Demonstrators from the Chagos Islands protested at a British defiance of a United Nations deadline to end their "illegal occupation" of the Indian Ocean archipelago in Port Louis on November 22, 2019. Picture Credit: JEAN MARC POCHE/AFP via Getty Images

A real decolonisation dispute

Nobody has asked the Chagos Islanders if they wish to be independent of Britain


This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Britain still retains a single colony in Africa — but not for much longer. Late last year, the Foreign Secretary James Cleverly quietly announced that the United Kingdom and Mauritius had begun negotiations on the sovereignty of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), also known as the Chagos Islands.

British sovereignty over the Chagos, which had hitherto been doggedly defended by successive governments, was becoming awkward to maintain after three international courts had declared them to be sovereign Mauritian territory. Britain was finding itself distinctly friendless on this issue in the United Nations.

Had Liz Truss not agreed to begin negotiations during her pointless premiership, the matter would probably have dragged on without resolution. As things stand, Mauritian sovereignty over the Chagos is all but guaranteed.

To many, it is a heart-warming example of the power of international law. A small state, armed with nothing but justice on its side, forced its powerful former colonial master to give up one of its most strategic overseas possessions.

Yet many Chagossians — the inhabitants of the islands whose forcible removal by Britain had become a cause célèbre — are unhappy. In January, Bernadette Dugasse, an exiled Chagossian, issued a pre-action letter to the Foreign Secretary alleging that the UK-Mauritius talks are unlawful as they “are being held without consulting her and the Chagossian people”.

Many Chagossians have little faith in the half-hearted Mauritian commitment

The claim has no prospect of success, but it has encouraged paranoid speculation in Mauritius, where newspapers mutter darkly that Dugasse and her supporters are British pawns trying to trigger the “Falklands option” of a sovereignty referendum among the Chagossian diaspora. The fear is that they might vote for continued British sovereignty, even though Britain was responsible for their exile.

To understand the Chagossians’ grievance, it is necessary to review the sorry tale of the BIOT, which does credit to no one. A group of atolls in the Indian Ocean, the islands were first settled in the 18th century by slaves brought over by the French to work on plantations. 

A dependency of Mauritius, both were ceded to Britain in 1814 after Napoleon’s defeat. For the next 150 years, the islands were nominally and invisibly governed by the governor of Mauritius, some 2,000 kilometres away.

In the run-up to Mauritian independence in 1968, the United States asked to build a military base on Diego Garcia, the largest of the islands. To satisfy the American demand, Britain detached the Chagos from Mauritius, with the agreement of the Mauritian government, in exchange for £3 million in cash. 

The Chagos became the BIOT, which was then depopulated under royal prerogative. The Chagossians were removed to Mauritius and the Seychelles, where they lived in squalor. 

Eventually, the Mauritian government, which had never cared much for the islands, had a change of heart. In 1982, Mauritius formally claimed the BIOT while Chagossians on Mauritius continued to live in poverty: Mauritius’s interest was in territory, not in destitute ex-plantation workers from an alien culture.

In the 2000s, fed up with Mauritius, a group of Chagossians moved to England, armed with British Overseas Territories citizen passports — a second-tier form of British nationality, but not British citizenship. Most settled next to Gatwick airport, where many of them work today. In all, they form a community (descendants included) of perhaps 3,000.

Meanwhile, in 2000, the Divisional Court in London declared the ordinance depopulating the islands to be ultra vires, but the House of Lords reversed this by a 3-2 margin. A decade later, Mauritius launched its successful international legal campaign against British sovereignty, relying on the principle of uti possidetis, which holds that colonies ought to achieve independence with their colonial-era boundaries intact.

In other words, from a legal point of view, the whole business has nothing to do with the Chagossians, whose shameful expulsion provided much of the moral force behind Mauritius’s case. Their wishes do not matter a jot. Mauritius is even reluctant to refers to the Chagossians as a “people”, lest it suggest they have a right to national self-determination.

The Mauritian government has already indicated it is happy to renew the American lease on Diego Garcia, thus making the the Chagossians’ return to the island impossible. Instead, it has suggested some might be allowed to resettle on one of the smaller islands nearby.

Many Chagossians have little faith in the half-hearted Mauritian commitment. They point to Agaléga, an island which Mauritius has leased to India as a military base. The Mauritian government has been accused of running down the island’s population by making life on the island impossible — exactly what the British did on Diego Garcia.

Their concerns are unlikely to be heeded. What matters to the international community is the unfinished business of decolonisation, not the fate of the Chagossians. International law ultimately remains, as it was intended, the law of nations, not of peoples. 

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