US brushes aside Mauritius’ claims to British-controlled Chagos islands
Among President Joe Biden's favorite terms, "rules-based order" is near the top of the list. Used by his administration as a foreign policy mantra, it means supporting the international laws and institutions that have kept the world relatively peaceful since World War II.
Russia's seizure and annexation of Crimea from Ukraine has been cited as a violation of the rules, as has Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's use of chemicals as a weapon of war. China is often called out as a violator, for ignoring a decision by a Law of the Sea tribunal that struck down its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
All of which leads to the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius. A former British colony, it has won a series of battles in international and U.K. courts over British claims to a group of Indian Ocean atolls known as the Chagos Archipelago.
While courts have affirmed that the Chagos islands belong to Mauritius by history and by law, Britain has remained unmoved, calling the rulings irrelevant or misguided.
Last month, citing Biden's many references to the rule of law, Mauritius asked the United States to take its side. In a lengthy diplomatic note to the State Department, it affirmed "its greatest respect for the values which the United States has traditionally promoted."
"The case of Chagos Archipelago," it said, "is the embodiment of all these values, which, sadly, have been flouted by the United Kingdom for more than five decades."
The response has not been encouraging.
"The United States unequivocally supports UK sovereignty" over the islands, a State Department spokesperson said in an emailed response to The Washington Post. "The specific arrangement involving the facilities on Diego Garcia is grounded in the uniquely close and active defense and security partnership between the United States and the UK. It cannot be replicated."
The reference to Diego Garcia is key.
The largest of the Chagos islands, Diego Garcia was leased to the United States by Britain more than five decades ago, specifically for the construction of an American military base that has served ever since as a crucial component of U.S. global power projection. A naval logistics, communications and refueling hub overlooking the edge of South Asia, it includes a runway that has launched long-distance bombers to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Diego Garcia's importance to U.S. strategic priorities has only increased with time. Located more than 1,000 miles southwest of India, it is part of the web of strategic locations from which the United States monitors Chinese and Iranian maritime aggression and that factors into U.S. plans to maintain "over-the-horizon" counterterrorism capabilities in Afghanistan after the U.S. troop withdrawal.
According to David Vine, a professor of anthropology at American University who has written a book and numerous articles about the Diego Garcia issue, it is not really about U.S. defense needs. Mauritius has pledged to give the United States — or even the United States and Britain together — a long-term lease to Diego Garcia.
"In short," Vine said, "the answer is power, and ongoing forms of colonialism in the 21st century."
"It is appalling that the Biden administration is defending colonialism and Britain's attempt to hold onto one of its last colonial possessions," Vine said in an interview.
The Chagos Archipelago, although 1,300 miles away from Mauritius in the vast Indian Ocean, was nonetheless recognized as a Mauritius dependency under British colonial rule. But even before Britain formally let Mauritius go in 1968, it had already decided to keep Diego Garcia and the rest of the archipelago, in apparent violation of international conventions on decolonization that prohibit carving up a country before independence.
Britain declared its new colony the British Indian Ocean Territory, or BIOT. A formal note agreeing to let the United States build a naval base on Diego Garcia was signed in 1966.
In government documents of the time, cited in subsequent court cases, the United States and Britain made clear that a small, newly independent country such as Mauritius should have no part in governing the BIOT. For security reasons, the Americans made clear, the inhabitants of all the atolls — at least 1,500 people, known as Chagossians — would have to be removed.
Many of the residents were the descendants of enslaved people who were brought to the islands to tend colonial coconut plantations. The vast majority lived on Diego Garcia.
The United States and Britain agreed the forcible evictions would be "awkward" if publicly revealed, according to one of numerous documents and exchanges quoted in a 2006 High Court ruling in favor of a lawsuit brought by a former inhabitant. But by 1973, the last of the Chagossians had been loaded onto ships and deposited in Mauritius or other remaining colonial outposts.
Money was paid by the British government to Mauritius at several junctures to distribute to the Chagossians for their pains. At various times over the years, Britain has acknowledged that the expulsions were not its finest hour, but has taken no step to reverse what happened.
Its response, repeated in numerous court proceedings, is that the BIOT "has been under continuous British sovereignty since 1814," and that the United Kingdom "does not recognize" the claim of Mauritius.
As it continued to occupy Diego Garcia, where resident military personnel are not permitted to bring their spouses and few visitors are allowed, the United States has brushed aside the sovereignty issue.
A 2019 advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice in The Hague — the judicial arm of the United Nations — in favor of the sovereignty of Mauritius was "non-binding," the State Department spokesperson said in response to points made in last month's Mauritian diplomatic appeal.
The nearly unanimous vote by the U.N. General Assembly that same year giving Britain six months to leave the archipelago — and resulting in all official U.N. maps being changed to make Diego Garcia and the rest of the islands part of Mauritius — was the result of an "inappropriate" use of the ICJ opinion, said the spokesperson, who declined to be identified.
A similar ruling in January by a Special Chamber of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea was "inappropriately" decided and "non-binding," the spokesperson said.
China's flouting of Law of the Sea ruling was "not comparable" to the Diego Garcia situation, the spokesperson said, as it involved dissimilar issues, and was a "binding" and "appropriately determined" decision.
In Mauritius, where sovereignty over the archipelago — and the rights of the Chagossians — is something of a political litmus test, hope springs eternal. Politicians, including the current government of Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, have long sought to demonstrate their zeal in pursuing claims against Britain, however dim the prospect for success.
The appeal to Biden was similar to one made, without response, to the Trump administration. It came after the U.S. chargé d'affaires in Mauritius, Judes E. DeBaere, visited Foreign Minister Alan Ganoo last month to express "concerns" about a government plan to effectively taunt the British by organizing a shipload of official Mauritian visitors, including former residents and descendants, to the islands.
"Not to Diego Garcia, but to some of the other islands," Mauritius U.N. ambassador Jadish Koonjul explained in an interview. "Of course, the government has a plan for their resettlement, not tomorrow or in the immediate future, but we certainly have a plan to resettle those who want to go back. It will require a full assessment of the facilities."
The Washington Post's Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.