The UK government has agreed to open negotiations with Mauritius over the ownership of the Chagos Archipelago

Mick the Ram

Jan 31, 2023

After years of frustration, the legal wrangling over ownership of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean continues to rumble on, with now a judicial attempt being launched to halt negotiations over their sovereignty, amid claims that they are being undertaken unlawfully.

The UK has held what are said to be productive discussions with Mauritius over the future of the archipelago in the hope of resolving matters and righting what are regarded as one of the great injustices of the postcolonial era.

Chagossians have campaigned to return to their islands since more than 1,000 people were forced to leave in the 1960’s and 70’s, but they say their opinions and views on how to proceed are being ignored, as they are left out of the negotiating processes, so various supporting movements are attempting to stop the talks until they can be involved themselves.

They were made to leave after the UK bought the group of more than 60 individual tropical islands back in 1965, in the lead up to the independence of Mauritius three years later. They promptly created a joint UK and US military base on Diego Garcia, the largest of those islands and many locals were deeply unhappy at their expulsion, having to relocate against their will and prohibited from returning permanently to their homes.

However, in 2019 it was ruled by the United Nations’ highest court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, that the detachment had been illegal and an order was made that they should be returned to their former owners. The resentment stems from those removed and still living, plus their descendants are being denied a voice, with them insisting they should be included in any decision making, not as is currently the case, just being told once anything is determined.

UK finally relent and agree to talk

Until last year, the UK resisted international pressure to begin talks about the islands, but finally relented and have stated that they hope to arrive at an agreement with Mauritius, who claim the islands as their own, sometime this year. Nevertheless, this prompted some angry responses with many former inhabitants in Mauritius, Seychelles and in the UK, seeking to pause talks so that they can be involved in any consultations. Feelings are running high, with demands for a referendum and insistence from Chagos Islander groups that they have a right to choose under which state they will be governed.

Crawley the new Chagos

Back in the sixties many of the islanders were unceremoniously dumped against their wishes in Mauritius and the Seychelles, more than a thousand miles away from their home. A high proportion of these and their descendants, have since made their way to the UK and formed communities, the largest being in Crawley, West Sussex, close to where they arrived at Gatwick Airport. Indeed some 3,000 Chagossians have taken up residence in the small south of England town.

Fear of the younger generation Chagossians

Finally in 2022 the government provided a legal route for descendants of Chagossians to obtain full UK citizenship, and although most of these welcome the right to return to the Chagos Islands, the younger generation, who know only of a home in the UK, are opposed to the notion of handing the archipelago back to Mauritius. They fear their new British passports could be taken back if Mauritius acquires the sovereignty.

Three separate organisations rule against the UK

The maritime law tribunal of the United Nations ruled that Britain has no sovereignty over the Chagos Islands and criticised the country for its continued failure to hand the territory back to Mauritius, this was in agreement with the rulings of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and a vote in the UN General Assembly.

Mauritian ambassador conducts ceremony

Last year the Mauritian flag was raised for the first time on the Islands since losing control to Britain, when a chartered boat, the Bleu De Nimes, full of scientists and evicted Chagossians witnessed a ceremony, led by the Mauritian ambassador to the UN, Jagdish Koonjul, as it took place on the Chagos atoll of Peros Banhos.

Champagne corks popped as he stated: “This is not something unusual, in fact it is normal for a nation to raise a flag over its territory.” He continued: “This is not an unfriendly act or a hostile act, it is what we believe is the right way to proceed in accordance with international law which has clearly stated that Mauritius is the sovereign power over the Chagos archipelago.” 

PM accuses the British

A pre-recorded message from Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth was also played. He described it as an “historic moment” and the PM said if the flags were removed, it would be considered as an act of provocation from the UK, pointing out that international law was on their side and accused the British of committing “crimes against humanity” in their actions over 50 years ago.

Foreign Office reaffirm sovereignty claim

However, although keen not to engage in a war of words, the UK Foreign Office remarked: “We have no doubt as to our sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory, which we have held continuously since 1814; moreover, Mauritius has never held sovereignty over the territory, so the UK does not recognise its claim.”

Emotional return trip

Also on the boat were some former islanders who were amongst those thrown off their remote archipelago by the British half a century ago. Olivier Bancoult called it a “great moment”, before accusing successive British governments of acting in a way that could only be described as “racist” for ignoring Chagossian demands for the right to return to live on the islands. “This is our birthplace; how can they deny us that right? It was a question which many were in agreement with. 

Two other returning islanders, Rosamonde Bertin and Suzelle Baptiste, danced with tears of delight, before recalling the moment when the regular supply ship, Nodvaer, which brought provisions from Mauritius every few months, moored itself off one of the smaller Chagos Islands, Salomon, and announced that it had no food on board. They said this was the first sign that the British were going to force them to leave. They reflected on having to pack a few wooden trunks with supplies, and rolled up mattresses, and leave behind a simple, yet blissful life.

The British colonial officials made it clear to them that the families would never be allowed to return to live on the newly-renamed British Indian Ocean Territories, part of which had recently been signed over, secretly, to the US for use as a military base.

Mauritian officials claim they were blackmailed by Britain into agreeing to surrender the islands, or forfeit the right to independence from the UK, which they secured in 1968.

Online meeting arranged for community points of view

The Foreign Office say that they recognise the diversity of views in the Chagossian communities in the UK, Mauritius and Seychelles and have assured them that their views are taken very seriously. They have promised that although negotiations will continue to be between the UK and Mauritius, they will engage with communities whilst those negotiations progress, and have organised an online meeting for people to air their views, scheduled to take place on 9 February.

Military base to remain

They have reiterated that any agreement will include the continued operation of the military base on Diego Garcia, and Mauritius have made the same commitment. Both parties are aiming to conclude a deal within the next few months, and plans are being put in place to send further expeditions to the islands to assess what exactly is required for resettlement, which would initially be on the outer islands, far away from Diego Garcia. It is highly likely however, that the Chagossians opinions will be considerably different.

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