UK Agrees to Discuss Terms With Mauritius on Future of Chagos Islands

Diego Garcia
Diego Garcia, center, is a massive U.S.-UK military base in the Chagos Islands

Published Nov 6, 2022 2:30 PM by The Maritime Executive

The territorial dispute between UK and Mauritius over the Central Indian Ocean Chagos archipelago could be nearing the end. Last week, the UK’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs James Cleverly said that UK and Mauritius have begun negotiations on a future handover of the Chagos Islands.

This is a monumental policy reversal that could see the UK end ownership of one of its most strategic overseas outposts, the so-called British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).

However, the UK will still maintain the control of its Indian Ocean military base in Diego Garcia, currently leased to the US. Diego Garcia is the largest of the 60 small islands of the Chagos group.

If the agreement between Mauritius and UK sails through, the former inhabitants of Chagos will be allowed to return. The British government reportedly displaced 2,000 Chagosians in 1960s and 1970s to pave way for a military base.

Before the British occupation, Chagos Island was considered part of Mauritius. They were separated in 1968 after Mauritius gained independence from the UK.

This is the basis for the long-running dispute between Mauritius and the UK. In 2019, it ended up in the UN’s International Court of Justice, which ruled that the British occupation of the islands was illegal and that Chagos is rightfully part of Mauritius.

The UK has denied the ruling, describing it as advisory, but its position seems to change with the start of negotiations with Mauritius.

James Cleverly said he hopes there will be a settlement with Mauritius by early next year. The talks began in September at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Then-UK Prime Minister Liz Truss and Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth met, setting in motion the negotiations.

“Taking into account relevant legal proceedings, it is our intention to secure an agreement on the basis of international law to resolve all outstanding issues. This will allow the UK and Mauritius to strengthen cooperation on Indian Ocean security, maritime security, climate change and respect for human rights,” said James Cleverly in a written statement.

The Mauritius-UK dispute over the sovereignty of Chagos Islands is one of the Indian Ocean’s fifteen ongoing territorial disputes. Most of them involve France and the UK, with analysts arguing that the disputes are behind the decline of the West’s influence in the Indian Ocean region.

“These sovereignty disputes with the West open the door for Indian Ocean Islands to deepen their relationship with China. While assertive in the South China Sea, China has no territorial disputes in the Indian Ocean, seeking instead to balance the Western influence,” commented Darshana Baruah and Caroline Duckworth in a recent blog for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.