Negotiations on Chagos Islands’ sovereignty face legal challenge

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Pre-action letter says talks between UK and Mauritius ‘being held without consulting Chagossian people’

Officials raise the Mauritian flag above an atoll on the Chagos Islands.
Officials raise the Mauritian flag above an atoll on the Chagos Islands. Photograph: Bruno Rinvolucri/The Guardian

Daniel Boffey Chief reporter

A legal attempt has been launched to halt negotiations between the UK and Mauritius over the sovereignty of the Chagos Islands, Britain’s last African colony, claiming Chagossian people’s views are being ignored.

Bernadette Dugasse, who was born on Diego Garcia, an island within what is known today as the British Indian Ocean Territory, is seeking judicial review of the government’s approach to the talks.

In a pre-action letter sent to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), lawyers representing Dugasse argue that the negotiations are unlawful as they “are being held without consulting her and the Chagossian people”.

Dugasse, with the support of other former inhabitants and their descendants, is seeking a pause in the talks “so that the former residents and their families are properly consulted with respect of the negotiations on the sovereignty of the Chagos Islands”.

Mauritius, a British colony until its independence in 1968, claims the remote Chagos Islands as its own territory.

Three years before independence, the UK severed the Chagos Islands from the rest of Mauritius so it could lease Diego Garcia to the US for military use.

The British government then forcibly deported 2,000 Chagossians. A newly published book by the barrister and historian Philippe Sands KC, The Last Colony, chronicles how the British shut down the islands’ plantations and cut off food supplies, with families told they had no option but to leave by ship by 27 April 1973 or slowly starve.

An arduous legal dispute has been waged by those seeking the right to return to the islands, culminating in a 2019 ruling by the international court of justice that the continuing British occupation of the islands was illegal.

There remain multiple different viewpoints among the Chagossian community about what the future status of the islands should be, with some voicing distrust of the Mauritian authorities.

There have been calls by some for the Chagos Islands to be made independent although longstanding observers believe that only as many as 50 people would probably want to return to the remote archipelago.

Lawyers acting for Dugasse argue in their letter that “negotiations without the consultation with or involvement of my client is contradictory to the Chagossian people’s right of self-determination”.

David Snoxell, who was UK high commissioner to Mauritius between 2000 and 2004, said the attempt at judicial review had scant chance of success but that those seeking consultation had every right to do so after years of mistreatment.

He said: “I don’t think there has been proper consultation and I wonder whether there has been any at all. It is perfectly legitimate to ask for consultation on what is going on, how it is going on and what form it takes.”

A government spokesperson said: “We do not comment on potential legal proceedings.”

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