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Britain is still reluctant to hand Chalgos islands back to Mauritius

Opinion

Diego Garcia, the largest island in the Chagos archipelago and site of a major United States military base in the middle of the Indian Ocean leased from Britain in 1966. [Reuters]

Britain and Mauritius have differences over who has sovereignty over Chagos islands which lie between Maldives in the North and Mauritius in the South.

A Mauritius boat going to Chagos on ‘scientific’ mission attracted attention partly because it exposed the friction between ideals of decolonisation and global power politics. 

Mauritius, and its Chagos islands, were part of worldwide strategic sea posts that advanced Britain’s commercial and geopolitical interests. Britain acquired Mauritius from France in 1814 at the end of the Napoleonic wars.

The 1968 independence for Mauritius was different from that of other colonies in that American and British geo-strategic considerations made decolonisation incomplete; it was conditioned on decapitation.

In 1965, Britain created the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) that includes Chagos islands south of the Equator in the Indian Ocean. Britain had vast experience in making lands ‘unoccupied’ in order to actualise desired policies.

It had, for instance, evicted people in colonial Kenya’s Tigoni area in order to give ‘unoccupied’ land to white settlers. In Mauritius, it started evicting about 2,000 Chagosians from the islands in 1967 to create a terra nullius reality in the islands.

This was to justify continued presence and to claim that the islands were ‘overseas territories’ rather than colonies. That move made Chagos islands exempt from the UN call on colonial powers to decolonise.

Apart from the botched decolonisation in Mauritius, Britain showed inability to handle Ian Smith’s 1965 colonial white settler rebellion in Southern Rhodesia in the Unilateral Declaration of Independence that created Rhodesia.

What counted for British behaviour in both places was the ‘bigger picture’ logic for the West during the Cold War that ignored presumed ideals of decolonisation in favour of geo-strategic and geopolitical reality.

The United States wanted to create a large sea base in the Indian Ocean for which Mauritius ended up the victim, and to acquire chrome from Rhodesia by supporting Smith. Britain, and the West ignored UN concerns over botched decolonisation in Mauritius and in Rhodesia. 

Britain was not the only power to botch decolonisation, there was also Spain in Western Sahara which enabled Morocco to invade its southern neighbour. Members of the United Nations, unhappy with the botching, mounted pressure. Eventually, Britain resumed its responsibility, decolonised Rhodesia into Zimbabwe in 1980, and set an example that Spain should follow in Western Sahara.

Mauritius, however, remained outside the decolonisation orbit and had to be referred to the International Court of Justice, ICJ, which in February 2019 found Britain guilty of failing to complete decolonisation in Mauritius.

In May 2019, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly resolved to give Britain six months to withdraw ‘its colonial administration’ from the Chalgos islands and urgently to cooperate in the resettlement of the Chagosians in their homes.

The Chalgosian issue brings up the perpetual conflict between anti-colonial ideals on one side and the realities of global muscle flexing. To maintain geo-strategic presence near the Equator in the Indian Ocean, Britain decapitated Mauritius, expelled the Chagosians, created BIOT, and allowed the US to build the military base at Diago Garcia.

What the ICJ and the UN thinks about eliminating the remnants of colonialism is therefore irrelevant to perceptions of national security and power politics. Mauritius has some waiting to do before getting Chalgos back.