Chagos: There’s more to a deal than meets the eye


    Dennis Hardy, Research Professor with the James R. Mancham Peace and Diplomacy Research Institute at the University of Seychelles, and Editor of the Seychelles Research Journal           


    The saga of the grand-sounding but remarkably hollow British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), more commonly known as Chagos, might soon be coming to an end. Well, not entirely, as it will leave in place the enduring presence of the American-controlled military base on the largest island in the disputed archipelago, Diego Garcia. That apart, all the signs are that the BIOT will be dissolved and sovereignty of the islands will pass to Mauritius. After years of legal wrangling, this outcome will not only favour the new host nation but it also reflects the wishes of most of the international community. The debacle of some inept territorial reshuffling six decades ago will at last be consigned to history.

    Ironically, it was Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister, Liz Truss, who in November 2022, asked her foreign secretary to end what she saw as a needless distraction. At the present time, negotiations to achieve an agreed deal are still ongoing, the only certainty being that the US will not be leaving Diego Garcia in the foreseeable future. But, even with this important exception, the return of the rest of Chagos to Mauritius is already heralded in that country and more widely as a geopolitical triumph, seen as a confirmation that former colonial powers can no longer hold sway in distant parts of the world.

    It was, in fact, another colonial power, France, which in 1793 took possession of the previously uninhabited islands, until Napoleon over-reached himself and, in 1814, the archipelago was ceded to Britain as part of the combined territory of Mauritius and Seychelles [1]. The history of the region might have taken a very different course had France retained control. Unlike Britain, it has been meticulous in keeping hold of numerous remote islands across the world, taking the view that one day, they might provide useful landing points, as well as offering valuable fisheries across their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ). Britain, on the other hand, from the start of this episode to its impending finish, has not shown the same long-term perspective; it has been more opportunist, with the risk (as now shown) of losing everything if the main plank of its strategy fails.

    The present issue has its origins in the 1960s, when Britain sought to use the remote island of Aldabra (an outer island within the then colony of Seychelles) to boost its military presence in the region. When that attempt failed, opposed by an international lobby which already recognized the unique environmental value of the atoll, it looked, instead, to Chagos, renamed in 1965 the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). At the behest of the Americans, Britain was soon to expel all of the islanders (believed to number between 1400 and 1700), relocating them in Mauritius, Seychelles and Britain. That was so obviously a public relations disaster waiting to happen and, sure, enough, it has plagued the very mention of Chagos for half a century.

    Renaming the islands, as if they had become a different domain, was hardly going to fool anyone. And the very name of Chagos became synonymous with a questionable decision about sovereignty coupled with an abuse of human rights. It might well be that few, if any, of the original families and their descendants would now choose to settle permanently where their forebears worked as landless contract employees on the copra plantations. For all the emotion involved, the remoteness of Chagos, and the very limited area open to settlement, is not an attractive proposition, especially for those younger generations who have grown up elsewhere. The 58 islands together cover only 56 square kilometres and, of that, Diego Garcia occupies 32.5; the second-largest island is barely more than 3.1 square kilometres. The exiles have since made new lives for themselves in their adoptive homelands and, in any case, it is hardly feasible to think that a decent infrastructure will be provided for so few.

    Human rights will continue to colour the issue but Mauritius will be quietly celebrating the expected deal for three more tangible reasons, each offering the prospect of significant economic gain. Firstly, in spite of the neighbouring military base, with its attendant noise and military traffic, the rest of the islands will surely become a new venue for exclusive, long-haul tourism. Access will be difficult for conventional aircraft but the idea of a tropical paradise that has escaped development for more than half a century will create niche opportunities for a unique experience. Its undisturbed outer islands will quickly find themselves on the global tourism map, leading to a predictable pattern of high-end resorts. The sea will be the star attraction, with its abundant fish, clear waters and exceptional biodiversity. Mauritius is well-versed in managing tourism and will be quick to make the most of this virgin territory.

    A second reason why Mauritius will stand to gain from a transfer of sovereign rights is that the sea around the archipelago offers attractive opportunities for commercial fishing. Over the years, there have been regular visits to Chagos to allow parties of exiles to visit their lost homeland, and one thing commonly reported is that, as the islands are approached, the waters are teeming with marine life. It was this natural resource that Britain argued should be protected in the form of a vast (640,000 square kilometres) Marine Protected Area that would have extended well beyond the Exclusive Economic Zone boundaries (BIOT Marine Protected Area). The idea was proposed in 2010 but it was by then too enmeshed in the Chagos territorial dispute to be accepted by the international community. After five years, the proposal was formally withdrawn. In fact, as an environmental measure, it was itself well founded and the reserve would have made a significant contribution to the global aim of protecting 30% of the ocean in this way. Geopolitics, however, accounted for its demise.

    Finally, there is the early prospect of seabed mining in the surrounding waters. Deep-ocean mining is a contentious topic and currently licenses awarded by the International Seabed Authority (ISA) are restricted to exploration in the high seas. Within EEZ boundaries, however, extraction can go ahead, subject only to domestic laws. Most international interest in this new form of mining is in the Pacific but the central Indian Ocean (close to and including Chagos) is attracting growing attention as a rich source of rare earth metals and minerals. Mauritius is already preparing domestic legislation to provide a framework for mining, and will probably need to partner with a larger nation like India to enable the substantial investment required to exploit its new reserves. So long as Britain retained sovereignty of the archipelago, Mauritius was precluded from direct involvement; but all that will now change. The question is whether deep-sea mining will be approached with sensitivity, given that so little is known about the ecological implications, or whether (as environmentalists fear) it will take on the characteristics of a traditional gold rush.

    For each of the above reasons, assuming a deal will soon be struck, Mauritius will undoubtedly be the main economic beneficiary. It is a responsible nation and will do what is best for its people, including the small Chagossian minority. But it is to be hoped that the bitter history that has clouded the newly-gained territory, with its sharp focus on sovereignty and human rights, will not prevent consideration of global interests too. There is a case for at least part of this unique environment to be designated as an international reserve. It would be sad if the potential economic value of tourism, fishing and mining were allowed to dominate decisions without reference, at the same time, to a wider, common good in the form of a sustainable ocean. The recent UN treaty for the biodiversity of the high seas adds to the case for making a gesture of this sort.

    [1] William McAteer (1991), Rivals in Eden. Sussex, England: The Book Guild.

    Main photo by NASA Johnson on Flickr (Creative Commons).

    Charles Telfair Centre is an independent nonpartisan not for profit organisation and does not take specific positions. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in our publications are solely those of the author(s).


    Follow Us

    Subscribe to our newsletter