The Decolonisation of Mauritius Is Incomplete, It Must Now Come at All Costs

In March 1968, the Republic of Mauritius gained its independence from the United Kingdom. Despite the jubilation which ensued in the small Indian Ocean island nation, the coming of independence brought with it the territorial dismemberment of what was once Mauritius, a moral and legal injustice which still stands today. The decolonisation of Mauritius remains incomplete, the violation of its territorial sovereignty persists; the people of its former territories suffer continuing discrimination and the imbalances of geopolitics weigh heavily upon it. Britain must right these wrongs and end its colonialism in the Indian Ocean.

Supporters of the Chagos Islanders in Westminster following following the Law Lords judgment over the decision of the British government to stop the Chagos Islanders going home. (Credit: Fiona Hanson, via PA, PA Photos)

Three years prior to the granting of independence, the British government had agreed with Mauritian representatives that the Chagos islands were to be detached from Mauritius and retained by the British government in exchange for £3 million in compensation. In an era of growing Cold War paranoia, the British had been convinced of the geostrategic significance of the Chagos islands (later renamed the British Indian Ocean Territory or  the ‘BIOT’ by the British) by the United States, given their proximity to the Horn of Africa, the Arabian peninsula, south and southeast Asia. The result of this purchase was the construction of a British-American joint military base on the largest of the Chagos islands, Diego Garcia, and the arbitrary expulsion of roughly 1400-2000 Chagossians from their homeland. 

The islands’ depopulation began with the extermination of the islanders’ dogs. Roughly 600 were seized from their owners and gassed with exhaust fumes. This mass extermination was considered by many Chagossians to be a thinly veiled threat, that should they refuse to leave they too may be killed. This fear drove the islanders to leave their homes, families and livelihoods and board ships carrying them to Mauritius and the Seychelles. Their new lives were extremely difficult. Being immediately homeless and jobless, the Chagossians were forced into crushing poverty, with many resorting to slum-dwelling and subsistence living. The psychological impact of their dispossession and new situation, made worse by the frequent discrimination they faced in their new homeland, was immense, with several reportedly related suicides. 

The expulsion of the Chagossians to clear the islands for British-American military operations has drawn increasing moral condemnation since the 1960s. Approximately 3000 Chagossians now reside in the UK, many having been actively involved in high profile legal cases regarding their expulsion. The apex of this campaigning was the 2000 ruling of the British High Court that the Chagossians should be allowed the right to return to all islands other than Diego Garcia. The eventual nullification of this ruling in the House of Lords in 2008, following a near decade-long battle between the High Court and Parliament, typifies the systemic discrimination still faced by Chagossians at the hands of the British government. Many are forced to reside in the UK illegally and are unable to work after having been continually denied citizenship and the right to legal residency by the state which arbitrarily exiled them from their homeland.

Far more successful have been the challenges mounted by Mauritius against the process of their own decolonisation on the international stage. The main grievance of the Mauritian state is the means by which their territory was dismembered before their independence, contending that the seemingly wilful removal of the Chagos islands from Mauritius in 1965 was in fact done under duress as a prerequisite for the granting of independence. This stance has found support in several resolutions of the African Union, and in 2017 the UN General Assembly voted to seek the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the issue.  The ICJ’s advisory opinion, released in 2019, strongly condemned the dismemberment of Mauritius, suggesting that no binding international agreement could be made between the British government and Mauritian representatives still under colonial rule, and called on Britain to end its continued colonial occupation of the Chagos islands. In response, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to demand that the UK end its colonial activity in the BIOT and to cooperate with the state of Mauritius in resettling the Chagossians. The 6-month deadline given to the UK to abide by this resolution passed on the 22nd of November 2019 with no action undertaken.

The privileged position of the British and American governments as permanent, veto-holding members of the UN’s Security Council has largely prevented further action on the international stage despite near-unanimous global condemnation of their joint imperialism. With 2016 seeing the British and American governments agreeing to continue their military presence on Diego Garcia for another 20 years, no immediate end is in sight. The toxic British reliance on the ‘special relationship’, made more intense by its withdrawal from the European Union, has left the spectre of its colonialism to cast a long shadow. While the British government now concedes that the means by which it expelled the Chagossians from their islands was immoral, its outright refusal to abide by international law and allow their right to permanent resettlement demonstrates that their disdain for a people once described by a colonial official as “some few Tarzans or Men Fridays” remains very much the same.  

Joseph Callow

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