The Chagos Islands: Colonialism on trial at the ICJ

Chagossians are still fighting for justice and redress against colonisation and imperial subjugation.

Chagos Islands - op-ed photo Reuters
The case of the Chagos islands is indicative of the ways in which colonialism persists, writes Ba and Bluen [Reuters]

Last week, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) heard oral arguments in the “Legal Consequences of the Separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965” case. This case emerges from a Request for Advisory Opinion that the UN General Assembly submitted to the Court last year on the dispute between Mauritius and the United Kingdom, with Mauritius arguing that the Chagos Islands, a British colony in the Indian Ocean, was rightfully Mauritian territory and the product of incomplete decolonisation. 


The UN General Assembly resolution passed with an overwhelming victory of 95 to 15 votes. States that supported Mauritius in the referral to the ICJ – including African states, and other states from the Non-Aligned Movement and the Global South such as India, Brazil, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Uruguay – justified their position in the name of decolonisation, the right to self-determination, sovereignty, and international law. On the other hand, the United States, Israel, France, Australia, and New Zealand sided with the UK in their attempt to stop the case from reaching the ICJ, arguing that the matter is better resolved through bilateral negotiations between the two parties.

The long peregrination of the Chagossians

Lying in the middle of the Indian Ocean, the Chagos Archipelago was part of the British colony of Mauritius and home to about 2,000 people in the early 1960s. While the decolonisation process was under way, the US had set its sights on Diego Garcia, the largest island in the Archipelago.  Kennedy administration officials, including Robert McNamara, then pressured the UK to excise the islands from Mauritius, thus creating a new colony to remain under British occupation and host a US military base.

Mauritius became independent in 1968 while Britain kept sovereignty over the Chagos Islands, a fact that Mauritius contends it was coerced to agree to. That same year, the deportation of the Chagossians began. Five decades later, the islands remain a British colony in Africa.

For over three decades, Chagossian activists have petitioned and protested for their right to return home and for reparations. They have sued the UK and US governments, former government officials including Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, and corporations such as Haliburton. While legal battles in US courts have been less successful, they have won some in British courts which have ruled that the deportation of the Chagossians was illegal and they have a right to return home.

The 9/11 attacks, however, changed the dynamics and raised the stakes for the continued use of the US naval base at Diego Garcia. An executive order from the British government overruled the court decision and in a 2016 report, British authorities maintained their stance against the resettlement of Chagossians “on the grounds of feasibility, defence and security interests, and cost to the British taxpayer.”

Diego Garcia and the footprint of empire

The US operates one of its most strategic naval bases in Diego Garcia, from which B-52 and stealth bombers have been flown to Iraq and Afghanistan. Additionally, the CIA used the island as a “black site” in its torture programme. The US government is opposed to any resettlement of any of the Chagos islands, as expressed in a 2006 diplomatic cable in which the American ambassador to Great Britain asserted that security around Diego Garcia would be compromised if populations were allowed to resettle the archipelago. Mauritius, however, has argued that the decolonisation of the islands would not compromise the base at Diego Garcia and that the US would be allowed to maintain its military presence on the island.

Diego Garcia is believed to be one of the largest US military bases in the world, home to an estimated 4,000 US troops.
Diego Garcia is believed to be one of the largest US military bases in the world, home to an estimated 4,000 US troops.

Colonial apologia in the courtroom

In its submission, Mauritius contends that the Chagos Islands were detached under duress and that UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson had rendered Mauritius’s independence contingent on its agreement to cede the archipelago. On the basis of this, Mauritius argues that the decolonisation process of 1968 was not complete, thus in violation of the right to self-determination.

The UK argued that the Court should decline to respond to the request for an advisory opinion because it is a matter of bilateral dispute settlement and that the Chagos Islands were not detached under duress.

The British submission is, in fact, an exercise in adulation for colonialism. It contends that the right to self-determination was not established in international law until the 1970s. On the issue of the associated right to the territorial integrity of pre-independence territory, it notes that the UK abstained from the vote on UN Resolution 1514, which established the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples and has consistently abstained from or voted against resolutions on its implementation. In this way, the UK’s imperial history is leveraged as support for continued colonialism.

Moreover, the UK argued that, in contrast to Mauritius’s position which called for the decolonisation to be completed immediately, timing is a policy consideration, effectively suggesting that should it be found to be a colonial power, it should be allowed to continue to be such until the timing is convenient for it.

Adjacent to colonial territorial designs, the UK’s submission also liberally privileges overtures at colonial charity in place of genuine justice. The British government went to great lengths to emphasise its investment in ‘a very significant package’ to improve the livelihood of Chagossians where they now live. In this narration, the violent colonial displacement of the Chagossians is something to be addressed with the balm on the British conscience of aid, which minimizes the horror of colonialism, reducing it to the palatable.

Decolonisation redux

The fact that the case of the separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius has landed on the docket of the ICJ is a major development in international law, with potentially far-reaching implications, regardless of how the Court rules on the issue. Despite its continued insistence that the ICJ should not hear the case, the UK and its western allies have been unable to keep the case outside of the purview of the ICJ.

At the same time, the issue remains a complex one. While a ruling in favour of Mauritius may be a step towards the demise of British colonialism, some Chagossian activists remain unconvinced that either Mauritius or the UK will guarantee resettlement. Some suggest rather that Mauritius is driven more by the potential revenues that would come from leasing Diego Garcia to the US than by the plight of the Chagossians. In a pointed display of both the hubris of international justice and the continued erasure of the Chagossians, a number of Chagossians who went to the ICJ to follow the case were denied entry to the Court and not allowed to view the proceedings.

Still, this case represents decades of a tireless fight for justice and redress, against colonisation and imperial subjugation, perpetuated to this day by racism and denial of the humanity of a population of the Global South in the name of western security interests. It illustrates the vacuousness of arguments, fashionable in both liberal and right-wing contexts, suggesting that colonialism is a ‘thing of the past’ and draws into sharp relief the failures involved in addressing colonial history and its enduring present.

Coloniality, in the service of whiteness, inculcated the racism which pervades globally and continues to shape inequitable power arrangements. Indeed, scholars such as Nadine El-Enany and Gurminder Bhambra have pointed to the ways in which Brexit is a reflection of imperial nostalgia. In a visceral, literal sense, the case of the Chagos islands is indicative of the ways in which colonialism persists.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.