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Why Boris Johnson Is Wrong About the British Indian Ocean Territory

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Why Boris Johnson Is Wrong About the British Indian Ocean Territory

It’s long past time to decolonize the Chagos Islands. None of the former PM’s reasons for keeping control is convincing. 

Why Boris Johnson Is Wrong About the British Indian Ocean Territory

Then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson making his first statement upon returning to Downing Street on Dec. 13, 2019.

Credit: U.K. Government

If Boris Johnson is to be believed, Britain might just be poised to lose one of its 14 remaining Overseas Territories. In a column for the Daily Mail, the former prime minister claimed to have an “informant” who said it is now a “done deal” that Britain will be handing control of the Chagos Archipelago (British Indian Ocean Territory) to the government of Mauritius.

If true, this is excellent news – the long overdue decolonization of an island group that most of the world recognizes as Mauritian sovereign territory. For decades, officials in London have governed the Chagos Islands in a shameful manner, most notably by unlawfully exiling the archipelago’s indigenous population, the Chagossians, between 1967 and 1973 amid the construction of a U.S. military base on the largest island of Diego Garcia.

Johnson, however, is aghast at the prospect of consigning the British Indian Ocean Territory to history. He urged the current prime minister of Britain, Rishi Sunak, to put a stop to the process. Ceding control of the Chagos group would be a “colossal” mistake, Johnson insisted.

The ex-prime minister gave four primary reasons for why London should resist calls for decolonization and instead maintain a grip on its far-flung Indian Ocean territory. On close inspection, all of these arguments are specious in the extreme.

First, Johnson dismissed the Mauritian claim to sovereignty by inviting readers to look at a map and notice that the Chagos group is 1,300 miles away from the island Mauritius. This is true enough – but Johnson failed to mention that the distance between Chagos and London is somewhere in the region of 6,000 miles, or more than four and a half times the distance between Chagos and Mauritius.

In any case, bare geographic nearness is no basis for deciding rival claims to sovereignty. Johnson should be careful about having it otherwise. After all, if distance is what counts in such matters, how can Britain justify its other Overseas Territories, which including the far-flung Falkland Islands (closer to Argentina), Gibraltar (next door to Spain), and the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia on the island of Cyprus?

Next, Johnson pointed out that the Chagos Archipelago “has never been run by Mauritius.” This is technically accurate, but only because Britain is guilty of illegally detaching the Chagos group from the Colony of Mauritius in 1965 prior to that territory’s emergence as an independent state in 1967.

Indeed, that the separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius was unlawful is precisely the basis for the Mauritian legal claim over the islands – a position upheld in an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2019. In other words, Johnson used the fact of a crime having been committed as justification for the crime’s commission. That’s hardly a compelling argument.

Third, Johnson insinuated that China is behind the Mauritian plot to assume control over the Chagos Islands. Other Conservative MPs like Daniel Kawczynski and Iain Duncan Smith have made these intimations before. It is a canny rhetorical move, given the strength of anti-China feeling that exists across the West.

But there is simply no truth to the idea that Beijing is behind the Mauritian bid to regain the Chagos Islands. Nobody – not Johnson, nor Kawczynski, nor Duncan Smith, nor anyone else – has ever presented even a shred of evidence to support this accusation.

Nor is there any credible suggestion that China is eyeing a base of its own in the Chagos Islands, or that Mauritius would be interested in hosting such an installation. These are nothing more than scurrilous rumors and innuendos. It’s a particularly ugly example of China-bashing, as the intended impact is both to negate Mauritian agency and to justify continued colonization of the Chagos Islands to suit British and American geopolitical aims.

Finally, Johnson arrived at the grubbiest reason of all to support continued British control of the Chagos Islands: the idea that London must control Diego Garcia so that it can extract concessions from the United States, such as intelligence sharing and other forms of close cooperation.

The U.K.-U.S. special relationship is “ruthlessly transactional,” Johnson explained. If Britain does not pay tribute to the United States, he reasoned, why should it expect to continue benefiting from Washington’s largesse?

This is nonsense. The Anglo-American relationship is not so superficial that its health and vitality depends upon Britain trading military access to someone else’s territory. It strains credulity to argue that close transatlantic relations would not survive the decolonization of the Chagos Archipelago.

What the United States wants is to be assured of long-term access to Diego Garcia, no matter whose flag flies above the island. The inconvenient truth for Johnson and his ilk is that Britain can no longer give credible assurances in this regard – not while its sovereignty over the archipelago is in doubt.

And in doubt it is. Consider that, in 2017, the U.N. General Assembly ignored Britain’s protestations and voted 94 to 15 in favor of requesting an advisory opinion on the Chagos dispute from the ICJ. Two years later, the World Court rendered an unambiguous finding: that Mauritius is sovereign over the Chagos Islands, and Britain’s occupation is unlawful.

Soon after, the General Assembly voted again to endorse the ICJ’s decision and to demand that Britain end its administration of the territory. Fully 60 percent of the world’s governments (116 of them) voted against the United Kingdom and the United States on that day. Only four sided with them. Of those four, one (Maldives) has since altered its stance to support Mauritian sovereignty.

It is therefore absurd for Johnson to blithely state that Britain’s claim to the Chagos Archipelago is “legal and beyond doubt.” Nobody will be convinced by this risible misrepresentation of the facts – least of all in Washington, where diplomats and military strategists must be clear-eyed about who can provide the best long-term basing arrangement for Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia.

Meanwhile, Mauritius has offered the United States a 99-year lease on the island of Diego Garcia – an important backdrop to London, Port Louis, and Washington now edging closer to making decolonization a reality. In this context, Boris Johnson’s advice to Prime Minister Sunak looks desperately unsound and out of touch.

In the final analysis, the British Indian Ocean Territory is illegal, unpopular, unsustainable, and unnecessary. Decolonization in one form or another is an inevitability. It will be great news for all concerned – Britain, Mauritius, the United States, and the exiled Chagossians – when a deal is finally reached.