Chagossians urge caution over UN legal win

The United Nations International Court of Justice has ruled that Britain should hand the Chagos Islands back to Mauritius, yet this may not result in the Chagossians gaining their right to return to their homeland. Katie McQue reports.

A demonstrator demands her return to the Chagos Islands during a protest outside the Houses of Parliament, 2008. Photo: REUTERS/Andrew Winning

‘This battle has just begun,’ says Sabrina Jean, UK Chair of the Chagos Refugees Group. ‘We Chagossians will continue fighting for our fundamental rights to be respected.’

The verdict, which is an advisory opinion and not legally binding, came on the afternoon of February 25. The ICJ’s Judge Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf announced that the United Kingdom is under an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago, which is located in the Indian Ocean, as rapidly as possible. He also ruled that islands had been unlawfully separated from Mauritius during its decolonization from the UK in the 1960s.

The UK’s Foreign Office responded with a statement strongly hinting the government could defy the UN’s highest court, with a spokesperson telling the New Internationalist: ‘This is an advisory opinion, not a judgment. Of course, we will look at the detail of it carefully. The defence facilities on the British Indian Ocean Territory help to protect people here in Britain and around the world from terrorist threats, organized crime and piracy.’

The British government does not have the right to appeal the ruling, however, it has previously told the court it does not have jurisdiction to hear the case. ICJ’s legal process does carry weight internationally, though, and UN member states are compelled to cooperate with its stipulations. In principle, they should not be refused, says the document outlining the ruling.

Britain’s last African colony

Between 1967 and 1973, the British Army forcefully evicted all of the approximately 1,500 inhabitants from the Chagos Archipelago, which is the UK’s last colonial outpost in Africa. The largest island of this newly named British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), Diego Garcia, was then leased to the United States to build an overseas military base.

Banned from returning to their homeland in a mandate upheld to this day, the Chagossians were made refugees. Left on the shores of the nearby islands of Mauritius and Seychelles, they took refuge in abandoned buildings and were largely treated by their new host countries as second class citizens. Much later, in the 2000s, they were given the right to British citizenship and some moved to the UK, in search of a better life. Although a large portion of these Chagossians living in the UK grapple with desperate poverty and homelessness.

The Chagossians have grown accustomed to regular legal battles in the London courts, as they have fought for the right to return to their homeland for many years. Only one case has ever ruled in their favour; in 2000 the British High Court ruled their mass deportation was illegal. This victory was short-lived, as members of parliament sought Queen Elizabeth II to overturn the ruling with a royal decree.

Mauritius argued in its submission to the ICJ last year it was coerced by Britain in 1965 into giving up the Chagos Islands in return for its own independence.

During the same time period more than 50 years ago, the United States had expressed to Britain the desire to build a military base on Diego Garcia, which would require the island to be cleared of its ‘Tarzans’ and ‘Man Fridays’, as the Chagossians were described in one diplomatic cable. In 1971, the construction of the base known as Camp Justice began. For its efforts, Britain was given a US$14-million discount from the United States on its purchase of submarine-launched Polaris ballistic missile system.

The military base on Diego Garcia is of utmost strategic importance to the US, because of its relative proximity to Middle East, the Persian Gulf, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. It was used to conduct operations related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A New Internationalist investigation revealed poor working conditions for Filipino military contractors employed on the base. Additionally, Diego Garcia has been implicated as a host to the CIA's post -9/11 secret rendition program, where terror suspects were held and tortured, according to US Intelligence reports.

Chagossian resettlement not guaranteed

In a vote of 13 judges to one, the ICJ determined that the decolonization of Mauritius was not lawfully completed when that country gained independence in 1968 because of the the separation of the Chagos Archipelago. The Mauritian legal campaign was led by prominent Queen’s Counsel and author, Professor Philippe Sands, and Alison Macdonald QC.

Additionally, the ICJ says it that considers people of non-self-governing territories, such as the Chagos Islands, are entitled to exercise their right to self-determination in relation to their territory as a whole. Any detachment of the territory by the UK as the administering power contradicts the Chagossian’s right of self-determination, it adds.

‘A key conclusion is that the resettlement of the Chagos Archipelago is a matter of human rights which the United Nations General Assembly should examine during the decolonization process,’ states Dr Laura Jeffery, Senior Lecturer in Social Anthropology, University of Edinburgh.

However, there is no guarantee that Mauritius would allow the Chagossians to return home if it was handed back the islands after this victory at the ICJ. Some Chagossians have said they believe Mauritius’ historical treatment of them demonstrates the nation is not invested in seeing them win the right to return home.

‘This is certainly a win for Mauritius but it remains to be seen whether or not this is a win for the Chagossian people,’ notes Tom Guha, a spokesperson for the UK Chagos Support Association.

‘The question of sovereignty has no bearing on the right of return or for the imperative for both the UK and Mauritius to treat Chagossians with the rights and respect that they deserve.’

Coexisting with the military base

Moreover, there is still the question of the military base, for which the British government granted the US a 20-year lease extension in 2016. Last year, another investigation by New Internationalist revealed that the US Navy packs arms-carrying ships so tightly into Diego Garcia’s lagoon that the island is at risk of a catastrophic explosion. US military documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act showed the Navy is allowed to operate in this way on the condition that civilians (apart from ones employed as military contractors) are not in the vicinity of a potential explosion. This regulatory requirement could prevent the Chagossians from being permitted to return.

Chagossians could still settle and visit the outer islands of the archipelago, which include Peros Banhos, Eagle, and Eastern Egmont, argues Dr Peter Harris, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Colorado State University. He highlights there is a precedent for this.

‘Several Seychellois islands were originally included in the British Indian Ocean Territory but were later handed back to Seychelles when it turned out they were no longer needed by the (US) military,’ he says. ‘Most of the Chagos Archipelago isn't needed either.’

Meanwhile, any pressure for British government to act on the ICJ’s ruling will likely be eclipsed by a much more famous advisory process that it is choosing to act upon: the outcome of the Brexit referendum.

‘This development will quickly be buried underneath the drama of Brexit, and so it won't have much of an impact on government policy,’ says Harris. ‘I expect that the government will not budge from its official position that the islands will be ceded to Mauritius when they are no longer needed for military purposes, but not before.’