Chagos: are we seeing an attempt at using the ‘falklands option’?

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Unlike the Falklands, Mauritius has wide international legal support for its claim on the Chagos islands.

Unlike the Falklands, Mauritius has wide international legal support for its claim on the Chagos islands.

Chagossian groups in the UK are attempting to throw a spanner in ongoing talks between London and Port-Louis over the future of the Chagos. The latest is a legal notice sent by activist Bernadette Dugasse asking the UK government to freeze talks to include descendants of Chagossians in it. Is this an attempt to use the ‘Falklands option’ to derail the talks?

The Dugasse case

Talks between London and Port-Louis over the future of the Chagos islands are ongoing with both states expecting to hammer out an agreement by this year. But groups representing Chagossian descendants are clamouring to be included in the negotiations. Bernadette Dugasse, one of the founders of the UK-based Chagossian Voices, has sent a legal notice threatening legal action against the UK government if Chagossian descendants are not consulted or involved in the talks. In the letter, Dugasse deplores that the talks taking place “without consultation or participation are contrary to the right to self-determination of the Chagossian people”. What is interesting to note, argues Ram Seegobin of Lalit, is that “the case does not seem concerned with the illegal detachment of the Chagos, the deportation of the Chagossians or cases at the UN. This case seems to have suddenly appeared and asked, ‘what’s in it for us?’”

The trouble is that Dugasse’s case is on shaky ground: “We have to distinguish between asking to be consulted and asking to be a part of the negotiations. The language tends to show that some are asking to be a part of the negotiations,” says Milan Meetarbhan, formerly Mauritius’ top diplomat at the UN, “discussions about sovereignty are conducted on a state-to-state basis. Having others taking part in that is not the way that such negotiations are conducted. If these people are acting on their own, it’s one thing, but if not then it’s an entirely different matter”.

My hunch, says ex-foreign minister Arvin Boolell, “is that this is a ploy to try to delay matters. We cannot have indefinite discussions. We want a specific date for the return of the Chagos. International law is on our side”. Chagossian Voices is not the only group to come out and oppose the talks. Another UK-based activist, Rose Leveque of the Chagos Islanders Lobby Group, stated, “Chagossians should be given the same respect as the Falkland Islands – a referendum. We should be given the choice to decide if we want to be governed by either Mauritius or the UK”.

Within Mauritius, Ivann Bibi of the extra-parliamentary opposition party Nouveau Front Politik also addressed an open letter to the US and UK governments asking for talks to be suspended. “We are seeing all sorts of weird things not just in the UK, but here in Mauritius as well,” says Seegobin. The campaign by the UK-based Chagossian groups has now roped in the NGO Human Rights Watch, which sent a letter in December to the UK government voicing its concerns. Much as another NGO Greenpeace was successfully roped in to support London’s ill-fated attempt in 2010 to declare the Chagos a ‘marine protected area’ to fight off claims from Chagossians to be allowed to resettle there. The demands from Chagossian groups to be included in the talks, as well as calls for a referendum, point to an attempt to use a mucholder political strategy to derail the talks. During the 1970s, the Chagos islands were forcibly depopulated by the UK to make way for a US military base on its largest atoll Diego Garcia. The Chagossians were scattered in Mauritius and Seychelles. However, in 2002, London passed the British Overseas Territories Act which opened up British citizenship to those of Chagossian origin with London handing out 1,406 passports to mostly-Mauritius based Chagossian descendants till 2006. The latter set themselves up in Crawley. Since then, the politics of the Mauritian state and these now-UK based Chagossian groups have diverged sharply. “Over the years there have been two very different legal battles; those of the Chagossians against the UK government as UK citizens in UK courts to be allowed to resettle on the Chagos,” explains Meetarbhan, “and the international fight of Mauritius which has been about sovereignty. In these, Mauritius has always included Chagossian groups even in official delegations.

1982 saw a brief war erupt between Argentina and the UK over the Falklands, which the UK refused to settle citing the islanders’ support of continued British rule to rebuff Argentinian attempts to settle the dispute.

For Chagossian groups in the UK, the prospect of resettlement carries with it the possibility of landing a job with KBR Inc, which recruits support staff for the US base. And as UK citizens, their fight has been to expand UK citizenship rules to allow third and fourth generation Chagossian descendants to join their families already in the UK. These demands have thrown up a number of UK-aligned lobby groups and even a self-proclaimed ‘president’ of the ‘Diego Garcia and Chagos Islands Council’ Allen Vincatassin based in East Point House in Crawley, elected with just over a hundred votes of Chagossian descendants living in the area. That is until Vincatassin himself ran into legal trouble with accusations of fraud.

Consequently, these UK-based Chagossian groups have been hostile to the possibility of the islands returning to Mauritian control. “They want ‘autonomy’ for the islands, but under the Union Jack. They want autonomy but also the privilege of UK citizenship. They want to have their cake and eat it too,” says Boolell. In return for reaching out to Chagossian groups, London got a weapon to wield against Mauritian claims; as it tried to do at the UN International Court of Justice where it unsuccessfully tried to argue that Mauritius could not be allowed control of the islands since they would only resettle Chagossians in Mauritius, and not the bulk of the Chagossians and their descendants in the UK or Seychelles. “We’ve always warned about this possibility of using the UK-based Chagossians against Mauritius, and this referendum mostly in Crawley with Chagossians carrying UK passports seems to be the same old trick,” says Seegobin.

In 2019, the International Court of Justice backed Mauritius’ claim on the Chagos islands

What happened in the Falklands?

The Falklands Islands (called Islas Malvinas by Argentina) are claimed by both the UK and Argentina. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, both states engaged in talks over the future of the Falkland Islands – London dangled the prospect of shared sovereignty while Argentina toyed with the idea of setting up a ‘South Atlantic Treaty Organization’ – a Latin American NATO to fight the Soviets and Cubans; partly to entice the US to back Argentina’s claims over the Falklands and partly to allow the Argentine navy to get more advanced US ships. However, each time the UK and Argentinian governments seemed to be making progress in talks, they would be derailed from within the UK, which insisted that it could not agree on Argentinian sovereignty without getting the backing of the 1,800 Falkland islanders who solidly backed London. A frustrated Argentina attempted to resolve the issue by force in 1982 – sparking the 74-day Falklands War. In 2013, the UK held a referendum in the Falklands which saw 99.8 per cent support for British rule. Just as the French did in New Caledonia. Since then, London has pointed to this referendum to rebuff Argentine requests to restart talks over the islands.

Both London and Port-Louis have their own sensitivities when it comes to this issue; London has resisted talking about the Chagos for fear of the precedent it would set for the Falklands islands dispute and another dispute over Gibraltar – two of 14 island dependencies controlled by the UK. Mauritius has calibrated its own international diplomacy – refusing to recognize the breakaway republic of Kosovo and backing the territorial integrity of Georgia at the UN for fear of the precedent this would set for the Chagos. Now with UK-based Chagossian groups demanding a seat at the table and a say in talks between Mauritius and the UK, it seems the same tactic to build pressure on London used to derail the settlement of the Falklands dispute is being attempted when it comes to the Chagos.

Why Chagos is different from the Falklands

The tactics being attempted to get London to back out of talks might be the same, but the dispute is not. Unlike the Falklands, the sovereignty of Mauritius over the Chagos has quite clearly been established. The UK itself recognizes this, pledging itself to return the Chagos when no longer needed for defence purposes, and all the while recognizing Mauritian fishing and mineral rights in the Chagos. It was why the unilateral attempt by the UK to declare a marine protected area in 2010 was declared unlawful by an arbitral tribunal under the UNCLOS in 2015. In 2019, the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the UN General Assembly slammed London’s continued occupation of the Chagos.

The International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) subsequently dismissed London’s sovereignty claims entirely while hearing a (still ongoing) maritime boundary dispute between Mauritius and Maldives. UN maps have been updated since then to reflect the fact that the Chagos islands are Mauritian. The UN’s FAO also submitted a legal opinion at the May 2022 session of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission that the UK should no longer be treated as a ‘coastal state’, but rather as a state that simply fishes in the Indian Ocean. “The UK can lay claim to the Falklands, but the Chagos is a different matter,” says Boolell. For the UK, continuing to ignore the ICJ’s ruling against it while criticising China for ignoring similar ICJ rulings against Beijing in 2016 when it comes to the South China Sea is a credibility problem.

Secondly, while the Chagos was depopulated, the Falklands was settled by people from the UK itself starting in 1765. So, if organizing a referendum within the Falklands is a relatively straightforward matter, doing so amongst UK citizens scattered in Crawley – to decide the future of territory internationally recognized as Mauritian – is a non-starter legally speaking. Seegobin: “They are just on the wrong side of international law.” While the UK’s Chagossian groups may try to exercise a ‘Falklands option’ to try to get London to hold off on talks with Mauritius, the differences between Chagos and Falklands are just too vast for this tactic to work and leave London looking good.

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