Last week we carried a report on the Chagos archipelago and Guyana’s vote in the General Assembly of the United Nations on the question of its sovereignty. It should be said that there are two issues involved: the first is the matter of legal sovereignty and the second is what the Chagossians – the former inhabitants of the islands – want at this stage in their exile. The second is customarily subsumed under the first, and while that was not an issue some years ago, we may have entered a phase where it has now become one.
The vote had its origins in one of the most disgraceful stories of British colonialism in the modern era. The UK had acquired the Chagos Islands after the Napoleonic Wars in 1814, and since they are small and in an isolated location, it eventually made them part of the administration of Mauri-tius, which, it might be noted, is more than 1,000 nautical miles distant. In 1965, however, prior to Mauritius obtaining its independence, Britain severed the Chagos archipelago from it and after adding three islands from the Seychelles group created the British Indian Ocean Territory.
According to Pravid Jugnauth, a former Mauri-tian prime minister, Harold Wilson, the British Labour prime minister of the time, threatened that independence was contingent on the detachment, and eventually Mauritius was paid £3 million for the territory. Since then, the UK’s defence has been that it bought the islands. However, in February this year the ICJ in an advisory ruling said that what Britain did could find no defence, because UN resolutions barred the dismembering of a territory prior to independence. Mauritius became independent in 1968.
The reason for the UK keeping hold of the Chagos archipelago was because the US wanted to establish a military base on its largest island, Diego Garcia, and in 1966 the US duly leased the land there from the UK for $1 a year. However, it was also reported at the time that Britain received an $11 million discount on American Polaris nuclear missiles. The base was to become the largest outside the North American mainland and played a role in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as more sinisterly being associated with two rendition episodes.
The worst of the story, however, occurred between 1967 and 1973 when all the inhabitants of the islands – 1,500-2,000 − were forcibly evicted from their homeland, and deported to Mauritius and the Seychelles. They were allowed to take one suitcase, and were given no financial assistance. In addition, all their pet dogs were killed by the British. It was not until 1982 that the Chagossians received any financial aid from the UK, and even then that amounted merely to the meagre sum of £3,000 per person. Furthermore, only the ones settled in Mauritius were given it; those in the Seychelles received nothing.
A new twist was injected into the saga in 2003, when a substantial number of Chagossians won the right to obtain British citizenship. They mostly settled in Crawley, West Sussex, where according to reports life has for the most part been very difficult, and it is now said that they number about 3,000. Britain has agreed to take some of them back to the islands on brief visits, and it was reported that about 100 went in 2006. However, in 2010 the UK created a massive marine reserve around the atolls with a view, it seems, of setting up the excuse of environmental preservation to prevent the return of the inhabitants. Perhaps in response to the negative publicity, the government offered £40 million in support for all the Chagos communities, including English language classes and training programmes, although that does not seem to have been disbursed as yet.
In 2017 Mauritius asked the UN to request an advisory opinion from the ICJ on the legality of Britain’s actions in removing the Chagos Islands from its jurisdiction. The UN did so, and the court accepted the case, although it might be mentioned that a number of Chagossians protested for “self-determination” outside the ICJ. Three months ago, as referred to above, the court ruled in Mauritius’s favour. Since 1965 Britain has said it will return the Chagos Islands to Mauritius when they are no longer needed for defence, but realistically speaking, nobody expects that to happen in the foreseeable future.
And now the UN General Assembly has required that the UK return the islands to Mauritius within six months by an “overwhelming” vote of 116 to 6. For its part, Mauritius has indicated that it is prepared to finalise an agreement with the UK, the US or both, allowing the military base to remain on Diego Garcia. That plan too is highly unlikely at this point to fructify.
There is another problem for Mauritius, and that is the passage of time. The evictions took place more than fifty years ago, and it will only be the older generation of Chagossians who could claim to have actually lived in their homeland. One presumes that a substantial proportion of them, particularly those in the UK where the largest community resides, were not even born there, while the youngest members will have been born in Britain. They may have no great attachment to Mauritius, and according to Mr Allen Vincatassin, President of The Chagos Islands Council in the UK who was interviewed on Britain’s Channel Four News, British-based Chagossians would prefer if the islands were a British Overseas Territory, a phenomenon which is not unfamiliar to us here in the Caribbean.
The interview was referred to in a letter from Mr A J Chapman of the UK, published in our Friday edition, who also said that the exiled inhabitants would rather live as UK citizens on Diego Garcia than as Mauritians. The interview also alluded to the bad treatment Chagossians had endured in Mauritius, and it is certainly true that early on they had complained about being treated as second-class citizens there. In addition, the Council appears to suspect the motives of Mauritius in terms of any deal it might make regarding the base from which it hopes to derive rent, and that it will not take the rights of the Islanders to return into account.
So the issue now is not just a straightforward one of Mauritius’s rights of sovereignty in relation to the Chagos Islands, but also brings into the picture the right of the archipelago’s diaspora to “self determination.” Britain, which will almost certainly ignore the UN resolution, presumably may not be averse to this latest development which theoretically it could turn to its own advantage. That apart, however, democratic polities generally consider that the wishes of the people of a territory should not be overridden. Leaving aside the UK’s sovereignty rights in the Falkland Islands, for example, which in this instance are on solid ground, Britain has argued that the wishes of the Falkland Islanders are paramount, and they for their part have made their position clear. It is partly for this reason that under the current government Guyana has supported Britain in this case.
What is unfortunately not known at this stage is whether the position of the Chagos Islands Council reflects that of the majority of Chagossians, wherever they live, or whether this is a minority view. Whatever the case, one would have thought it important to find out what the views of the Islanders are; after all, they are the ones who have suffered in a real sense, not Mauritius which lost control of a territory which prior to 1965 represented little more than a connection created for the purposes of colonial administrative convenience. From Mauritius’s point of view too, one might have thought, it would be in its interest to canvas the Islanders for their views, and make proposals about how they would be accommodated should the UK indeed relinquish control.
The UN vote, as mentioned above, did not consider the ramifications of the expulsion, only the technical sovereignty issue, and where that was concerned, Britain had no legal leg to stand on. As we reported last week, even on that limited matter, Caricom could not manage a unified opinion, since Barbados, Trinidad and St Lucia abstained from the vote, and Dominica and Haiti did not even bother to vote at all. The other members, like Guyana, voted in favour of the resolution. One might have thought that on a question of colonialism the opinion of Caricom governments would have been unanimous given their nations’ histories, but apparently not. One doubts that those who did not give support to the resolution refrained out of concern for the future of the Chagossians, a position which perhaps arguably could have been defended. One suspects, however, that the reason was of an entirely different cast, and that all the smaller countries in this region came under pressure, not just from Whitehall, but also from the US which wants its military base to remain in British controlled territory. So much for the capacity of Caricom to forge a unified vision, even on matters where they share a common experience.