The U.K.’s Intransigence on the Chagos Islands Dispute Is a Self-Inflicted Wound

The U.K.’s Intransigence on the Chagos Islands Dispute Is a Self-Inflicted Wound
People protest outside Parliament after a court ruling deciding Chagossians were not allowed to return to their homeland, London, Oct. 22, 2008 (AP photo by Matt Dunham).

The British government has been vocal about the issue of human rights in China in recent weeks. It recently delivered a joint statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council, on behalf of 27 countries, on abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. And Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has strongly criticized Beijing for imposing sweeping national security legislation that severely undermines the autonomy of Hong Kong, which the Chinese government promised to respect in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. Raab specifically called out Beijing for violating its international legal obligations, while announcing that the U.K. would not shirk from its “historic responsibilities” to Hong Kong’s inhabitants. It subsequently decided to suspend its extradition treaty with Hong Kong.

The U.K.’s appeals to international law in this context are, no doubt, fully justified. However, this kind of diplomacy works best when the advocating state has an impeccable record of compliance with international law. The U.K.’s refusal to relinquish control of the Chagos Islands to Mauritius, in contravention of a recent advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice in The Hague, seriously weakens its ability to lecture other states about living up to their human rights obligations.

The origins of the dispute date back to 1964, when a joint British and American survey of the Indian Ocean revealed that the island of Diego Garcia in the remote Chagos archipelago, which was then part of the British colony of Mauritius, would make an ideal site for a U.S. military facility. The following year, the U.K. pressured Mauritian officials into reaching an agreement providing for the detachment of the archipelago. Mauritian negotiators saw this as the price of independence, which became official in 1968. The Chagos Islands became part of the new British Indian Ocean Territory, and the U.K. concluded a treaty with the U.S. allowing American forces to use Diego Garcia for defense purposes. Thousands of Indigenous Chagossians were forcibly removed from the entire archipelago to make way for the new military base.

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.

More World Politics Review