Sovereignty over Chagos


Leaseback option dependent upon ownership

By  Prakash Neerohoo

The British conservative newspaper ‘Daily Telegraph’ announced on December 1st that the UK government would not hand back the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritius. After months of negotiation between the governments of the two countries, it seems that there is now an impasse in bilateral discussions over whether Mauritius can reclaim the Chagos, an archipelago of 53 islands in the Indian Ocean. The question henceforth is not when Mauritius will get back its sovereignty over the Chagos but if it will ever realize its legitimate claim.

During the negotiation, Mauritius’ claim was based on a firm linkage between getting back the ownership of the Chagos archipelago from the UK and leasing back one island (Diego Garcia) to the US for military use. The linkage was meant to respond to the US concern about losing access to an island that hosts a military base in a strategic zone of the world.

In a typical lease agreement under contract law, a lease (rental) payment is made when the lessee (tenant) leases property from a lessor (owner), which recognizes that the property belongs to the lessor. While the lessor retains ownership of the property, it transfers the possession of such property to the lessee on a short-term lease (1 year with optional renewal) or a long-term lease (25, 50 or 100 years).

For Mauritius to be able to lease Diego Garcia back to the US, which maintains a military base on the island since the 1960s, it must first get back the ownership of the Chagos. Although the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has recognized the sovereignty of Mauritius over the Chagos in its advisory opinion issued in 2019, the UK maintains that the Chagos is part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) that was formed following the detachment of the Chagos from Mauritius before independence in 1968. Since the UK does not want to hand back the Chagos archipelago to Mauritius, it means that Mauritius will have neither ownership nor possession of the Chagos in a foreseeable future.

A lease payment from the US for the military use of Diego Garcia Island would require recognizing Mauritius sovereignty over the Chagos and its actual ownership of the archipelago. The idea of a long-term lease of the island is not new. It was proposed by Mauritius as an alternative to the creation of BIOT in the negotiation preceding the granting of independence (as mentioned in Philippe Sands’ book “The Last Colony”). The UK itself leased the island to the US for 50 years until 2016, at which time it was renewed for a similar term. It is not known how much the US pays to the UK for the lease.

After the British PM Rishi Sunak opened negotiations with Mauritius on handing back the Chagos archipelago, there is now a change of heart in the UK government. The new minister of Foreign Affairs David Cameron and the minister of Defence Grant Shapps have taken a hard line with US blessing. They do not recognize Mauritius’ sovereignty over the Chagos despite the ICJ ruling. For geopolitical reasons, especially in the context of a potential war in the Middle East, both the UK and US now want to retain ownership and control respectively over the Chagos.

This new stand is contradictory to their purported commitment to international law, which recognizes the territorial integrity of nations and their right to self-determination. That is the principle that they invoke to justify Western support for Ukraine in the war against Russia. The West countries have stated clearly that no peace is possible between Russia and Ukraine without the latter recovering part of its territory occupied by Russia.They claim that foreign occupation is against a rules-based international order. This is true except for the Chagos.

The government of Mauritius pinned a lot of hope on a lease payment (estimated to be Rs 100 billion per year) from the US in its financial planning for the future. The windfall was going to fund popular, if not populist, projects. Any lease payment from the US to Mauritius would have been revenue credited to the Consolidated Revenue Fund of the government for general expenditure. It would also have been a lifeline to the country’s balance of payments at a time when foreign exchange inflow is low.

It seems that the “Perfide Albion” has taken Mauritius for a ride all along. It started negotiations with Mauritius more than three years after the UN General Assembly asked it to hand back the Chagos. Initially, the UK gave the impression that it wanted to be on the right side of international law. However, it has now backtracked presumably under pressure from the US.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 22 December 2023

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