let me try again: Any personal memorable moments?
One of the most joyous occasions in my life happened here. I came with my partner as civil partners and, in December 2015, he proposed to me. So, we are leaving married, as husbands and I am so proud that this happened whilst we were in Mauritius. I hope Mauritians of every sexuality would be able to enjoy a similar moment to what we had here.
Any sad memories?
Yes, Grant, my husband, is still not invited to state functions, unlike other spouses of high commissioners and I feel sad about that. On the last occasion, I was sitting at a table with other diplomats and politicians and husbands and wives and I explained to them – and official Ghanaian guests who were shocked - why I was leaving early. I went home to have dessert and coffee with my husband. I was celebrating Mauritius’ independence but Mauritius has not been able to do away with the terrible colonial-era law of discrimination against gays. So I will go home sad on that point. But I hope that Mauritians in general will have enough respect for human dignity for that to change in the future and I say to LGBT Mauritians they should never give up their courage and hope for change: it can and it does get better.
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