27 November 2023

Britain must end its illegal occupation of the Chagos Islands

By Peter Harris

Is Britain about to lose one of its 14 remaining Overseas Territories? For the past 12 months, London has been engaged in talks over the future of the Chagos Archipelago – a contested island group in the central Indian Ocean, regarded by most of the international community as part of Mauritius but governed from Whitehall as the British Indian Ocean Territory.

Negotiations are expected to conclude sometime next year. If they result in a handover of the Chagos group, it would be an historic moment – the first transfer of territory by Britain since the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

The case for decolonization is strong. As described in a scathing advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice, Britain’s administration of the Chagos Islands is straightforwardly ‘unlawful’. An overwhelming majority of the world’s governments agree, with 116 of them backing a UN General Assembly resolution in 2019 that called upon London to end its illegal occupation of the archipelago.

All things being equal, no state wants to be on the wrong side of international law and world opinion to such a striking degree. If Britain wants to uphold its reputation as a law-abiding nation, there is only one viable option: transfer control of the Chagos Islands to Mauritius. Officials in Whitehall seem to acknowledge this hard legal and political reality, which is why Liz Truss agreed last year to begin a formal dialogue with Mauritius – a process that has continued, albeit slowly, under the premiership of Rishi Sunak.

There is, of course, a case against decolonization. In a recent article for CapX, Jimmy Nicholls did an admirable job of summarizing two of the main reasons that tend to be given for why Britain should refuse to decolonize.

First, Nicholls cautions that ‘at an uncertain time for the global balance of military power, the UK must focus on the wider strategic case, which points decisively towards retaining control of the Chagos Archipelago’. This strategic rationale for holding onto the islands is rooted in the fact that the largest island of the Chagos group – Diego Garcia – is home to a large US base, from which America’s military forces can launch air and naval operations across the Indian Ocean littoral and beyond.

Second, there is an emerging – and, it has to be said, somewhat astounding – argument that Britain must retain control of the Chagos Islands so that it can fulfil a moral obligation to the indigenous Chagossians, whom London illegally expelled from the territory in the 1960s and 1970s. According to Nicholls, ‘there is little doubt that the wealthier UK is more likely to safeguard their interests than Mauritius.’

The strategic case for British rule over the Chagos Archipelago is coherent but should not be overstated. It must be remembered that the base on Diego Garcia is a US facility for all intents and purposes. When officials in London tout the strategic importance of Diego Garcia, they are referring to the military needs of their American ally – not Britain’s own national interests.

Yet analysts agree that transferring the Chagos Islands to Mauritian control need not inhibit US military operations in the slightest. Ministers have repeatedly confirmed that ensuring the continued operation of the US base has been a central focus of negotiations between London and Port Louis. By all accounts, they are pushing at an open door given that Mauritian leaders years ago offered Washington a 99-year lease on the territory.

What about the humanitarian case for retaining the islands? To put it mildly, the historical record is not kind to the argument that Britain can be relied upon to restore the human rights of the exiled Chagos Islanders.

After all, it was British officials who, between 1965 and 1973, conspired to force the Chagossians from their islands. Using the monarch’s prerogative powers, ministers used undemocratic Orders in Council – a type of primary legislation that does not require parliamentary debate or consent – to exile the islanders in perpetuity.

In 2000, the High Court ruled that these Orders in Council had been unlawful and instructed ministers to recognize the Chagossians’ right of return, albeit with some limitations. In the years that followed, however, London refused to budge on the question of resettlement. On the contrary, ministers once again invoked the monarch’s prerogative powers to prohibit resettlement in 2004, a legal architecture that still remain in place.

When the Chagossians challenged the legality of their exile for a second time, the government fought them all the way to the Law Lords – winning in 2008. Not satisfied, the British government announced in 2010 the creation of a marine protected area in the Chagos Archipelago that, according to WikiLeaks-released diplomatic cables, was intended to ‘put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago’s former residents’. This stunning admission of bad-faith policymaking led to a further round of court cases pitting Whitehall against the islanders.

At times, there have been glimmers of hope that ministers might do the decent thing and allow resettlement. But while Nicholls is correct to note that the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition government funded a feasibility study into resettlement in 2012, he neglects to mention that, in 2016, the government’s response to the study’s findings was to affirm its longstanding policy of opposing resettlement.

To sum up, Britain’s policy toward the Chagossians is utterly exclusionary. London is opposed to the idea of resettlement. It does not acknowledge that the islanders have any right of return. The government’s policy is that the Chagossians do not belong to the territory, and that the territory does not belong to them. Ministers have never expressed regret – let alone issued an apology – for the 2004 Orders in Council that ban the islanders from returning to their homeland.

Given this decades-long history of dispossession, marginalization, and mistreatment, what reason is there to believe that continued British rule of the Chagos Archipelago will result in the Chagossians’ human rights being restored? Absent a major shift in policy, the only reasonable answer to this question is that there is none. It is ahistorical to assert otherwise.

Mauritius, on the other hand, has pledged to allow resettlement. Whether Port Louis can be trusted to make good on this promise remains to be seen, of course, and it is important to note that not all Chagossians want their islands to fall under Mauritian control. The road ahead is complex and uncertain. But what is the alternative to decolonization? Britain has made no secret of the fact that, on its watch, the Chagos Archipelago is closed off to resettlement. There is no third option. 

The debate over the Chagos Islands is heating up. In a recent Policy Exchange report, three legal experts urged London to ignore the international community and forge ahead with governing the contested archipelago. Such arguments might yet win the day, especially if ministers grow nervous of the domestic backlash that could follow decolonization.

But this would be a tragedy. As negotiations with Mauritius near completion, Britain has the opportunity to comply with international law, invest in the stability of a rules-based global order, strengthen relations with a Commonwealth partner, secure the long-term military interests of its US ally, and pave the way for the long overdue restoration of the Chagossians’ right of return. It should waste no time in doing so.

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Peter Harris is Associate Professor at Colorado State University, concentrating on international relations.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.