Chagos, a long wait for Mauritius until UK leaves
The United Nations has decided that the sovereignty of the Chagos Archipelago lies with Mauritius. The United Kingdom and the United States believe that the UN’s views on the matter are inappropriate. Mauritius says that UK will further isolate itself on the international scene by holding on to the islands.
The United Nations celebrates its 75th anniversary on 26 June. For the small island state of Mauritius, this “thing” (‘le machin’), as General De Gaulle called it in 1960, embodies hope following decades of struggle to restore its sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago.
The islands were excised from Mauritius in 1965, before it gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1968. Diego Garcia, the largest of the Chagos islands, was then leased by Britain to the United States, for use as a military base.
True to its mission to give a voice to the voiceless, the United Nations “served Mauritius pretty well”.
“The United Nations has allowed Mauritius to be part of this large committee of nations where we have been able to network and exchange views. Its very principle of self-determination has enabled us to lay our claims,” said Ambassador Jagdish Koonjul, the permanent representative of Mauritius to the United Nations.
On 25 February 2019, the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) concluded that the “decolonisation of Mauritius was not lawfully completed” in 1968.
On 22 May 2019, the United Nations General Assembly voted an overwhelming 116 to 6, in favour of a resolution demanding that the United Kingdom withdraw “its colonial administration” from the Chagos Archipelago within six months.
The UN also stressed that it is urgent to proceed with the resettlement of Chagossians and urged the UK “to cooperate” with the process.
The United States, Hungary, Israel, Australia and the Maldives backed the UK in the vote and 56 countries abstained, including France and Germany. China and Russia, the other two permanent members of the Security Council, voted in favour of Mauritius as did India.
Britain and the USA vehemently rejected the decisions of both the Court and the Assembly, as they are “not the appropriate forums” to resolve what in their view is purely a “bilateral matter between two States”.
Unlawful British occupation
Britain failed to leave the Chagos Archipelago by November 2019, as instructed by the UN.
“A response,” wrote Philippe Sands, legal counsel for Mauritius at the ICJ, “that placed it [Britain] in the rogue-state company of apartheid-era South Africa, which in 1971 defied a similar opinion from the International Court on the status of Namibia”.
Mauritius called UK “an illegal colonial occupier”.
Meanwhile, the island is garnering global support for its cause. The African Union and the Non-Aligned Movement back Mauritius on the Chagos issue. As did Pope Francis when he visited the island in September of last year.
30 cross-party British MPs – including Labour, SNP, LibDem – signed a letter, on 19 June, calling on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “immediately act on the ICJ ruling”.
“We are concerned that the government’s refusal to return sovereignty of the Chagos Islands risks undermining our country’s credibility in these matters on the world stage,” wrote the MPs.
In February 2020, the United Nations published an updated world map where the Chagos Archipelago is clearly depicted as part of Mauritius and no longer as ‘British Indian Ocean Territory’ which is how the UK government continues to refer to the archipelago.
Henri Marimootoo, veteran journalist at Le Week-End, a Mauritian weekly, told RFI the change is “a great leap forward”.
“In the context of the dispute between Mauritius and its former colonial master, it is very important that the UN insisted that the Chagos Archipelago is a Mauritian territory,” he said.
Blackmailed into ceding Chagos
Marimootoo wrote a series of articles, the Diego Files, after he examined pre-independence talks when UK declassified its records in 1997.
He says Britain “blackmailed” the Mauritian delegation led by Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam who will later become the island’s first Prime minister.
On 23 September 1965, Sir Seewoosagur met Prime Minister Harold Wilson who told him that “The Premier [Ramgoolam] and his colleagues could return to Mauritius either with independence or without it…. The best solution of all might be independence and detachment by agreement…”
According to Marimootoo, the UK records show that Wilson was advised by the Colonial Office to “take a tough line with this guy.”
“’This ‘guy’ refers to Sir Seewoosagur. It is not only contemptuous, like a master to slave attitude, but it clearly shows how Britain threatened the Mauritians ahead of independence. Wilson later wrote in his memoirs that it was ‘a fair deal’,” declares Marimootoo.
Britain insists that the 1965 “agreement” is legally binding and was confirmed in 2015 by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea arbitral tribunal.
“Any suggestion that Mauritian independence was conditioned on detachment is simply not based on fact,” Britain argues at the UN.
However, the ICJ clearly said that “it is not possible to talk of an international agreement when [Mauritius] was under the authority of the latter [United Kingdom]”.
“You see, the UK was both the buyer and the seller. On top of it, it is in complete violation of the 1960 UN Resolution 1514 which forbids a colonial power to dismantle a territory prior to its independence,” explains Marimootoo.
Diego Garcia, a crucial military base
In 1966, UK and the United States entered a “uniquely close partnership” to use the Chagos as a joint military base. The agreement now runs till 2036. To make this possible, all Chagossians (around 1,500) were forcibly removed between 1968 and 1973 and transported to Mauritius and Seychelles.
When Mauritius announced a visit to the archipelago early 2020, the United States reacted strongly. The US, through its Embassy in Mauritius, called it a “provocation that will severely damage relations between the United States and Mauritius”.
For the US, the islands’ status “as a UK territory is essential to the value” of the US/UK military base on Diego Garcia.
But Ambassador Koonjul told RFI that “Mauritius can certainly do what the UK is doing and even more”.
“Come 2036, UK will not be able to renew the US lease on Diego Garcia. But we, Mauritius, are prepared to give a 99-year lease to the United States,” he added.
Money for rights
Britain earmarked, in 2016, a support package of £40 million (over €44 million) for Chagossians in the UK, Seychelles and Mauritius. The funds cover support for improved access to health, education, employment and cultural conservation.
“The £40 million is meant to divide the Chagossians because Britain is in dire straits. It is facing mounting pressure from the Chagossians and the international community,” says Marimootoo.
He added that the funds are also meant to put Mauritius in an embarrassing position.
“How can Mauritius possibly tell the Chagossians not to accept any money? It’s the same divide and rule policy that has served Britain well in the past.”
Marimootoo believes that most Chagossians would like to live in UK.
“They know the value of money and that of a British passport. If they had to choose between living on the archipelago, in the UK or Mauritius, most of them would choose UK,” he says.
The British support package also includes visits to the various islands of the archipelago. Around eight have so far taken place since 2017, the latest being in February 2020.
“This is a trap,” Bancoult told RFI. “We cannot accept visits if our rights are not respected.”
He added that, apart from short visits to the islands, the Chagossians have received none of the other benefits promised in the support package.
“I was born on Peros Banhos, and I am to be treated like a visitor in my homeland, while there are foreigners paying six month permits to enjoy barbecues on our land. Belongers cannot be visitors!”
For Koonjul, the position of the United Kingdom is untenable.
“We don’t have an army to go to Chagos and just claim it back.
“Sooner or later, they [UK] will have to talk to Mauritius if they want to be respected as a nation committed to the rule of law.
“Don’t you think it is ironical that the UK, a founding father of the UN, should go against the very values and ideas it brought to this institution?”
Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morningSubscribe