Five days after a legal body of the United Nations dismissed British claims of sovereignty over the Chagos Islands, the Foreign Office continues to avoid meaningful engagement on the issue.
The United Nation’s International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea ruled on January 28 that Mauritius has sole sovereignty over the Chagos Islands, thus delivering a fatal blow to the UK’s weak legal position.
The UN body’s judgment follows a ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in February 2019 that the UK must end its occupation, which in turn triggered a vote to that effect in the UN General Assembly in May 2019.
Despite the gravity of the situation, the British Foreign Office has hitherto released just a single terse statement on the issue, essentially reaffirming the UK’s recalcitrant attitude.
“The UK has no doubt as to our sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), which has been under continuous British sovereignty since 1814. Mauritius has never held sovereignty over the BIOT and the UK does not recognize its claim”.
That curt statement, and the subsequent silence, underscores the UK’s resolve to flout international law and maintain a stranglehold over the occupied Chagos Islands.
But despite London’s oft-stated determination to hold onto the Chagos Islands indefinitely, there will inevitably be concerted legal push back by the international community, the state of Mauritius and even by individual aggrieved Chagos islanders.
On the issue of Chagos islanders – who were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands by the UK in the mid-1960s – the long-delayed issue of compensation by the British government is finally attracting attention.
According to the Observer (January 31), less than £12,000 of a £40 million fund set up to compensate Chagos islanders for the loss of their homeland has actually been given to those islanders living in Britain.
The fund was reportedly set up four years ago and yet the Foreign Office has distributed less than one percent in direct support to Chagos islanders who have lost homes and livelihoods as a result of the 55-year British occupation.
According to the Observer, which claims to have seen internal documents, the “English council” tasked with allocating the money has “abandoned the work” and “returned the funds” to the Foreign Office.
The FCO’s mistreatment of Chagos islanders over a 55-year period has even elicited criticism from some sections of the ruling Tories, a party committed to keeping occupied territories around the world.
The Tory MP Henry Smith, whose Crawley constituency is home to the majority of Chagossians living in the UK, has described the process of extracting compensation money from the Foreign office as “tortuous”.
“While there’s some uncertainty among the Chagos community about engaging with the UK government over these funds, it’s outrageous that next to none of this funding has actually been utilized. The fact that this sort of funding hasn’t been deployed is another failure of Foreign Office promises over half a century to the Chagossian community”, Smith said.
It remains to be seen if class action undertaken by the Chagossian community – coupled with pressure from the UN and the broader international system – will produce a shift in the UK’s position in the mid to long term.