Chagos: An Unexpected Boon

By offering the British passport to the Chagossian community as a whole, the UK can now speak in the name of its citizens and cut Mauritius out of the equation


As part of its strategy to sustain the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), the UK government has been active on two fronts: (1) by insisting that it has sovereignty over the Chagos and concurrently oppose Mauritius’ claim to sovereignty; and (2) oppose the exiled Chagossians’ fight for a right to return to the islands.

On the first front, the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion in February 2019 was a severe blow, not a knock-out, to British pretentions. The UK knows far too well that the ICJ’s opinion may constitute an important moral victory for Mauritius, but the actual control and occupation of the Chagos will remain with the British. It has at the same time insisted that it is in no doubt about its sovereignty over the Chagos, and the ICJ had no business to intervene in a strictly bilateral dispute.

On the second front, the UK government has tried every trick in the book to keep the Chagossians in exile. It was part of its policy to ensure that the creation of the BIOT should be used exclusively for military purposes. The lesser the oversight, the better. A permanent community would be for too risky to their military operations.

The recent offer of the UK to extend citizenship to the descendants Chagossians should therefore be viewed in that perspective – that of the UK’s policy to keep the Chagossians in exile. The ICJ opinion of February 2019 has rightly denounced the UK in perpetuating its policy which sought to ensure that “there will be no indigenous population except seagulls”. It has asked that the UK collaborates with Mauritius for a return of the Chagossians as part of its international obligation to complete the process of decolonisation. The lure of the British passport for the Chagossians may well therefore be an attractive trade-off to keep the BIOT free of any settlement. The strategy is barely veiled and past events have shown why.

In the year 2000, following the judgment of the UK High court, which declared the Immigration Ordinance 1971 unlawful and paved the way for a return of the Chagossians, the islanders were hopeful of an imminent return after Foreign Secretary Robin Cook announced that the UK government would comply with the judgment. Cook however commissioned a feasibility study to investigate the implications of an eventual return to the islands. The study almost predictably concluded that would be prohibitively expensive and insecure. The study also warned of the dangers of climate change and the adverse effects it would have on the Chagos islands. The door to the Chagos was once again closed, and the feasibility study became the pretext for further Orders in Council which denied the Chagossians a right of return.

In 2004, in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, Cook’s successor, Jack Straw, had recourse to new orders in council to exile the islanders afresh, taking advantage of the conclusions of the feasibility study. The good faith of the UK was once again put in doubt, when a few months later the Rashid documents established that the feasibility study was manipulated and could not be relied upon.

On the strength of a House of Lords judgment which found that the 2004 Order in Council prohibiting resettlement was not unlawful, the UK government went on to establish a Marine Protected Zone around the Chagos islands. Once again the UK was caught unawares when documents emanating from Wikileaks established that the motivation behind the creation of a Marine Protected Zone was to forbid the Chagos islanders the right to go back to live in their homeland. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) has made it clear that Mauritius has an actionable interest in the Chagos and its surrounding territorial waters.

At a time when it is championing the rule of law and freedom of the Ukranian people, the UK finds itself in a tight and delicate corner under the glaring watch of the international community. How would it reconcile its blatant policy of flouting international law on the one hand and posturing itself as champion of democracy and human rights on the other? It has been seriously criticised for its double standards when it comes to the treatment meted out to Falklands islanders. It has invested heavily in ensuring the safety and welfare of the Falklands islanders unlike the case of the Chagossians. Whilst it has been argued that the plight of the Chagossians and those of the Falkland islanders differ, there is a human dimension to both cases. In the case of the Chagossians, they have been denied the right to return to their homeland, whilst in the case of the Falklands islanders their rights to their homeland were restored at considerable cost after a ten-week war between Argentina and the United Kingdom in 1982.

The offer of the passport therefore is not without any ulterior motive, perhaps a distraction from the torrent of criticisms for its mistreatment of the Chagossians, but also an indirect means to meet the conditions of the ICJ for a return.

Whilst it was foreseeable that the second and third generations of Chagossians would welcome the British passport as an unexpected boon, only time will tell whether they will also encounter the same fate as their predecessors who have settled in UK since the early sixties and frankly displayed little interest in returning to the Chagos islands.

The Mauritian government for its part has always maintained that its right to exercise its sovereignty is inextricably linked to the return of the Chagossian community, but it remains stuck at the first hurdle. The desperation and vulnerability of the Chagossian community may well play once again in the hands of the UK.

By offering the British passport to the Chagossian community as a whole, the UK can now speak in the name of its citizens and cut Mauritius out of the equation.

* Published in ePaper 1 April 2022

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