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Artillery Row

Britain should stand up to Mauritius

The British Government must make it clear that it will not allow a foreign country to threaten British citizens

Imagine that a foreign country, which ostensibly maintains friendly relations with the United Kingdom and which receives British foreign aid, decides to claim a sovereign British territory as its own. Not content with redrawing its official maps and pursuing its claims through diplomatic channels, it makes it a crime for British officials, or anyone else in the UK, to contradict its claim.

No need to imagine: this is exactly what the Republic of Mauritius, a member of the Commonwealth has done. Mauritius is currently in negotiations with the UK government over the future sovereignty of the Chagos Islands, officially known as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). Chagos contain Diego Garcia, one of the UK’s most important military bases and a key counterweight to China’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific. Yet, faced with such a blatant act of intimidation, the United Kingdom government has so far remained silent.

As I describe in my new report for Policy Exchange, in 2021, Mauritius passed a law which made it criminal to misrepresent to the public Mauritius’s sovereignty over the Chagos with the support of a foreign government. Conveniently, the 2021 law defines foreign government in a way which only includes the United Kingdom government. Anyone in breach of the law can be imprisoned for as long as ten years.

Most extraordinarily of all, like Hong Kong’s infamous National Security Law, the new Mauritian law is extraterritorial, meaning that it applies to anyone, anywhere in the world, regardless of their nationality. A British MP who asserted that the Chagos are sovereign British territory in Parliament, for instance, would be liable to be imprisoned in Mauritius for up to a decade, even though he or she would be doing nothing more than affirming the settled legal position.

The threat is far from being theoretical. It has been reported that the law has already been used by the Mauritian Government to intimidate a family-owned British company based in Surrey into stopping their production of pound sterling coins for the British Indian Ocean Territory, which they made under a contract with the British government.

The Mauritian law has also created panic among Chagossian communities in the United Kingdom

The Mauritian law has also created panic among Chagossian communities in the United Kingdom, many of whose members want the islands to remain British and vehemently oppose the transfer of their homeland to Mauritius, which systematically discriminated against them after they were forcibly resettled there in the 1970s. The Mauritian government claims to be the champion of Chagossians’ rights; yet it regularly attacks them as stooges of the British government. Members of the Chagossian community have little doubt that the new law is aimed at shutting them up.

As I previously argued in another Policy Exchange report with two distinguished lawyers, the Mauritian claim to the Chagos Islands is an extraordinarily weak one. The Chagos are thousands of miles away from Mauritius, and were only grouped together as a result of an accident of colonial legislation.

In 1965, the Mauritian Government agreed to sell the islands to the United Kingdom so they could be used for defence purposes, and for almost two decades afterward, it consistently affirmed British sovereignty over the Chagos. It is only in recent decades that Mauritius has, notwithstanding its earlier position, begun to campaign for sovereignty over the islands.

The British Government must make it clear that it will not allow a foreign country to abuse criminal law to threaten British citizens, or those who live under our Government’s protection, for exercising their right to free speech and affirming the legal status quo. Unless Mauritius repeals this outrageous law, the UK should impose diplomatic consequences on Mauritius, as well as consider suspending its foreign aid, which amounted to more than £3m last year. Otherwise, we will be handing a new weapon to the world’s authoritarian regimes.

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