Upcoming negotiations between the UK and Mauritius on the future of the Chagos Islands should center on the rights of all the Chagossian people, Human Rights Watch said today. Consultation and participation of the Chagossian people, who have been severely harmed by the forceful eviction from their homeland by UK authorities about 50 years ago, is crucial to these negotiations, which should ensure full reparations including the right to return to all Chagossians.
Ahead of independence for Mauritius, the UK government pressured the colonial government in Mauritius, without any consultation with the Chagossian people, to give up Chagos, more than 60 islands in the Indian Ocean that had long been administered as a part of the British colony of Mauritius, or risk not gaining independence. Once it had pressured Mauritius into this agreement, and created, on November 8, 1965, a new colony – the British Indian Ocean Territory – the UK proceeded to systematically expel and exile the between 1,000-2,000 inhabitants of Chagos to Mauritius and Seychelles so the US could build a military base on the largest island, Diego Garcia. The UK announced on November 3, 2022, that it was open to reaching an agreement with Mauritius on the future of the islands.
“The opening of negotiations about the future of Chagos presents the UK, US, and Mauritian authorities with a unique opportunity to right the wrongs against the Chagossian people,” said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Righting the half century of wrongs to the Chagossian people means full reparations – their right to return in dignity and prosperity; full compensation for the harm they have suffered; and guarantees that such abuses never happen again.”
In the decades since their expulsion from their homeland, Chagossians of all generations have fought, including through the courts, for the acknowledgement of the violations against them and recognition of their rights, especially the right to return to live in Chagos and other reparations. The UK failed to respect decisions and resolutions in favor of the Chagossians, and reversed decisions to allow the Chagossians to return to their homeland.
In a significant change of policy, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in a written statement that the aim is to reach an agreement backed by international law to resolve all outstanding issues on the islands, “including those relating to the former inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago.” The minister noted the interests of the US and India and affirmed that any agreement will “ensure the continued effective operation of the joint UK/US military base on Diego Garcia.” The statement made no explicit guarantees about the participation of Chagossians in the negotiations or their rights to reparations, including whether their right to return would be ensured.
The decision to construct a military base on Diego Garcia – the largest and most densely populated island in the Chagos Archipelago – was the trigger for the decision by the UK, with the support and assistance of the US, to expel not just the inhabitants of that island but also all the other inhabited islands, including Peros Banhos and Salomon.
The Chagossian people, who are mostly of African descent, had lived in Chagos for generations. Many of their ancestors had been enslaved and transported from the African mainland to work on plantations owned by French, then British companies. They remained and continued to work on the islands after the end of slavery, when the islands were administered by the British authorities as part of the colony of Mauritius.
After years of demonstrations and litigation by Chagossians against the abandonment and destitution imposed on them, the UK agreed with Mauritian authorities to pay those Chagossians in Mauritius small amounts of compensation over several years. The amount is wholly insufficient in relation to the harm they suffered, and allegedly offered with the aim of getting the Chagossians to relinquish their right to return under duress, Human Rights Watch said. Chagossians in Seychelles received no compensation whatsoever.
The action of the UK to excise Chagos and to expel its inhabitants has been deemed unlawful by several international bodies, including the United Nations General Assembly and the International Court of Justice.
The UK government initially accepted the decision of a UK high court in 2000, which declared the regulation authorizing the removal of Chagossians from their homeland as unlawful and revoked the laws that prevented the return of Chagossians to most of the islands. In 2004, however, the government reversed the decision through an Order in Council issued by Queen Elizabeth II that reinstated the UK’s prohibition of Chagossians returning to the Chagos Islands. It reiterated this position in 2016 on the basis that their return was not feasible for cost and security reasons.
In the current negotiations, the UK and Mauritius should prioritize the Chagossian people’s participation and remedies for the violation of their rights over the last 50 years, Human Rights Watch said. The remedies in the form of reparations should include the legal recognition of their right to live on all the Chagos Islands and the provision of support and assistance to all Chagossians to return to Chagos regardless of where they live or what nationality they currently hold. They should also receive sufficient compensation for the wrongs they have suffered and restitution to restore them to as close conditions as they would have lived had they not been expelled from their homeland.
The UK and US should ensure that such abuses are not and cannot be repeated, including by acknowledging all the harm inflicted on the Chagossians, ensuring accountability for the abuses, and making a commitment not to repeat it. Mauritius should also make a commitment, in the context of the negotiations, to prioritize and facilitate the right of return of all the Chagossians, and to ensure that commitments for full reparations, including compensation and restitution to the Chagossians are central to the agreement itself.
“Any claims of respect for a world order underpinned by human rights by the key actors in the Chagos situation will ring hollow if the people most affected, the Chagossians, are excluded from the negotiations to decide their future,” Segun said. “The question of who is sovereign over the islands should be secondary to the rights and welfare of the people who call Chagos home.”