Twenty-two countries have gathered at the International Court of Justice in The Hague to discuss the destiny of the Chagos Islands, Britain’s last African colony.
They have each presented their own arguments. Britain doesn’t want to give up control, and does not believe the court is competent to hear the case. Mauritius says the islands should have been part of its territory. The United States is anxious to maintain the status quo, so it can guarantee the security of its large military base on Diego Garcia, the largest of the islands in the Chagos Archipelago. South Africa says the process of decolonisation cannot be completed until Britain has relinquished control.
Notably absent from the debate are the Chagossians themselves, who were brutally evicted from the islands in the early 1970s, and have not been allowed to return. Only states may present arguments at this court, the highest court in the United Nations system, which automatically excludes the very people whose future is under consideration.
This cannot be right. Self-determination has always been at the core of the decolonisation project, and the principle is now enshrined in international law. The fate of the Chagossians should not be determined by a bunch of lawyers and diplomats arguing their narrow national interests in a European court room — an image all too reminiscent of the 1884-1885 Berlin Conference, which parcelled up Africa’s territories with little thought for, and no input from, the people who actually lived there.
No, the fate of the Chagos Islanders should only be determined by the Chagos Islanders themselves. The community is about 10 000 strong, spread mainly between Mauritius, Britain and the Seychelles. Most were born in exile and have never set foot on the islands they call home. Having committed a grave injustice against Chagossians once already, the international community must not again exclude them from determining their own destiny.