UK to negotiate with Mauritius on “exercise of sovereignty” over Chagos

Exile organisations call for right of self-determination of Chagossian people

Diego Garcia atoll, where the military base is located.
Diego Garcia atoll, where the military base is located. Author: U. S. Federal Government
The UK has agreed to enter negotiations with the government of the Republic of Mauritius on the “exercise of sovereignty” over the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean. The announcement arrives 3 years after the International Court of Justice said London should decolonise the islands. Exile groups fear they will be left out of the process and are calling for the Chagossian people’s right to self-determination to be respected.

UK government’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs James Cleverly made the announcement 3 November. According to Cleverly, the start of negotiations was agreed by the UK and Mauritian governments. Both sides, he said, want to reach an agreement “by early next year.” The agreement should “resolve, on the basis of international law, all outstanding issues, including those relating to the former inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago.” Cleverly added that the agreement “will ensure the continued effective operation of the joint UK/US military base on Diego Garcia.” He pledged as well to keep the US and India informed.

Two of the major “outstanding issues” in the dispute to which Cleverly refers are, on the one hand, the right of return of Chagossian exiles to their homeland, and on the other, which country should exercise sovereignty over the archipelago.

What happens with Chagos?

Before taking a look at those issues, let us remember that the Chagos Archipelago is located in the Indian Ocean, between the Maldives —the closest country to them—, Madagascar, the Seychelles, and Somalia. It is made up of 7 atolls with more than 60 islands. The largest of them is Diego Garcia, where the military base Cleverly talks about is located.

The Chagos Islands were uninhabited until the late 18th century. The British, who controlled them at the time, settled slave labourers from Mozambique, Madagascar, and Mauritius. Those people made up the islands’ first permanent population.

The UK administered Chagos as part of the colony of Mauritius, further south in the Indian Ocean. In 1965, three years before granting independence to Mauritius, London separated the Chagos and created a new administration under direct London rule —the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).

In 1966, at the height of the Cold War, the UK signed an agreement with the United States to lease them a military base at Diego Garcia. The current lease expires in 2036. From 1966 to 1973, the UK expelled the entire population of Chagos —1,000 to 2,000 people, depending on sources— from the islands, to prevent them from interfering with the base.

That population included, on the one hand, recently arrived workers from Mauritius and the Seychelles, and on the other, the natives of the Chagos Islands —the so-called Îlois— who were the descendants of the slave populations that had arrived since the late 18th century, as mentioned above. The Îlois, over nearly two centuries, had developed a culture and identity of their own on Chagos, including a distinct language —the French-based Chagos Creole.

The British-ordered deportation caused the Chagossian people to go into exile in Mauritius, the UK, and the Seychelles. Exile organisations have since denounced that the deportation was done without respect for the human rights of the people and claim that many fell into extreme poverty. The organisations are demanding the right of return in a legal battle that has been going on for decades. The groups also demand that the UK make it easier for people of Chagossian descent to obtain UK nationality and, as for Mauritius, they denounce that the country discriminates against them on the basis of their origin.

What has changed?

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) concluded in February 2019 that the decolonisation of Mauritius in 1968 was not legally complete because the separation of the Chagos three years earlier was not based on a free and genuine expression of the will of the people concerned, as well as because the separation violated Mauritius’ right to its territorial integrity. Consequently, the ICJ said, retaining Chagos was contrary to international law.

Accordingly, the ICJ opined that the UK is “is under an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible” and called on member states to “co-operate with the United Nations to complete the decolonization of Mauritius.”

For three years, London has been saying it would not transfer control of Chagos to Mauritius as long as the archipelago was necessary for the defence policy of the UK and its US ally.

However, The Guardian believes that the UK government has come to realise that its refusal to negotiate was negatively affecting its reputation —London suffered a serious defeat at the United Nations Assembly in 2019 on this issue— and, more specifically, its ability to maintain and establish alliances in the Indian Ocean region, one of the arenas of competition between the Western powers, India, and China.

Meanwhile, Washington has received a significant public offer: if London transfers sovereignty over Chagos, the Mauritian government is willing to lease the Diego Garcia base to the US for another 99 years.

The rights of the Chagossian people

Chagossian exile organisations have welcome the opening of the horizon for return to their homeland, but are sceptical of the process underway. The UK Chagos Support Association said several times that it is essential that the Chagossian people have the final say in any decision to be taken on the archipelago, including which country should exercise sovereignty over it. The Chagos Refugee Group has meanwhile called for the islanders to have “the right to determine the future of the islands.”

The Chagossian Voices association, in a statement 5 November, called for “the inalienable rights to self-determination” of the Chagossian people to be observed. The organisation believes that the UK and Mauritius are violating these rights, and calls for an international arbitration that includes the interests of the Chagossians.

Among the proposals so far advocated from exile was that Chagos should become an autonomous overseas territory under British sovereignty, with a status similar to that of Gibraltar or the Falklands. The transfer of sovereignty to Mauritius would make such a scenario impossible.

Falklands and Gibraltar react

And it is precisely these two UK territories that have reacted to the announcement of the UK-Mauritius negotiations.

In the Falklands, the Legislative Assembly has issued a communiqué stating that the situation of the South Atlantic archipelago, claimed by Argentina, “cannot be compared” with that of Chagos. The text recalls that, in a referendum in 2013, 99.8% of Falklanders supported continued UK sovereignty. Lawmakers insist there can be no negotiations on Falklands sovereignty unless the islanders themselves ask for them.

On the same day, Argentina’s Foreign ministry was interpreting the issue in a very different direction. The South American country considers the Chagos decision to be a “precedent” that places Argentinian sovereignty over the Falklands “closer,” and calls on the UK to negotiate.

In Gibraltar, Chief Minister Fabian Picardo recalled in a tweet that in 2002 the Gibraltarian people “voted ‘no’ to diluting” their “exclusively British sovereignty by 99% to 1%.”

In contrast, Spanish ambassador to the UN Agustín Santos said last June that the ICJ’s decision on the Chagos was “a living doctrine” for resolving a colonial dispute.