The Chagos Islands: A Lost Nation?
A rock and a hard place?
Emmanuel Ally, a 21-year-old third-generation Chagossian exile, describes the Chagos Islands as being like a lost nation (1) whilst Namira Negm, legal counsel of the African Union said: “It is unthinkable that today, in the 21st century, there is a part of Africa that still remains subject to European colonial rule.” (2)
With pressure continuing to build on London, the Chagos Islands descendants are caught between a rock and a hard place. Having been forcibly removed by the UK between 1968 and 1974 and sent to Mauritius, the Seychelles and the UK, many lived—and continue to live—in abject poverty. If the UK did decide to return the archipelago to Mauritius, some Chagossians are anxious what this might mean for their potential resettlement. (1)
Diego Garcia is a little-known atoll located south of the equator in the central Indian Ocean and is the largest of the islands of the Chagos archipelago. First discovered by the Portuguese, and then settled by the French, it was transferred to British rule after the Napoleonic Wars. (3)
Diego Garcia was a so-called dependency of the what was once known as the British Colony of Mauritius until the country received independence from London in 1968. Several years prior to independence, discussions took place between the UK and US on the potential strategic use of certain British-owned islands in the Indian Ocean for defence purposes, specifically the island of Diego Garcia. During decolonization London decided that the Chagos archipelago would be detached from Mauritius for inclusion in the newly created British Indian Ocean Territory. Henceforth the islands were purchased from Mauritius for £3 million (about CAD$5 million). Following the transfer of sovereignty, the UK allowed the US to build a base on Diego Garcia, to serve as a landing spot for bombers that fly missions throughout Asia. (1)
In a 2018 submission to the United Nations’ highest court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), Mauritius maintained that the transfer of the archipelago was done under duress in exchange for independence. (4)
Recent Court Ruling
In response to Mauritius’ appeal, a recent non-binding court ruling has thrown the islands’ future into doubt. On February 25, 2019 the ICJ ruled by a majority of thirteen to one (the only dissenting judge was an American) that the British act of transferring sovereignty was illegal under international law and that the Chagos Islands must be returned to Mauritius “as rapidly as possible.” (2) Although the decision is only advisory, it does set an interesting precedent and, despite strong protests from London, will now be debated by the United Nations General Assembly. Delivering judgement, ICJ President Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf ruled that “the United Kingdom is under an obligation to bring an end to its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible, thereby enabling Mauritius to complete the decolonization of its territory in a manner consistent with the right of peoples to self-determination.” (5)
An uncertain future
The future of the Chagos archipelago depends on what course of action the UK decides to take. The US will be loathed to give up a strategic base and weaken their logistic support, but if London decides to keep the islands in defiance of the ICJ ruling it would be stain to British prestige. Should the islands be eventually transferred to Mauritius, they would have the sole right to decide on the future of the islands and their former inhabitants as well as on what grounds to negotiate with the US regarding the current airbase.
As the future of the islands continues to hang in the balance, many aging Chagossians simply want an opportunity to return once and for all to a place they will always call home.
Actions speak louder than words
When it comes to foreign policy, the UK is keen to forge a principled and ethical path on the world stage. Although admirable, issues like the Chagos Islands leave it caught in a tangle of hypocrisy. It is one thing to criticize other countries for their human rights abuses but quite another to do so when there is a festering sore in your very own backyard.
Many would say that we live in an imperfect world and the demands of realpolitik mean that countries like the UK can continue to fight for human rights even though its own house may not be in order. This is a flawed argument. If the UK develops the courage to acknowledge and make amends for its past mistakes, it will start to move beyond the politics of convenience and become a more powerful—and convincing—advocate for human rights around the world.
Impact Resolutions creates the space to step back and consider the bigger picture—to scratch beneath the surface and explore the many issues a community may be facing. By working together and actively listening to the concerns of rights and title holders, we are able to draw upon a rich seam of experience to break new ground and test new theories to benefit the entire community.
(1) BBC News. 2019. "UK's Chagos Islands descendants feel like 'lost nation.'" BBC News. <https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-48426031> Accessed July 7, 2019.
(2) The Guardian. 2019. "UN court rejects UK's claim of sovereignty over Chagos Islands." The Guardian. <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/feb/25/un-court-rejects-uk-claim-to-sovereignty-over-chagos-islands> Accessed July 7, 2019.
(3) Wikipeida. 2019. "Diego Garcia." Wikipeida. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diego_Garcia> Accessed July 7, 2019.
(4) CNN. 2019. "UN court ruling puts future of strategic US military base Diego Garcia into question." CNN. <https://edition.cnn.com/2019/02/25/asia/uk-chagos-mauritius-intl/index.html> Accessed July 7, 2019.
(5) International Court of Justice. 2019. "Legal consequences of the separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965." International Court of Justice 2019. <https://www.icj-cij.org/files/case-related/169/169-20190225-01-00-EN.pdf> Accessed July 7, 2019.