David Snoxell is Co-Ordinator of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) APPG.
The Chagos Archipelago of 54 islands, formerly administered as a dependency of the British Colony of Mauritius, was excised by Britain in 1965, three years before Mauritius was granted independence.
It was renamed the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) and its inhabitants (about 1,500) were deported to Mauritius and Seychelles between 1968-73 to make way for a US military base on the largest island, Diego Garcia. Depopulation enabled the British Government to avoid having to administer the islands and to report annually to the UN on its latest colony.
A settlement of the Chagos dispute made little progress in 2020 as the Government remained intransigent and Covid-19 led the Mauritian Government to postpone a proposed resolution at the UN General Assembly to the 2021 session next September.
Clearly, the people who have most to lose from this delay are the Chagossians, especially those who were deported. Many have died without seeing their homeland. Britain’s failure to recognise the right to self-determination and to decolonise Chagos is the focus of international opprobrium which shows no sign of abating.
There is hope, however, in that Joe Biden and his Democratic Administration are more likely to want to see an end to the Chagos saga, as it would provide a long-awaited victory for human rights and the rule of law and a secure future for the US base on Diego Garcia. At its 80th meeting on 2 December, the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-party Parliamentary Group (APPG) decided to write to the President-elect to enlist the support of the new Administration for an overall settlement of the issues. The Chairman did so on 15 December.
The APPG hopes that the United States will play its part in bringing about an end to these historic injustices. Members anticipate that the new Administration will see that an end to the Chagos tragedy would be in the US longer term interest and outweigh any short-term advantage of maintaining the status quo. It would also be in the UK’s best interest.
In its Advisory Opinion of February 2019, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) decided that “the decolonisation of Mauritius is incomplete, and that the UK is under an obligation to bring to an end, as rapidly as possible, its administration of Chagos”. It also referred the resettlement of Chagossians of Mauritian origin to the UNGA to be addressed during the completion of the decolonisation of Mauritius.
There is a simple solution to the resettlement question. While the Foreign Office remains opposed to the UK being responsible for resettlement and its costs, Mauritius is willing to facilitate and help fund resettlement for those wishing to return, once there is agreement on the future of the Territory.
The UK has always maintained that the Islands will be returned to Mauritius when no longer needed for defence purposes. The 53 Outer Islands have never been and will never be needed for defence. Only Diego Garcia, where the US base is situated, is required, and even there the US is not opposed to a trial resettlement, providing others pay.
An UNGA resolution of May 2019, endorsing the ICJ Advisory Opinion, was adopted by an overwhelming majority of member states. Only five states voted with the UK. The resolution mandated the UK to implement the findings of the Opinion by 22 November 2019 including “cooperating with Mauritius in facilitating resettlement of Mauritian nationals, including those of Chagossian origin, in the Chagos Archipelago, and to impose no impediment or obstacle to such resettlement”. Passing responsibility for resettlement to Mauritius is the obvious solution. The US has never been opposed to resettlement, especially if it were on the Outer Islands, 130 miles from the base.
The Chairman of the APPG also wrote to Dominic Raab and pointed out the need, after 55 years, for a radical review of policy concerning resettlement and the future of the Chagos Islands, in the light of the ICJ Advisory Opinion and the UNGA resolution. The temporary postponement until the 75th session of the UNGA of further action by Mauritius provides a window of opportunity for discussions on resolving these issues.
In view of the lack of progress since the APPG was established in December 2008, the APPG also decided that the Foreign Affairs Committee should be asked to hold an inquiry into policy regarding the Chagos Islands and the exiled Chagossians. The FAC last did so in 2007/8 when it concluded that “there was a strong moral case for the UK permitting and supporting a return to BIOT”. The APPG also supported a proposal for a public inquiry into the conduct of the FCO’s management of the international aspects of BIOT since 2000. This might follow on from an FAC inquiry. It was decided to keep the idea under active consideration and revisit it in 2021, depending upon progress.
The Government’s Integrated Review on Foreign, Defence, Security, and Development policy, which the APPG has urged should consider the future of Chagos, will conclude early next year. In his statement on the Review to Parliament on 19 November, the Prime Minister said that “next year will be a year of British leadership when we preside over the G7 and celebrate the 75th anniversary of the first UN General Assembly” and we would “bolster our global influence.”
It would be a fitting way of celebrating the 75th anniversary if the UK and Mauritius were to present to UNGA a joint draft resolution enshrining an agreement of the issues which the UNGA could then endorse. If we are to bolster our global influence and British leadership, the UK will first need to bring an end to the Chagos saga.
Much depends on whether the FCDO wants to resolve these issues or prefers to let them smoulder on indefinitely. The UN has already altered its world map to show that Chagos belongs to Mauritius and a decision expected shortly by the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea may endorse Mauritian ownership of the islands. At the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, the UK faces a challenge to its membership on behalf of BIOT.
With the sun in danger of setting on Global Britain, Chagos is one colonial millstone we could well do without in our international relations and foreign policy. And it would, after 20 years, bring an end to the on-going national litigation and the threat of further international litigation against the UK, thus saving the taxpayer further legal bills. So far, the government has spent approximately £10 million on this.