Indian Ocean islands' decolonization dispute gets day in international court

The Chagos Islands are a speck in the Indian Ocean – and, at first glance, in history. But their story speaks volumes about the messes colonization leaves behind. Can international courts clean them up?

Protesters gather outside the International Court of Justice in The Hague on Sept. 3. Judges at the United Nations' highest court are listening to arguments in a case focused on whether Britain illegally maintains sovereignty over the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, including Diego Garcia, where the United States has a major military base.

Mike Corder/AP

In the memories of the elders, passed down over bowls of coconut and octopus stew in the shacks of the Mauritian capital, Port Louis, the Chagos Islands were paradise.

They spoke of palm trees bowing their fronds over white sand beaches, and Indian Ocean water so brightly turquoise it hurt your eyes. They spoke of their neat, thatched cottages and the Saturday evening sega dances, a blur of whirling skirts and beating drums.

What they didn’t speak of, because they hardly needed to, because everyone listening already knew, was how the story ended.

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The Chagos were still paradise. It was just that now, that paradise belonged to someone else.

Between 1968 and 1973, the entire population of the Chagos Archipelago, a freckled spattering of islands equidistant from east Africa, India, and Malaysia, were forcibly removed to make way for a US military base. Today, some two dozen massive military cargo ships bob in the blue waters off the largest island, Diego Garcia. The base, meanwhile, is a coastal American city in miniature, complete with beach BBQ, windsurfing regattas, and coconut bowling tournaments.

But now, Chagos’ original residents and their descendants have renewed reason to hope they might soon go home.

Last week, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the main court of the United Nations, heard arguments about who has the legal right to the islands. On one side was Britain, which formally controls the territory and leases Diego Garcia to the United States for its base. On the other was Mauritius, itself a former island colony of the British, which alleges the Brits snatched the territory from it unlawfully on the eve of its independence – and which has promised to let the Chagossians return.

“Mauritius fully supports their immediate right of return,” Anerood Jugnauth, Mauritius’ former prime minister and president who now heads its delegation to the ICJ, said at the hearing. “But as long as our decolonization is not complete, we are not able to implement a program for resettlement.”

The right to go home would help bring closure, many Chagossians say, to a fight for recognition and basic rights that has sprawled across five decades and two continents, and pitted them – a dwindling group of fewer than 2,000 original islanders and their descendants – against some of the world’s most powerful countries. But the battle at the ICJ could also help set a broader precedent for other countries fighting twenty-first century decolonization battles.

Although the ICJ’s decision is not legally binding, “if Mauritius wins, it will assist in furthering arguments around the global right to self-determination and decolonization,” says Allan Ngari, an international law expert and senior researcher with the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in South Africa. “It has the power to say, before the eyes of the law there are not big states and small states – everyone is equal.” And that, he says, could be important in cases before the court over sovereignty issues in the future.

A population problem

For Chagossians, that equality has been a long time coming.

The islanders, or Ilois, descend from enslaved and indentured Africans and Indians who were brought to the archipelago in the late 1700s to harvest coconuts on French plantations. Over time, the islands became a kind of floating company town, and a distinctive society developed, with its own French-based creole, warbling music, and coconut-heavy cuisine.

More than 1,000 miles away lay colonial Mauritius, which administered the distant Chagos on behalf of the British. Sabrina Jean’s father was 17 in the late 1960s when he boarded a boat to Port Louis for medical treatment, as islanders often did when they needed facilities more advanced than the Chagos’s small hospitals could provide. But when he returned to the dock a few weeks later to sail home, he was brusquely turned away. The Chagos were closed, port officials explained. No one would be allowed to return.

“He was stuck,” says Ms. Jean, now a prominent activist for Chagossian rights. As it turned out, he would never go home again.

Unbeknownst to the Chagossians, they had been caught up in a cold war security deal between the British and their American allies.

A few years earlier, US military officials had approached the British asking for help setting up a military base in a remote area of the Indian Ocean. The Chagos, they reasoned, would be perfect – isolated but within easy range of potential conflict zones in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

There was only one slightly thorny matter. The islands had a small population of “Tarzans and Man Fridays,” one British official explained in a memo.

And so the US and British officials said there were no permanent inhabitants on the island, only migrant laborers they were sending “home” to Mauritius or the Seychelles.

“To recognize that there are permanent inhabitants will imply that there is a population whose democratic rights have to be safeguarded,” one British brief on the Chagos explained.

Anyway, Britain had a bigger issue. Chagos was part of Mauritius, and Mauritius was about to become independent. So, Mr. Jugnauth told the court last week, the British approached the Mauritians with a do-or-die deal: Let us keep Chagos and take your independence, or the whole colony stays with us.

The Mauritians chose independence.

And so the Chagossians were forced into exile. To get residents off the island, authorities began restricting supplies. In 1971, they rounded up pet dogs and gassed them to death, as detailed in David Vine’s “Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia.” In 1973, the remaining Chagossians were finally boarded onto ships and dropped off in Mauritius or the Seychelles.

“To Mauritians, we were a lower class of human,” says Jean, who was born there after her father’s removal. “In school, kids called us monkeys, they mocked us.”

The US, meanwhile, gave the British a $14 million discount on nuclear ballistic missiles as payment for the lease, and went to work building their base.

“That base has been critical to every major US military intervention or war in the greater Middle East since the 1980s,” says Professor Vine, an anthropologist at American University. In recent decades in particular, Diego Garcia acted as a crucial launchpad for major bombing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and allegedly served as a “black site” for detaining terrorism suspects.

'The chance to go home'

Over the decades, Chagossian advocacy groups won a number of concessions from the British government, including cash settlements and in 2000, the right to British citizenship. But the US has repeatedly maneuvered itself away from the conflict. In the ICJ case, the US sidestepped the issue of Mauritius’s rights to the island, joining the United Kingdom, Australia, and Israel in arguing that the sovereignty of the islands must be decided in negotiations between Britain and Mauritius – not an international court.

But Mauritius – along with 17 other countries and the African Union – argued that the time for those kinds of one-on-one deliberations had long passed. (Ninety-four countries had already voted last June in favor of a UN resolution to take the dispute to the court.)

Mauritius and its allies contend that splitting off the Chagos from the rest of Mauritius violated UN resolutions on decolonization that prohibit governing powers from splitting up territories – including a 1965 resolution specifically asking Britain not to divide Mauritius before its independence. The country’s leaders say they were coerced into accepting the split anyway, in order to gain their independence.

But that’s where the international courts have an unique role to play, says Mr. Ngari of ISS. “International courts can help to redress historic power imbalances” between countries, he notes.

A decision on the Chagos is expected in March 2019. Whichever way it goes, many Chagossians say they only want the right to go back to where they came from – whether that place is officially British or officially Mauritian. And many would be happy to share Diego Garcia with the military base, whose current lease runs until 2036.

“The British dumped us, the Mauritians treated us like animals, we have been left by the world to be forgotten,” says Isabelle Charlot, a second-generation Chagossian and the chairperson of Chagos Islanders Movement, a Britain-based advocacy group. “Now we just want the chance to go home.”