Britain’s shame: Colonial-style evictions to make way for military base

British officials threatened Mauritians with the withdrawal of an independence agreement if they did not surrender a large tract of their territory to the British, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) heard on Monday.

This is according to the statement delivered by Sir Anerood Jugnauth, Mauritius’s defence minister, before the court in the Hague, as it embarked on its public hearings that may determine the legal consequences of the separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965. The archipelago is Britain’s last remaining African colony.

In the opening submissions of a legal challenge to British sovereignty of the Chagos Islands at the ICJ, Jugnauth alleged that his country was coerced into giving up a large tract of its territory before independence.

That separation was in breach of United Nations resolution 1514, passed in 1960, which specifically banned the breakup of colonies before independence, the Mauritian government argued before the UN-backed court.

Twenty-two nations have applied to take part in the proceedings. Supporting Britain in its bid to retain control of the islands are the United States, Australia and Israel. The United States maintains a large and strategically important naval base on Diego Garcia, the largest of the Chagos Islands.

Opposing Britain’s continued rule over the Indian Ocean archipelago is Mauritius, which argues that the Chagos Archipelago should fall under its sovereignty.

READ MORE: Britain fights for control of its last African colony

Seventeen other nations support Mauritius’ claim of sovereignty: Belize, Botswana, Brazil, Cyprus, Germany, Guatemala, India, Kenya, the Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Serbia, South Africa, Thailand, Vanuatu and Zambia. The African Union will also be making representations in support of Mauritius.

“South Africa deems participation important as it is seen as a duty of every member state of the UN to leave no stone unturned to assist the general assembly to remove the last vestiges of colonialism and for all peoples to achieve self-determination and freedom,” the department of international relations said on Tuesday.

According to the department’s statement, this separation was in “contravention of the principle that requires the territorial integrity of a former colony to be respected upon achieving self-determination and independence”.

The ICJ took on the case after the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of a Mauritius-backed resolution to seek a legal opinion from the court. Its verdict will be advisory, and not legally binding.

“I am the only one still alive among those who participated in the Mauritius constitutional conference at Lancaster House [in London] in 1965, where talks on the ultimate status of Mauritius were held,” Jugnauth said in his opening submission.

He said the talks resulted in “the unlawful detachment of an integral part of our territory on the eve of our independence”.

“In the run-up to the 1965 conference, officials of the colonial power devised a strategy by which Mauritian representatives were given no room for any choice. In parallel to the constitutional talks small private meetings on different matters were organised by the colonial secretary in London, to which only five Mauritian representatives were invited.”

This small group was exposed to immense pressure, Jugnauth said.

He said that during the first two meetings Mauritian representatives had expressed strenuous opposition to the proposal to detach the archipelago.

In the face of this opposition, then UK prime minister Harold Wilson had a private exchange with then Mauritian prime minister Seewoosagur Ramgoolam to frighten him into agreeing to detach the archipelago, Jugnauth showed using an advisory for that secret meeting.

Wilson goal was to strongarm Ramgoolam by giving him threatening to go back on their independence deal, Jugnauth said.

Jugnauth argued that the Mauritian representatives thus did not freely surrender the archipelago, as the British have contended.

The Mauritian people were never given an opportunity to agree to or oppose the detachment of the archipelago, Jugnauth said.

Some 1 500 Chagossians were forcibly removed from their island home. “While the UK will contend that they have given financial support to them, let me say that no amount of monetary compensation can remedy the flagrant unknown and ongoing breaches of their fundamental human rights,” Jugnauth said.

Outside the court, a small group of Chagossians gathered to protest. They unfurled banners denouncing “modern slavery” and called for Chagossians to be allowed self-determination.

Chagossians whose families had been forcibly removed were in attendance inside the court.

Liseby Elyse said in her video testimony before the court: “Up to now we have not been told why we had to leave … We were like animals and slaves in that ship [which transported Chagossians to Mauritius]. People were dying of sadness in that ship … My heart is suffering, and my heart still belongs to the island where I was born.”

On the side of the UK, the solicitor general, Robert Buckland QC MP said the ICJ is in no position reach an opinion on Chagossian sovereignty in its advisory proceedings.

He urged the ICJ to reject the request for an advisory opinion: “The court is, in reality, being asked to resolve a sovereignty dispute.”

The UK, Buckland said, “accepts that the way Chagossians were treated was shameful and wrong and deeply regrets that fact”.

He denied that the 1965 agreement was made under duress. In 1982, Mauritius and the UK signed a treaty that reached “full and final settlement” of Mauritian claims to the islands, he added.

Buckland pointed to Ramgoolam’s statement following the London meeting, in which he said the Mauritian representatives gave consent to the detachment. 

Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit
Sarah Smit is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She covers topics relating to labour, corruption and the law.

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