“If the court rules that it has an obligation to return it [the archipelago] to Mauritius, it would be the end of British colonial rule in Africa - it would be the end of the end,” Dapo Akande, professor of public international law at Oxford University, told RFI. He spoke in court on Thursday on behalf of the Zambian government.
Twenty-two countries and the African Union spoke at the ICJ on the issue of sovereignty over the remote 65-island archipelago.
This wrangling for a group of islands that are now almost entirely uninhabited has a complicated past.
As part of a deal in 1965, Mauritius gave the Chagos Islands to the UK. “British officials essentially told representatives for Mauritian independence that they had a simple choice - either you give up the Chagos Islands and get independence, or no independence,” said David Vine, anthropology professor at American University in Washington DC, and author of the book, “Island of Shame: The Secret History of the US Military Base on Diego Garcia”.
The UN General Assembly passed a resolution in 1965, calling on the UK not to dismember Mauritius territory before its independence in 1968.
But unknown to Mauritius officials at the time was that the UK had earmarked the islands for other purposes, said Vine.
“The United States wanted to build a military base in the Indian Ocean and they struck a secret deal with Britain to gain access to Diego Garcia in exchange for a 14-million-dollar payment,” said Vine. “In addition to getting access to the island, British officials agreed to get rid of the entire local, indigenous people, the Chagossians,” he added.
The US military base on Diego Garcia is still operational. US State Department legal advisor Jennifer Newstead told the court earlier this week that it is overstepping its role, because this is a bilateral territorial dispute between the UK and Mauritius.
The public hearing at the International Court of Justice, the UN’s highest court, is a non-binding advisory legal opinion, but is widely respected. It will aid the judges in deciding whether they will make an advisory opinion on the sovereignty of the Chagos Islands. The case hinges on whether the court issues an opinion – it could decide that laws on decolonization were broken by the UK. If so, sovereignty over the island group could go to Mauritius.
“This feels like an episode of dark, inconsistent history-- it hurts, to come in the 21st century before your honors, to contest a call by a colonizer, debating in the consent of the colonized, for keeping part of its territory, otherwise there would be no independence,” Namira Degm, legal counsel of the African Union and director of legal affairs, said at the public hearing.
Degm admonished the UK for using the concept of Mauritius’ free will in giving over the Chagos Islands during its quest for independence.
“A colonial power, speaking about the free will of the colonized at the time they were under its power - is history being re-written? It is equally astounding that for the last few days, we heard the colonizer and its allies defending colonization. It feels as if the Berlin conference has no end,” she added.
Chagossians are not part of the case
In the mix of this decolonization matter is the issue of the Chagossians. The remote archipelago of 65 islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean was home to some 2,000 Chagossians, descendants of former African slaves and Indian indentured servants, who settled around the 1700s, according to Vine.
As part of the UK-US deal, the Chagossians were forcibly deported from all islands by 1973, most placed in Mauritius and some in the Seychelles, said Vine. Chagos Islanders have described how they and their family members were unceremoniously dumped, without any provision for housing or a resettlement plan.
Isabelle Charlot, a second-generation Chagossian now living in the UK says she is cautiously optimistic about the court opinion, even though the islanders are ultimately not involved.
“It’s a good thing this is happening because after all these years, 50 years, we’ve been neglected and abandoned by all the world leaders the UK, US, Mauritius no one knows about our existence and how we are living in poverty and misery,” she told RFI. Her father was born and raised on Boddham Island on the Solomon atoll in the northern Chagos Islands.
Charlot went to The Hague with five other Chagossians last Monday to watch the proceedings from the public gallery. She said that she and the others, including pensioners, saved up to make the trip from the UK, because this public hearing was important to them. After being given the first six tickets in line and complying with ICJ rules, including not bringing a phone or banners into the public gallery, the group was escorted out of the building.
The police were called, according to Charlot, but the police found nothing wrong with the group. The ICJ security would not allow them in, however. “It was so humiliating,” she said. The ICJ was contacted by RFI, but has not commented on the matter.
Not all Chagos Islanders agree on what legal opinion would ultimately work out the best for their community of nearly 12,000 people, living in exile in Mauritius and the UK.
“All the promises given to the Chagossians were not met by the Mauritian government. Only recently has the Mauritian government taken care of Chagossians. When they arrived from the archipelago, they weren’t welcome,” said Charlot. “Mauritius is just thinking of the money they can get from renting the island to the Americans,” she added.
Mauritius has stepped up its support of the Chagossians’ right to return and live on the islands if it was handed back sovereignty. It has also stated that it would allow the US base to stay, although a number of Chagossian activists believe Mauritius sees the islands as a potential cash cow.
“For half a century, there’s been a significant Chagossian population in Mauritius, and they haven’t been treated well there by the government, so there’s a significant portion of the communities that are suspicious of Mauritius’ intentions,” said Tom Guha, chairperson of the UK Chagos Support Association, a London-based advocacy group.
“They see Mauritius as playing politics and are either indifferent to the way the case goes, or would rather see the case go in favor of the UK,” he said.
For many Chagossians, the right to return is the most important, no matter who has sovereignty.
Louis Philip Boucary, 65, is from Paros Banhos atoll in the Chagos Islands. Although he currently lives in the UK, moving in 2007 after receiving a UK passport, he does not speak English. He told RFI that he was ill when he was a little boy, and his mother brought him to Mauritius for treatment. When they tried to return home, authorities had stopped the boat service to the Chagos Islands, leaving him stranded with his mother.
Life is difficult in the UK at the moment, he says, because he still has health problems. He said he is sad and just wants to go home.
“My dream is to return to the Chagos Islands with my family, because all of my family is split up,” said the father of four.
The 15 ICJ judges will now deliberate and a statement is expected in March 2019.
“It would be great to know what Mauritius wants to do with the Chagossians and for the Chagossians,” said Charlot. But ultimately she would like to go to her father’s land.
“Let the military base stay there, and let us live peacefully there. We need to get self-determination. That’s all we want,” she said.