Foreign secretary indicates major reversal of policy that could allow return of people expelled by Britain in 1970s
The UK has agreed to open negotiations with Mauritius over the future handover of the Chagos Islands, in a major reversal of policy following years of resistance and legal defeats in international courts.
The intended agreement will allow for the return of former inhabitants of the Chagos archipelago who were forcibly displaced by the British government in the 1970s. The UK would intend to maintain control of its strategic Indian Ocean military base in Diego Garcia, which it leases to the US.
In a written ministerial statement the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, said the aim was to reach a settlement with Mauritius early next year. It follows talks between the then prime minister, Liz Truss, and Mauritius officials in New York in October. The UK has twice been defeated in the international courts over the issue and, with ministers intent on a tilt to the Indo-Pacific, it was felt the British resistance to a handover was hampering the UK’s ability to build alliances in the region. The US appears to have received satisfactory assurances about its base.
When Mauritius gained independence from the UK in 1968, London severed the Chagos Islands from the rest of the country so it could lease the island of Diego Garcia to the US for a military base. The UK then forcibly deported 2,000 Chagossians, who have waged a long legal battle to return.
In 2019 the international court of justice, the UN’s highest court, ruled that the continuing British occupation of the islands was illegal and the Chagos Islands were rightfully part of Mauritius.
The UK ignored the ruling on the grounds that it was advisory, but this position became increasingly untenable in the context of British attempts to uphold the importance of international law.
Last year the Hamburg-based international tribunal for the law of the sea ruled that the British claim to the archipelago was illegal, but the UK also refused to accept that ruling.
More recently the tribunal took up the dispute between Mauritius and the Maldives over a 37,000-sq-mile (95,000 sq km) expanse of the Indian Ocean. Both sides are claiming the fish-rich waters as their own economic zones.
Ibrahim Riffath, the attorney general of the Maldives, told the nine-judge UN panel the case brought by Mauritius exists “primarily to advance its dispute with the United Kingdom”.
The Maldives sprang a surprise late last month by declaring that it supported Mauritius in its efforts to decolonise the Chagos Islands from the UK. Until this declaration, the Maldives had always backed the UK’s continuing control of the islands.
In one of the most shameful episodes of British postwar colonialism, the then Labour government expelled the Chagossians because under international law it could only separate the archipelago from Mauritius if it had no permanent population. The archipelago was reconstituted as a colonial entity as the British Indian Ocean Territory, within which Diego Garcia and the US base could rest. All Chagossians were removed from the islands by the end of 1971. There are currently more than 2,000 US service personnel and temporary casual workers, mainly Filipino, on the base.
The Chagossians, many very poor and aged as young as four, then formed communities in the Seychelles, the UK and Mauritius. In 2002 they were granted the right to apply for British citizenship. Many have campaigned for the right of return.