David Snoxell has been the Chagos Islands APPG (BIOT) Coordinator since 2008. He was British High Commissioner to Mauritius, 2000-04, and BIOT Deputy Commissioner, 1995-7.
The Chagos Archipelago of 54 islands, formerly administered as a dependency of the British colony of Mauritius, was circumcised by Great Britain in 1965, three years before Mauritius achieved independence.
It was renamed the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) and its inhabitants (around 1,500) were deported to Mauritius and the Seychelles between 1968 and 1973 to make way for a US military base on the larger island. , Diego Garcia. Depopulation allowed the British government to avoid having to administer the islands and report annually to the UN on its last colony.
Three BIOT islands were returned to Seychelles upon independence in 1976 but none have so far been returned to Mauritius.
Little progress was made in resolving the Chagos dispute in 2021, with the UK government remaining intransigent. Prospects for a Chagos settlement are slow, but continued support for a comprehensive settlement continues to accelerate internationally.
I believe that not only is a settlement perfectly possible, but that it is getting closer. The international situation has changed and the UK increasingly isolated, politicians and officials have changed and growing international stigma makes a settlement more attractive to ‘global’ Britain.
I start with the simple rationale that when governments and their officials know they are wrong and can no longer make a logical argument for the status quo, they look for ways to reach a compromise. After 30 years of defending the Chagos detachment from Mauritius, the existence of BIOT and the withdrawal of the Chagossians, officials know that standard mantras are no longer tenable and that the only way forward is to negotiate a settlement.
It all depends on whether the FCDO wants to solve these problems or prefers to leave them brooding indefinitely. The oft-repeated FCDO commitment that the Chagos Islands will be returned to Mauritius when no longer needed for defense is flawed, as the outer islands are not and have never been needed for defense. .
The official UN map now shows Chagos as part of Mauritius, the Food and Agriculture Organization no longer recognizes the UK as a coastal state and the Universal Postal Union has decided that BIOT belongs to Maurice and that his postage stamps are no longer valid. Other specialized United Nations agencies, such as the International Telecommunication Union and the International Civil Aviation Organization, are likely to take similar action.
Following its ruling in January that the UK was not the coastal state of the Chagos, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) Tribunal will proceed with the delimitation of the maritime boundary between the Maldives and Mauritius. International pressure of this kind will continue to intensify.
It is not too early for the FCDO to consider what will happen to Diego Garcia’s US base after the 1966 UK / US agreement ends in December 2036. It is likely that the FCDO is currently considering a way forward. I would expect the new BIOT commissioner to recommend to ministers that the national and international arguments for a move to Mauritius, which would allow resettlement, are overwhelming, that Britain’s credibility is at stake and that bilateral relations with Mauritius will continue to suffer without a comprehensive settlement.
The United Kingdom no longer denies that Mauritius is claiming its sovereignty, while asserting its own claim. But constructive talks cannot take place until the UK signals its willingness to discuss sovereignty, something it has refused to do in previous talks. I propose to create within the FCDO a âChagos groupâ to manage the procurement modalities, a timetable and the content of the talks and the appointment on the British side of a senior independent official to lead diplomatic discussions with Mauritius.
There are also to be discussions with the United States over the future of Diego Garcia, the termination of the 1966 UK / US exchange of notes, and an agreement ensuring the base’s long-term security. This could include strengthening cooperation in the Indian Ocean with Mauritius, India and Australia, which would strengthen the UK’s new policy of tilting towards the Indo-Pacific region. The French base in Reunion, 140 miles from Mauritius, could also be a valuable asset.
Diego Garcia has to eventually be sent back to Mauritius, but this can be done more slowly than with the Outer Islands which will never be needed for defense purposes. Whether the UK or the US should remain sovereign of the common base until a transfer date is agreed is up to the three parties to discuss.
The Marine Protected Area (MPA) declared in 2010, future conservation measures and scientific research should be included in the discussions. The UK should discuss with NGOs the continuation of conservation work, research and funding and the need for Mauritian consent. This should encourage the future engagement of these groups with Mauritius in planning and support. Assistance to Mauritius to facilitate and finance resettlement should also be provided.
Chagossian groups in Mauritius, Seychelles and the UK have different interests, but they all agree that they want to be allowed to return and resettle. Many will simply visit their ancestral homeland rather than resettle. Additional compensation could be part of a package. Either way, the government would have to agree with the Chagossians on how to spend the 2016 Â£ 40million aid package (just Â£ 800,000 spent in five years) or perhaps convert it into payments of compensation or spend it on relocation costs.
At its 85th meeting on October 20, the Chagos Islands APPG (BIOT), which has members from all seven political parties, including former FCO and DIFID ministers, struggled to understand why, over the past twenty In recent years, the FCDO had not been willing to negotiate a comprehensive settlement. with Mauritius and the Chagossians and why the UK continues to challenge the international community over the Chagos. In July 2019, the Group issued a statement which:
“Urges the next British government to respect the will of the UN, the opinion of the International Court of Justice and the requirements of international law, which, since the signing of the United Nations Charter in 1945, remain the keystone UK foreign policy and commitment to the international order, founded on the rule of law.
Her Majesty’s Government may come to a settlement that will end this tragedy, restore Britain’s place as a leading nation that respects the rule of law, self-determination and human rights, and will redress the position of the United Kingdom, undermined by our prolonged failure to resolve this leftover problem of colonialism and the Cold War. The UK must accept the verdicts of the 2015 MPA arbitral tribunal award, the 2019 ICJ advisory opinion, the UNGA resolution that approved it and the 2021 UNCLOS tribunal.
The United Kingdom and Mauritius could then announce at the next session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2022 the terms of an agreement and register this agreement with the UN as a United Kingdom / Mauritius treaty. This would end 22 years of domestic and international litigation which has so far cost the taxpayer around Â£ 12million.