Britain’s “outright defiance” of a UN deadline to hand the Chagos Islands to Mauritius by Friday, in a final act of African “decolonisation”, has been condemned by Mauritius and the globally-scattered communities of exiled islanders.
The UK’s refusal to end its occupation of the Indian Ocean archipelago is expected to be marked by protests outside the UK high commission in the Mauritian capital, Port Louis, organised by those who were forcibly deported more than 40 years ago and their descendants.
The Labour party’s election manifesto, published on Thursday, pledges to allow Chagossians to resettle in their homeland.
Earlier this year, the UN general assembly voted by an overwhelming majority of 116 to six countries in favour of a motion condemning Britain’s occupation of the remote islands and demanding what the Foreign Office terms British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) be reunified with Mauritius.
An advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in The Hague, found the islands had been illegally severed from Mauritius in the 1960s. The president of the ICJ, Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, urged the UK and other member states to “complete the decolonisation of Mauritius”.
The UK regards neither the ICJ judgment nor the UN motion as binding.
The UN vote in May, which underlined Britain’s diplomatic isolation in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, set a six-month deadline for UK withdrawal, which expires on Friday. The Chagos archipelago is the last African territory to be held by the UK.
Diego Garcia, the largest island in the archipelago, is now a strategically-important US military base used by American bombers on long-range missions and, in the past, for rendition flights carrying terrorism suspects.
Speaking at the UN last month, Jagdish Dharamchand Koonjul, the permanent representative of Mauritius, said: “The response of the United Kingdom to [the UN deadline of 22 November] has been one of outright defiance.”
Koonjul described the UK’s position as disrespectful of the ICJ and the UN. “The time has come for the United Kingdom to comply with the international rule of law which it has so long championed,” he said.
The UK’s representative, Dame Karen Pierce, said Britain remained clear that it held sovereignty over BIOT and was providing a £40m support package to improve the livelihoods of Chagossians.
About 1,500 islanders were forcibly deported from 1968 to 1973 so Diego Garcia could be leased to the US for an airbase. They have never been allowed to return apart from a few short “heritage” visits.
Prof Philippe Sands QC, who represented Mauritius at The Hague, said: “The failure to give effect to the [ICJ] ruling and general assembly decision is lawless and deeply regrettable, a reflection of a continuing colonial mindset. It undermines the UK’s supposed commitment to the rule of law.
“It will serve merely to enhance that sense of international isolation, no different from South Africa in relation to Namibia in the 1970s.
“In the eyes of many, the forcible removal of the Chagossians, and the continuing refusal to allow them to return, after the ICJ and general assembly have spoken so clearly, is akin to a crime against humanity – all the more so after 22 November. The court has made crystal clear that Chagos is and has always been a part of Mauritius.”
Most of the islanders and their descendants live in Mauritius, the Seychelles or the UK, where there have been attempts to deport third-generation Chagossians on the grounds that even if their grandparents would have been entitled to UK residency they are not.
Olivier Bancoult, the leader of the Chagos Refugees Group UK, said protests were planned outside the British high commission in Port Louis on Friday.
He said: “[We] call on all world leaders – and particularly the UK government – to take this opportunity to engage directly with the Chagossian community … and to recognise Chagossians’ right to determine their own future, and the future of their islands.
“It’s time the government engaged directly with the Chagossian community across the world, deliver support for Chagossian return and offer proper support for those still living in exile.”
Among those who have called on the UK to respect the ICJ ruling is the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who sent a letter to Theresa May in the summer expressing concern that “the government appears ready to disregard international law and ignore a ruling of the international court and the right of the Chagossians to return to their homes”.
Third-generation Chagossians who come to the UK via the Seychelles or Mauritius can face deportation. The Home Office initially told Jeanette Valentin, who lives in Milton Keynes, that both of her daughters, Taniella and Nesta, would be removed when they reached the age of 20.
Lawyers intervened and successfully obtained citizenship rights for both teenagers. “They can now go to university in Britain,” a relieved Valentin said at the time.
Alexander Finch, a solicitor at the law firm Fragomen, who took up her case, added: “Had Jeanette been able to pass on British citizenship to her children this application, and its costs, would never have been necessary.
“We hope the Home Office will review its policy towards third-generation Chagossians recognising their unique historical connection to Britain.”
A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “The UK has no doubt as to our sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), which has been under continuous British sovereignty since 1814. Mauritius has never held sovereignty over the BIOT and the UK does not recognise its claim.”
Chagos Islands dispute: UK misses deadline to return control
The UK has been called an illegal colonial occupier by Mauritius after it ignored a deadline to return control of an overseas territory to the island nation.
The UN had given the UK six months to give up control of the Chagos Islands - but that period has now passed.
Mauritius says it was forced to trade the small archipelago in the Indian Ocean in 1965 for independence.
The UK says it does not recognise Mauritius' claim to sovereignty.
Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) insists it has every right to hold onto the islands - one of which, Diego Garcia, is home to a US military airbase.
"The UK has no doubt as to our sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), which has been under continuous British sovereignty since 1814," it said in a statement.
"Mauritius has never held sovereignty over the BIOT and the UK does not recognise its claim."
The Chagos Archipelago was separated from Mauritius in 1965, when Mauritius was still a British colony. Britain purchased it for £3m - creating the BIOT.
Mauritius claims it was forced to give it up in exchange for independence, which it gained in 1968.
In May, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelming in favour of the Chagos Islands being returned - with 116 states backing the move and only six against.
The UN said that the decolonisation of Mauritius "was not conducted in a manner consistent with the right to self-determination" and that therefore the "continued administration... constitutes a wrongful act".
The UN resolution came only three months after the UN's high court advised the UK should leave the islands "as rapidly as possible".
As the six-month period came to a close, Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth said the UK was now an illegal colonial occupier.
Over the decades Mauritius has staked its claim, and finally - particularly after the Brexit vote - Britain's traditional allies in the international community have started to desert Britain, to abstain or to vote against it at the UN.
And the UN is now taking pretty significant steps to say: "Britain you are behaving appallingly, this is still colonialism - give it back."
Britain has ignored those calls - so what might any repercussions look like?
Sanctions would be slow, incremental and largely institutional - in the sense that Britain is going to find itself squeezed at institutions that it has traditionally seen as very important.
Britain no longer has a judge on 14-seat International Court of Justice in The Hague, and it's going to start to see UN maps reflecting the legal fact that the UN sees this islands as belonging to Mauritius.
The deadline is not binding, so no sanctions or immediate punishment will follow - but that could change.
At the time of the UN resolution, the FCO said the UK did not recognise Mauritius' claim to sovereignty, but would stand by an earlier commitment to hand over control of the islands to Mauritius when they were no longer needed for defence purposes.
Between 1968 and 1974, Britain forcibly removed thousands of Chagossians from their homelands and sent them more than 1,000 miles away to Mauritius and the Seychelles, where they faced extreme poverty and discrimination.
Britain then invited the USA to build a military base on Diego Garcia.
U.S. planes have been sent from the base to bomb Afghanistan and Iraq. The facility was also reportedly used as a "black site" by the CIA to interrogate terrorism suspects. In 2016, the lease for the base was extended until 2036.
The UK has repeatedly apologised for the forced evictions, which Mr Jugnauth has said were akin to a crime against humanity.
In 2002, the British Overseas Territories (BOTs) Act granted British citizenship to resettled Chagossians born between 1969 and 1982. But the 13-year window has left some families divided.
By Pauline Bax -
From a one-story house with mustard-colored walls off a bustling road in Mauritius, Olivier Bancoult is defying the U.K. by plotting a return to the tiny tropical island where he was born.
A 55-year-old native of the remote Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, Bancoult heads a group of mostly elderly women who, like him, were expelled shortly after Britain bought the archipelago from its then-colony Mauritius in 1965. His campaign has taken him to London and the United Nations and secured him a meeting with Pope Francis.
As a young boy, Bancoult and the other roughly 2,000 inhabitants of Chagos were deported to the U.K., Mauritius and Seychelles. The new owners then gassed the residents’ pets, closed the coconut plantations and allowed the U.S. to build a military base on the biggest island of Diego Garcia. With the exception of the air force base seen as crucial for U.S. operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the U.K. has kept the islands free of inhabitants by declaring an area the size of France a protected marine reserve in 2010. Only a few people are allowed to visit briefly each year, and they can’t stay overnight.
“My mother died here, without ever having been back to her home,” Bancoult said in an interview. “I won’t let that happen to me.”
At a time when politicians in Britain are evoking its imperial past as the U.K. prepares to quit the European Union, the country is under international pressure to give up its last African colony, a sign of its diminished global importance when only 80 years ago it held sway over almost a quarter of the world’s population.
“What Britain is facing today is having to confront its colonial past, whether it’s Chagos or Northern Ireland,” said Philippe Sands, a London-based lawyer who serves as Counsel for Mauritius. “It’s the story of its empire coming back to haunt it.”
In February, the International Court of Justice ruled the 1965 excision of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius unlawful because it wasn’t based on the free will of the people concerned. In an advisory opinion, the court stated that the U.K. has an obligation to end its administration of the archipelago “as rapidly as possible.”
Then, in May, the UN General Assembly affirmed the ruling by an overwhelming majority, with 116 member states voting in favor of a resolution setting a six-month deadline for the U.K. to withdraw. Only six members rejected the proposal -- the U.S., Hungary, Israel and Australia among them. The deadline expires on Nov. 22.
“A UN General Assembly resolution doesn’t mean you have to comply, but obviously it’s very embarrassing for them,” said David Brewster, a senior research fellow at the National Security College in Canberra, Australia. “That’s what happens when you alienate your allies.”
At the end of his September visit to Mauritius, Pope Francis chided the U.K., saying it needs to respect the wishes of international institutions.
But things are unlikely to change overnight.
The U.K. argues it can’t give up the Chagos Islands for security reasons. It doesn’t recognize Mauritius’s claim over what it calls the British Indian Ocean Island Territory, or BIOT, a spokesperson for the U.K.’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office said in an email.
“The joint U.K.–U.S. defense facility on the British Indian Ocean Territory helps to keep people in Britain and around the world safe from terrorism, organized crime and piracy,” the spokesperson said. “The status of BIOT as a U.K. territory is essential to the value of the joint facility and our shared interests -– an arrangement that cannot be replicated.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has repeatedly said the U.K. should respect the international court’s opinion, cooperate with Mauritius and ensure the people of Chagos can return home.
The Chagos ruling bolstered the legitimacy of Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth as head of government and as an international negotiator, political analyst Catherine Boudet by phone from the capital, Port Louis. Jugnauth, who won an election last week after succeeding his father in 2017, has vowed to pursue the decolonization process with “unflinching determination.” But he’s also tried to allay concerns about the future of Diego Garcia, saying he has no objections to the base and is ready to enter into a long-term arrangement with the U.S.