Robbed of Their Island in the Indian Ocean, Chagossians Linger in a Pandemic-Shadowed Limbo

The delegation of Mauritius at the General Assembly session that adopted a resolution asking the International Court of Justice to render an advisory opinion on the legality of the separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, June 22, 2017. Exactly a year ago, another resolution called on Britain to leave Chagos, based on the court’s opinion. It has yet to go. MANUEL ELIAS/UN PHOTO

Exactly one year ago, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling on Britain to return the Chagos Archipelago, a cluster of islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, to Mauritius, an island-nation off the southeast coast of Africa.

The resolution endorsed an International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion that had been requested by a 2017 General Assembly resolution. The 2019 resolution demanded that “the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland withdraw its colonial administration from the Chagos Archipelago unconditionally within a period of no more than six months from the adoption of the present resolution, thereby enabling Mauritius to complete the decolonization of its territory as rapidly as possible.”

Six months went by — without a withdrawal.

As part of the process, UN Secretary-General António Guterres was asked to produce a report on the resolution’s implementation before the end of April 2020 — a potential embarrassment to Britain, given its insistence on sovereignty over a territory that includes the archipelago and its sole inhabited island. But as the pandemic has shifted the UN Secretariat’s focus to more urgent matters, the report moved down its priorities list.

A spokesperson for Guterres said the report has been submitted to the UN Department of General Assembly and Conference Management for “processing” and should be published at any moment on the UN documents website. As of May 21, the report was nowhere to be found.

[UPDATE: The report was dated May 18 but not published until June 4, and concludes with an observation from Guterres, saying, in part: “It is encouraging to note that, since the adoption of General Assembly resolution73/295, communications between Mauritius and the United Kingdom on the issue of the Chagos Archipelago have remained open. Such communications have included, notably, a meeting on 20 January 2020 in London between the Prime Minister of Mauritius, Pravind Jugnauth, and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, during which the subject was discussed. I commend both parties for their openness to dialogue.”]

From the outset, the British Foreign Office has said that the case was an “inappropriate” use of the International Court of Justice. It still argues that “the UK has no doubt about our sovereignty over British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), which has been under continuous British sovereignty since 1814,” a spokesperson for the British mission to the UN said in an email to PassBlue recently.

Under normal circumstances, access to Chagos’s one inhabited island, Diego Garcia, is restricted to those holding permits; as the pandemic rages, access has become even tighter.

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Beyond the issue of sovereignty, Diego Garcia is home to a joint military base usefully situated within range of the Middle East and further, including to Afghanistan. Though it has no permanent residents, around 3,000 people, mostly British and American soldiers, are stationed on Diego Garcia.

Meanwhile, thousands of indigenous residents were evicted when the base was installed. They were sent elsewhere to Mauritius as well as to Seychelles and Britain, and to this day they are barred from returning to Diego Garcia.

“We are waiting to know what’s going to be the decision of the secretary-general,” Olivier Bancoult, a leader of the Chagos Refugee Group, told PassBlue, speaking on behalf of 354 Chagossians in Mauritius. “[We want to hear] what he has to say about a UN member state, the UK, that should have respect and abide by all rules of the UN, but does not.” Bancoult, born on the Chagossian atoll of Peros Banhos and forcibly removed when he was 4, has been involved in several legal actions against Britain. (The atoll is now uninhabited.)

Mauritius itself has a long history of European colonization, first by the Dutch and then the French. In 1810 the British moved in, relinquishing control only in 1968. But three years earlier, it had split the Chagos Archipelago off from Mauritius to create the British Indian Ocean Territory, and it maintains to this day that the islands do not belong to Mauritius. Mauritius says it was forced before independence to sell Chagos to Britain. (Britain is a permanent member of the Security Council.)

While the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion is nonbinding, many people expected that 45 years after being exiled, native Chagossians would be allowed to return.

“When you are fighting on the basis of principles, you don’t have to fear anyone,” Jagdish Dharamchand Koonjul, Mauritius’s ambassador to the UN, told PassBlue from his office in New York City earlier this year. “For us, this is a matter of principle. This is a matter of justice. This is a matter of fairness, this is a matter of legality and respect for international law.

“You can tell from the results that we got in both resolutions, even the first one [seeking an opinion from The Hague], more so in the second one, that by a large majority the members of the United Nations supported the Mauritian cause.”

Bancoult concurs. “We can’t accept that other people can live and work in Chagos, but we don’t have access,” he said. “That’s the reason we’re still fighting. Filipino, Sri Lanka, British and American [people] can live together on the Island, and people from all over the world [who hold permits] can spend up to six months on the beach, and it’s our place of birth and we can’t.”

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The General Assembly’s resolution in May 2019, welcoming The Hague’s decision and calling on Britain to leave the islands, passed overwhelmingly, with 116 votes in favor, 6 against (Australia, Britain, Hungary, Israel, Maldives and United States) and 56 abstentions. In October, the UN Committee on Decolonization discussed the subject again, and once more asked Britain to comply.

A runway for American bombers on Diego Garcia, a joint US-British military base on the only inhabited island in the Chagos Archipelago, photographed in November 2001, when the US began its war on terror against Afghanistan. CREATIVE COMMONS 

The presence of the military base complicates matters. In 2016, Britain renewed a lease to the US first signed in 1966. During the UN committee meeting in October, Karen Pierce, the British ambassador to the UN at the time, said, “The strategic location of the joint United Kingdom-United States defense facility on the territory makes a significant contribution to security and to combating challenging threats.” (Pierce has since become her country’s ambassador in Washington.)

David Vine, a professor at the American University in Washington and the author of “Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia,” describes it as “one of the most strategically important and secretive US military installations outside the United States.”

His book recounts how “the little-known base has been instrumental in American military operations from the Cold War to the war on terror and may house a top-secret CIA prison where terror suspects are interrogated and tortured.” The US used the base for bombing sorties to Afghanistan soon after the 9/11 attacks in its new war on terror.

For the Mauritius ambassador, the base is an issue that can be solved among the three countries: “I think this is something that we would want to ask them to really explain to us,” Koonjulsaid. “Why is it that you have to have sovereignty, the US has got so many other bases around the world, in places like Djibouti, the Philippines, Cyprus?”

Although the court’s ruling is nonbinding, the stance of Britain, a veto holder in the Security Council, signals that powerful countries can ignore international law. In 2017, the country lost its seat in The Hague court, a first since the creation of the UN and a setback that appeared to haunt Britain when the court rendered its opinion two years later. The only judge to vote in favor of Britain in the case was American.

For now, Chagossians continue to live in limbo.

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Stéphanie Fillion

Stéphanie Fillion

Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master's degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.

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