Britain, the UN and the Chagos Islands

The Chagos Islands are an Archipelago in the Indian Ocean. They comprise more than 60 individual islands and their sovereignty is under dispute.

The French were the first great power to stake a claim to the Islands in the 18th Century. At the time the Islands were uninhabited. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, the islands were ceded to Britain as part of the Treaty of Paris. The Islands were administered from Mauritius, which was also ceded to Britain as part of the treaty.

The Chagos Islands were ceded to Britain after the defeat of Napoleon.

From 1840 onwards the islands became permanently inhabited, most of the inhabitant were descended from slaves, however, they were Freeman. This remained the status quo for a century.

The native inhabitants of the Chagos Islands are known as Chagossians.

By the 1960s British Decolonisation was advancing rapidly and it was clear that British control of Mauritius was coming to an end. In preemption of this, the British Government paid Mauritius £3 Million Pounds in in 1965 to purchase the Chagos Islands. Their position in the Indian Ocean made them strategically important, particularly as Britain tried to balance its loss of overseas territory with the ability to remain a global power. The purchased islands were renamed the British Indian Ocean Territory.

Over the next five years, Britain depopulated the islands. This was done in secret and without international knowledge. By 1973 the entire population of around 2,000 Chagos Islanders had been removed from the islands and the inhabitants were moved to Mauritius, a state that most islanders had never set foot on before.

In 1971, Britain and the United States signed a treaty which gave the US a leasehold over the islands in order to build a Naval and Air Base which the US saw as essential in limiting Soviet influence in the Indian Ocean. As part of the agreement, the British received significant discounts on the Polaris Nuclear Weapons system that formed the basis of Britain’s nuclear deterrent until 1996 when it was replaced with Trident. The US Air Base remains active and was used in both Gulf Wars and for action in Afghanistan.

The US Air Base in Diego Garcia with the notorious B-52 Bomber in the foreground.

In the 1980s Mauritius claimed sovereignty of the islands. They contended that the 1965 separation was illegal under international law. In recent years, the dispute has escalated significantly. 

In 2010 the UK Government declared a Marine Protection Area (MPA) around the Islands. It is currently the world’s largest Marine Protection Area. This places legal limits on ships or aircraft entering the established zone. MPAs are usually established to protect wildlife or to create oceanic research areas, however, classified diplomatic correspondence between  the UK and US released by Wikileaks in  2010 clearly indicate that an ulterior motive in the creation of the MPA might be to prevent Chagos Islanders from reinhabiting the Islands:

“ Establishing a marine reserve might, indeed, as the FCO’s Roberts stated, be the most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands’ former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling in the [British Indian Ocean Territory]”

Legal Action in UK Courts

In 2006 Chaggosians won a case in the U.K. High Court to return to the Chagos Islands but the decision was appealed by the U.K. Government. The Court of Appeals agreed with the High Court but again the U.K. Government appealed the decision, so it went to the Appellate Committee of the House of Lords (Law Lords), then the highest court in the U.K. In 2008, the Law Lords ruled 3-2 in the Government’s favour ending the Chagossians hopes of returning.

Representations to the Court of Permanent Arbitration

In 2015 Mauritius launched action against the British Government under the United Nations  Convention on the Law of the Sea. The Government of Mauritius argued that the MPA was illegal under the UN Convention. 

The Permanent Court of Arbitration is located at The Hague. The PCA is not a UN institution, but is utilised by UN Members as a place to resolve international disputes. In March 2015, the PCA ruled that Britain had acted illegally by creating the MPA. Although this ruling was not legally binding on Britain, it was a huge blow to the international legitimacy of their actions. 

The Permanent Court of Arbitration is based in the Hague but is not a UN Institution.

Deliberations of the UN General Assembly and International Court of Justice

In June 2017 the UN General Assembly voted by 94-15 to refer the case to the International Court of Justice. The 15 who voted against the referral, such as the USA and Australia, argued that this was a bilateral dispute that should be resolved directly by the two parties.

In February 2019 the International Court of Justice rules that the separation of the Chagos Islands from Mauritius in 1965 had been illegal and ruled that the territory should be returned to Mauritius as soon as practically possible. 

The International Court of Justice ruled that the separation of Mauritius and the Chagos Islands was illegal.

In response to the ICJ ruling the U.K. Government has so far refused to comply. When asked about the issue in the House of Commons in May 2019 the Minister for Africa said:

“…the Chagos archipelago has been under continuous British sovereignty since 1814…The whole world benefits from the security provided by having this base in the Indian Ocean”

This case highlights one of the fundamental limits of the International Court of Justice – the decisions it makes are not binding, they simply add to the canon of International Law and, at times, put pressure on Governments to consider their policies. However, they rely on other institutions to carry out any ruling they give.

Pressure on the U.K. grew in May 2019 when the UN General Assembly voted by 116-6 to condemn the British ‘occupation’ of the Chagos Islands. The US, Hungary, Israel, Australia and the Maldives were the only countries to back the U.K’s stance on the Islands. Even the Pope voiced his concerns during an Indian Ocean visit:

“ You must obey international institutions. That is why the United Nations were created. That’s why international courts were created.”

Even Pope Francis has openly criticised British actions over the Chagos Islands.

However, the motion, this time from the General Assembly, is not binding. There is still no legal impetus for Britain to take positive action and refused to recognise the claim of Mauritius to the islands.

Britain shows no signs of vacillating on the issue and, with knowledge that they have the support of the US, there is unlikely to be anything that can force them to budge. This does highlight some of the fundamental weaknesses of the UN and other intergovernmental organisations:

  • Motions are rarely binding. They rely on self enforcement. When major powers are the subject of criticism, little is likely to force them to relent.
  • International Law is still widely disputed and despite Liberal intentions, it cannot be consistently enforced. 

The case of the Chagos Islands looks set to continue with seemingly no likelihood that Britain will make any concessions. 

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