Mauritius: Chagos Islands - 50 Years On, Judgement Day Is Almost Nigh

Photo: Hogweard
Map of the Chagos Archipelago in Mauritius
17 June 2016

Over the coming months, the long-term fate of the Chagos Islands could become a lot clearer.

The clock is ticking on the fate of the Chagos islands. Located in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the overseas UK territory has been the site of a strategic US military base for the past half-century, but the 50-year agreement that allows it to use the islands is set to expire at the end of 2016.

At this point, the agreement for the military instalment will be automatically extended by 20 years if neither side chooses to terminate it. This is almost certainly what the UK and US hope will happen, but the issue has been made significantly more complicated by the demands of two other parties.

Firstly, Prime Minister Anerood Jugnauth has reasserted Mauritius' claim over the islands. The archipelago was previously part of Mauritius, and Jugnauth has reiterated his position that the UK's dismemberment of Chagos before it granted the former colony independence in the 1960s was illegal.

In a tense meeting with the UK Foreign Office in Port Louis recently, these demands reached a head as Jugnauth gave the UK an ultimatum: set a date for the return of the islands by the end of June, or Mauritius will seek a resolution at the United Nations General Assembly to refer the matter to the International Court of Justice.

And secondly, adding further to the complexity of the situation, the former residents of the Chagos islands are still fighting for their right to return.

In what is often described as one of the most shameful episodes of Britain's post-war history, around 1,500 indigenous people were forcibly removed from the islands between 1968 and 1973 to make way for the US base on the island of Diego Garcia. Most were dropped in Mauritius and some in the Seychelles, though many have since claimed British citizenship and moved to the UK.

Particularly in the last decade or so, many Chagossians have been engaged in a legal struggle for the right to return, and in the coming weeks, the UK Supreme Court is set to make what could be an historic ruling.

Keeping promises

Over the past 50 years, the US base on Diego Garcia - an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" positioned off the coasts of East Africa, the Middle East and India - has been a crucial node in the country's military activities. The US is therefore eager to keep a hold of the base and, despite the many other unanswered questions regarding fate of the Chagos islands after the end of 2016, it seems that this issue is actually fairly assured.

From Mauritius' perspective, Jugnauth has insisted that the events that led to the archipelago being removed from Mauritius and effectively loaned to the US 50 years ago were illegal. And he has also spoken of the UK's long-standing promise that the islands will be returned to Mauritius when it is "no longer needed for defence purposes".

According to a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague in 2015, this assurance is legally binding, and now that the Cold War is over, Jugnauth argues that these conditions have been met. However, at the same time, the Prime Minister - like his predecessor before him - has said that if Mauritius regains sovereignty of the islands, the US would be allowed to maintain its presence.

In effect, Jugnauth doesn't want to see the US military base disbanded, but would rather like Mauritius to have direct talks with Washington in order to negotiate the rent and terms of any extension.

This is unlikely to happen without the go ahead of the UK, however, and if its past actions are anything to go by, it seems the UK will be reluctant to hand over sovereignty. For instance, the aforementioned 2015 case at the PCA came in response to the UK's unilateral establishment of a Marine Protection Area (MPA) around the islands in 2010. This move seemed to assert the UK's belief in its absolute sovereignty over the territory and deprived Mauritius of its fishing rights, prompting the island nation to take the matter to court.

In its ruling, The Hague judges deemed the MPA to have been illegally imposed, and referred to "The United Kingdom's undertaking to return the Chagos archipelago to Mauritius". The court suggested that the UK's promises to Mauritius 50 years ago were legally binding.

Nevertheless, an official at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office responded to the judgment, commenting that "there is no question about UK sovereignty in the British Indian Ocean Territory".

This impasse is what has led Jugnauth to issue his ultimatum and threat to take the issue to the International Court of Justice.

Fighting for the right to return

Over the past decade and a half, legal courts have also been the main site of the Chagossians' struggle for the right to return. In the 2000s, the exiled islanders led by Olivier Bancoult, head of the Chagos Refugees Group, launched legal appeals and won cases in the UK High Court and Court of Appeal. But they faced a setback in 2008, when the matter was referred to the House of Lords, the highest court in the land, which ruled against the group's right to return in a split 3-2 ruling.

The House of Lords' judicial functions have since been taken over by the UK Supreme Court, however, and in the coming weeks, these judges are set to review its predecessor's ruling in light of new developments. A key issue for the five-strong panel of justices is whether the UK government's redraft of an independent feasibility study - from one that was favourable to the islanders' resettlement to one that wasn't - materially affected the Law Lords' verdict.

The Chagossian plaintiffs are optimistic that the Supreme Court will reassert their right to return, and if this is the case, the practical details of how their resettlement might work have already been examined. A new KPMG feasibility study commissioned by the UK government in 2012 established that the islanders' return was entirely possible and suggested a variety of differently costed resettlement scenarios. The minimum was £63 million ($89 million) over three years, the maximum £414 million ($580 million) over six years.

So far, the UK's current Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, has been wary of any long-term financial commitments and unsympathetic to the islanders' right of return - though even if the Supreme Court rules against resettlement, it is not implausible that his position will change in a bid to neutralise Mauritian claims for sovereignty.

In any event, Bancoult also met with the Commissioner of the BIOT on his recent visit to Mauritius during which he was told "a decision on resettlement will be made very soon", not that that reassured him. "We keep hearing those words 'very soon' and nothing ever seems to happen," says Bancoult.

Bancoult is also dismissive of concerns about the financial costs. "There never seems to be a problem providing money for the British Virgin Islands and other overseas territories so why should Chagos be the exception?" he asks.

Half a century after the UK severed the Chagos islands from Mauritius and forcibly removed 1,500 people from their homeland, the natural moment to right these wrongs is fast approaching. But with a number of uncertain and moving parts, whether this opportunity will be taken come the end of 2016 remains to be seen.

Seán Carey is honorary senior research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester.

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