Mauritius, a Commonwealth member, is making spurious claims while attempting to intimidate UK politicians. That cannot stand.
The dispute over the British Indian Ocean Territory, otherwise known as the Chagos Islands, is more than a matter of marginal importance. It raises profound questions about the vital work being done by the UK and the United States to support international security, the growing influence of China in the Indo-Pacific region, and misuse of the law by a Commonwealth country for political reasons.
The future of the Chagos Islands has long been of interest to me. In 2018, as solicitor general, I represented the United Kingdom at the International Court of Justice in a case brought against this country by the Republic of Mauritius, which claims sovereignty over the Islands.
As I stated to the Court then, the legal situation could not be clearer. The Islands had only been connected to the former British Territory of Mauritius for administrative purposes. There were no cultural ties between them. It was clear from the documentary evidence that the creation of the British Indian Ocean Territory in 1965, three years before Mauritian independence, was perfectly lawful and it was well within the UK’s remit to do so.
In an advisory ruling, the Court overlooked the key evidence presented by the UK in favour of Mauritius’ specious claim. The government at the time rightly held to its long-standing position: that the islands are British until they are no longer needed for military purposes, as was agreed in 1965. In an increasingly uncertain world, this is a position that we must maintain.
In 2021, Mauritius passed legislation that criminalises “misrepresenting the sovereignty of Mauritius over any part of its territory”. Worryingly, this new law is to be applied to anyone anywhere in the world. It carries a maximum sentence of ten years of imprisonment. This law is clearly intended to intimidate UK politicians, businesses and Chagossian activists who oppose Mauritius’s sovereignty claims into silence. It is a brazen act of intimidation dressed as foreign policy, which frankly merits comparisons with Hong Kong’s 2020 National Security Law and is not up to the high standards that we should expect from fellow members of the Commonwealth.
Dr Yuan Yi Zhu’s Policy Exchange paper is a well-timed reminder of this deeply shocking legislation that has inexplicably largely escaped public notice in the UK. It builds on his previous paper for Policy Exchange which addresses the question of sovereignty of the Chagos Islands, providing crucial context around the archipelago’s history and the UK’s relationship with it, which has endured since 1814.
The forced move of the Chagos Islanders from their homes in the 1960s was wrong. The UK has publicly apologised, and reparations to the islanders affected have and are being made. The issue of their return to the Islands is sensitive and requires close consultation, but questions of redress for the Chagossians and of sovereignty itself are completely separate. Many Chagossians actively campaign against the Mauritian claim, given their poor experience of living in that country. In a welcome move, the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 gives British citizenship to the descendants of Chagossian exiles. It is schemes like which will bring justice for the Chagossians, not a transfer of sovereignty.
Further, a transfer is not in the interests of the environment (given that the UK currently protects 250,000 square miles of ocean around the Islands) and it is certainly not in the interests of international security in this important region, bearing in mind the troubled situation in the Red Sea and the need for vigilance in the Indian Ocean. The UK Government appears to be listening to the concerns of academics, members of the security services and the Chagossian diaspora and is looking to change course. On a recent visit to the United States, Lord Cameron described the Chagos Islands as “vital”, and Secretary Blinken reiterated American support for British sovereignty over the islands. I hope that the UK will stand firm on the question of sovereignty and in the face of draconian criminal law that seeks to intimidate those who disagree. That legislation has to be repealed if normal relations are to resume.
Rt Hon Sir Robert Buckland KBE KC MP is Conservative MP for South Swindon and Chair of the Commons Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee. He is a former Lord Chancellor, Secretary of State for Wales and Solicitor General