Could the protracted dispute over the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean finally be drawing to a close? Britain steadfastly insisted for decades that it was the rightful owner of what it called the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).
But it did an apparent about-turn on 3 November 2022 when Foreign Secretary James Cleverly announced the United Kingdom (UK) had entered negotiations with Mauritius ‘on the exercise of sovereignty’ over the ‘Chagos Archipelago/BIOT’ and that it expected a resolution early in 2023.
The Chagos Archipelago comprises over 60 islands in the Indian Ocean about 2 000 km north of Mauritius – and only about 1 000 km south of the Maldives. Yet it was once part of what was then the British colony of Mauritius – until 1965 when departing Britain, in effect, purchased it from Mauritius just before the latter’s independence in 1968.
London did this to allow the United States (US) to build a military base on the largest Chagos island, Diego Garcia. Washington required that not only Diego Garcia but the whole archipelago be uninhabited by locals. And Britain obliged – reportedly in exchange for a US$14 million discount on US Polaris missiles – by forcibly removing all the Chagossians to Mauritius, Seychelles and the UK.
The aggrieved Chagossians have been agitating ever since to be allowed to return to their homes. They also want to be financially supported to do so, and to receive reparations for having been deprived of their homeland for over 50 years.
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report published last month accused the UK and US of having committed ‘crimes against humanity’ against the Chagos people. They called on them to launch full and fair investigations of those responsible.
The report, which calls Chagos ‘the last British colony in Africa’, notes that the UK has over the years made small amounts of compensation to some Chagossians resettled in Mauritius. However it says it hasn’t nearly compensated all the displaced islanders fully for the injustices they suffered – and should do so now.
Britain has so far been swimming against the international tide. The International Court of Justice on 25 February 2019 and UN General Assembly Resolution 73/295 were clear that the Chagos Archipelago formed an integral part of the territory of Mauritius. Britain rejected the court’s opinion and the General Assembly resolution demanding it abandons Chagos by November 2019, incurring condemnation from Mauritius, the African Union and others.
Now London seems to have had a change of heart, though the contents and progress of the negotiations remain secret. However many questions remain, mostly concerning possible differences between the interests of Mauritius and those of the Chagossians.
Mauritian MP Muhammad Reza Uteem of the opposition Mouvement Militant Mauricien told ISS Today he believed the UK planned to hold a referendum among the scattered Chagossians. It would ask them if they wanted the Chagos Archipelago to remain British; to be returned to Mauritius; or to become independent. Mauritius flatly rejected such a referendum, he said, as its sovereignty over Chagos was ‘non-negotiable.’
Yet he conceded that perhaps most Chagossians would, if offered such a choice, opt to remain part of Britain simply because the UK had more resources to offer.
Milan Meetarbhan, a constitutional expert and former Mauritian ambassador to the UN who was previously part of Mauritius’s legal team arguing this issue, told ISS Today that there had been no official mention of such a referendum. He suggested the UK might have floated the possibility as leverage in the negotiations.
Nevertheless he did say that Mauritius was reluctant to use the term ‘Chagos people’ – as HRW very explicitly does in its report – as that implied the Chagossians had a right to independence. Asked if there were significant differences between the interests of Mauritius and those of the Chagossians in this matter, he suggested there was no single Chagossian interest as the community had become so divided. He said many Chagossians seemed to have settled there.
Some of those in Mauritius might wish to return to Chagos, but he wondered if this was a viable option. ‘I don’t really see them parting ways with the government of Mauritius. [Although] this has been a very strong political and emotional issue, I don’t really see this new generation who have lived in a totally different [world] would want to go back and start from scratch because there is no economic activity at all on the other islands of the archipelago (other than Diego Garcia). But I can understand why they have always been asking for it. It’s a genuine interest.’
There are also differences between Mauritius and the Chagossians over Diego Garcia. Mauritius has made it clear that if it regained the Chagos Archipelago, it would be prepared to extend America’s lease over its military base. But it has also suggested that though the Chagossians would be allowed to return to the other islands of the archipelago, this would not include Diego Garcia. Those originally from that island have insisted they should enjoy the right to return there.
Meetarbhan believes the UK may be aiming to resolve the sovereignty dispute with Mauritius as part of a broader security framework for that strategic part of the Indian Ocean. He notes that in his 3 November 2022 statement, Cleverly, for the first time, recognised India’s interest in the issue, also adding a security dimension. He said an agreement would allow the UK and Mauritius to significantly strengthen their cooperation on Indian Ocean security, working with key regional allies.
Wrapping a return of the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritius in this broader security package that includes the US and India could be a face-saving tactic for London to avoid looking like it was backing down, Meetarbhan suggested. And to avoid setting a precedent for similar situations in the Falklands and Gibraltar.
It could also act as a cover for Mauritius having given away territory to the US – and to India, to which Mauritius seems to have secretly ceded the Agalega islands 1000 km to the north – for military purposes. Uteem suggests India is being roped in as an ally of Mauritius to strengthen its claim against the Maldives on its maritime jurisdiction over the waters around the Chagos islands.
It’s clear that the interests of Mauritius and the Chagossians don’t entirely align. So HRW’s insistence that the Chagossians must be fully consulted in the negotiations about the future of their homeland is valid.
Yet Cleverly’s statement – though mentioning that the aim of the negotiations will be ‘to resolve all outstanding issues, including those relating to the former inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago’ – also makes clear they are not part of the formal negotiations.
The putative referendum Uteem refers to may not be the way to seek their opinions. However it’s hard to justify not bringing the Chagossians more formally into the negotiations. They are, after all, the main aggrieved party in this sorry saga.
Peter Fabricius, Consultant, ISS Pretoria
Image: © CPA Media Pte Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
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