Britain could potentially face charges of crimes against humanity in the International Criminal Court, should the Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jagnauth follow through with proposed legal action over the country’s continued occupation of the Chagos Islands. Jagnauth told the BBC this week that he is exploring the prospect of filing charges against individual British officials after the United Kingdom failed to comply with a deadline for withdrawal from the Indian Ocean archipelago.
The Prime Minister’s comments are the latest in a lengthy saga which has seen Britain steadfastly defying the international community for over two years. In June 2017, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) voted overwhelmingly in favour of a Mauritian-backed resolution to refer Britain’s continued control of the islands to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for an advisory opinion. In the wake of the previous year’s vote to leave the European Union (EU), Britain lost the oft-assured support of EU allies in the UNGA vote, however, the 94 to 15 margin of defeat was substantial enough for this to be of little significance. Despite intensive lobbying on the part of the United States – whose interest in the affair is tied up with the airbase, it has stationed on the largest Chagossian island of Diego Garcia – the U.K.’s international standing suffered a significant blow.
In February this year, the ICJ delivered a near-unanimous decision that the Chagos Islands should be returned to Mauritius. The legal debate centred around the nature of Britain’s withdrawal from the former colony in the lead-up to Mauritian independence in 1968. Three years prior to this, the U.K. excised the archipelago from Mauritius together with three islands from Seychelles to create the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), primarily to make way for the U.S. base on Diego Garcia. The ICJ found, by a margin of 13 to 1, that this violated UN Resolution 1514, which prohibits the breaking-up of colonies prior to the granting of independence (the only judge who opposed was an American). Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, the ICJ President, declared that the 1965 detachment of the island group from Mauritius and the concomitant eviction of the 1,500 inhabitants was, unsurprisingly, not based on “the free and genuine expression of the people concerned.”
In the wake of this advisory opinion, the UNGA voted to allow Britain six months to comply with the recommendation to withdraw. That deadline passed on 22 November this year and, with the exception of providing small groups of Chagossians with so-called “heritage” visits to the islands, there is little sign of movement from the British government on the issue. Olivier Bancoult, who is the head of the Chagos Refugees Group, has told the BBC that these trips represent a ploy by the U.K. government to “buy [the] silence” of the Chagossian people in an attempt to “divide and rule” the community.
It can only be hoped that with the distraction of Brexit negotiations at hand, the British government will attempt to seek an amicable settlement of the matter while it is out of the limelight. However, it is also possible that the large majority won by the Conservatives in this month’s election will only entrench the U.K. government in its position. After all, the current Prime Minister was the Foreign Secretary when the initial UNGA vote was cast. Conservative Home has reported that Boris Johnson told the Mauritian government at the time that he would “fix” the Chagos issue if they did not table a resolution at the UN. It was the latter party’s frustration with this flippant and delaying approach which eventually saw exactly such a resolution tabled. Johnson’s historical inaction on the issue and the likelihood, in the wake of Brexit, that he will seek to make the U.K. a satrapy of the U.S. – which uses the Diego Garcia base to interrogate terrorist suspects – point to a likely continuation of this extended saga.