By David Snoxell
RV ‘s article (‘UK: Stop the hypocrisy’) draws a rather misleading comparison between the disputes over the Chagos Islands and Falkland Islands. There are similarities between the two situations but dig deeper and they appear quite different. RV quotes from an opinion piece by the Foreign Secretary, about the Falklands, entitled ‘Islanders must be masters of their own fate’ in The Times of 21 January 12. It is important to get the facts straight so that an accurate comparison can be made.
The first British settlers came to the Falkland Islands from 1765 (not 1842 as RV states) when Britain first took possession of the islands, although it was not until 1833 that the Islands became permanently British. Spain and France had in the meantime taken turns at fortifying the Islands – even a Port Louis was established. The French name for Falklands is Isles Malouines, after St Malo from where the French expedition set sail. The independent state of Argentina was declared in 1816.
Britain took possession of the Chagos Archipelago from France in 1814. Slaves had been brought there in the 1780s by the French to work the coconut plantations. Chagos continued to be governed from Port Louis as a dependency of the Crown Colony of Mauritius until 1965 when the islands were excised to create a new colony – the British Indian Ocean Territory. In 1960 the Falklands was listed by the UN as a British colony and has been the subject of numerous debates and General Assembly resolutions ever since. BIOT, however, was kept off the UN agenda by the UK on the grounds that the people were transient contract workers from Mauritius and Seychelles. By 1965 the population of Falklands (2,100) was double that of Chagos. Between 1968-73 the Chagos population was removed against their will to Mauritius and Seychelles.
An essential difference between the Falklands and Chagos is that a condition of the excision was that the UK would return the islands to Mauritius when no longer needed for defence purposes, and this successive British Governments have promised to do. Since Falklands was not originally part of Argentina, whereas Chagos was part of Mauritius, such a commitment does not arise in the Falklands situation. Thus the claim of Mauritius to Chagos is much stronger than Argentina’s claim to Falklands. Indeed the British government has always recognised Mauritius’ claim. It is a question of when not if.
But previous British Governments have also accepted Argentina’s direct interest in Falklands. Before 1982, when Argentina invaded Falklands, the British Government was discussing with Argentina possible scenarios including a transfer of sovereignty, joint sovereignty and temporary UN sovereignty. Unlike Chagos, the people were kept informed. The Argentinian invasion put paid to those talks and reinforced the feelings of the Islanders that they wanted to remain British – many had originally come from Wales and Scotland.
The Foreign Secretary’s article was entitled ‘Islanders must be masters of their own fate’. Indeed but why is such a sentiment not also applied to the Chagos Islanders? It was the right of self-determination that was invoked by Mrs Thatcher to bolster British sovereignty which led to her decision to send a task force to recapture the Falklands, only a few years after most British colonies had become independent. However, self- determination was ignored when it came to the deportation of the Chagossians in the sixties. I doubt that a British Government, in the post colonial times of the eighties, could have got away with creating a new colony and deporting the population. In 1965 Britain still had some thirty colonies and the creation of a new one was hardly noticed.
The principles of self-determination and territorial integrity are firmly grounded in UN resolutions. Britain’s excision of Chagos at a time when Mauritius was not independent, although the Council of Ministers had agreed to it, is of questionable legality in international law. The exile of the Chagos Islanders was, however, a violation of the UN Charter and other international legal instruments. The British Government needs to put this right first and restore the Chagossians’ right to return to their homeland. Clearly Britain continues to spend vast riches on the protection of the Falkland Islanders and virtually nothing on the Chagos Islanders.
The future of Chagos and how Britain is to discharge its promise to Mauritius should follow after. This needs to be part of an overall settlement of the issues. The Chagos Islanders will have a say in the future of their islands, especially those who return to live there, but so will the Mauritian Government and people, which includes Chagossians, since Chagos will revert to Mauritius. The fiftieth anniversary in 2015 of the excision of the Islands makes an obvious deadline to aim for.
Coordinator of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group and former British High Commissioner to Mauritius (2000-04)
* Published in print edition on 3 February 2012