The beautiful postage stamps issued by the UK in the name of the British Indian Overseas Territory (BIOT) look destined to be of interest only to philatelists after the Universal Postal Union, the United Nations agency that oversees global postal services, ruled that it would no longer recognise stamps issued by Britain for its remote outpost.
The UPU members, meeting at the 27th Universal Postal Congress in Abidjan, voted by 77 votes to six, with 41 abstentions, to acknowledge the Chagos archipelago as an ‘integral part of the territory of Mauritius’, meaning that all post from the Chagos Islands must now bear Mauritian stamps.
The apparently obscure resolution is of wider interest because it starkly reveals the UK’s growing isolation internationally over the issue. Another UN body, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), based in Hamburg, dismissed Britain’s claim to sovereignty over the islands by eight votes to one in a ruling in January. Prof Philippe Sands QC, counsel for Mauritius, said then: ‘This judgment is damning. It has said near unanimously there is no basis for the UK claim to the islands.’
An advisory ruling of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in February 2019 found by 13 votes to one (the American judge), that ‘the process of decolonisation of Mauritius was not lawfully completed in 1968’ and that therefore the UK was ‘under an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos archipelago as rapidly as possible’. The UK has flatly refused to do this, and insists it will relinquish control only ‘when it is no longer needed for defence purposes’. In May 2019 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution demanding that the UK ‘unconditionally withdraw its colonial administration from the area within six months’. This resulted in the official UN map being changed to make Diego Garcia and the other islands part of Mauritius.
Following the UPU decision, the BBC said Mauritius could now seek to ban international flights over the territory, adding: ‘All indications so far show that on the Chagos issue Britain has almost no allies left.’ Sands said: ‘It is a significant decision that gives effect of the ICJ ruling, one further step in the removal of BIOT from international maps and consciousness … change is in the air.’
The issue also throws a spotlight on the Biden administration’s foreign policy because of the apparent contradiction between Washington’s adamant support for the British position and Joe Biden’s oft-proclaimed adherence to a ‘rules-based’ order (it is mentioned twice in the New Atlantic Charter issued by President Biden and the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, in June). Outlining his views in February to the State Department on America’s Place in the World, Biden said ‘upholding universal rights [and] respecting the rule of law’ gave the US its ‘abiding advantage’, and declared that the US ‘will again lead not just by the example of our power but the power of our example’. Although the US accuses China of violating the Law of the Sea for ignoring an ITLOS decision that struck down Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, it claims that this was ‘not comparable’ to the same tribunal’s ruling that Britain had no sovereignty over Chagos.
The BIOT covers more than 54,000 sq km of the Indian Ocean, including the Chagos archipelago of 55 islands. The biggest of these, Diego Garcia, is the only inhabited one and, spurred by Nehru’s request for US help in the 1962 Sino-Indian War, it became ‘the key US strategic outpost in the Indian Ocean since 1966 … an invaluable operating location in a region with few permanent American bases,’ according to Blake Herzinger, a former US navy intelligence officer. The last of the people who had been living on the island for 200 years were deported in 1973 on the orders of the top US admiral, Elmo Zumwalt, whose blunt memo declared that the islanders: ‘Absolutely must go.’ Despite UK promises of suitable compensation, the Washington Post, which called it an ‘act of mass kidnapping’, found the evicted Chagossians living in ‘abject poverty’.
Over the years the US has invested more than $3bn in the base, so it has a harbour capable of berthing an aircraft carrier and a runway suitable for B-52 bombers. Another former US naval officer, Michael McDevitt, noted that with Beijing establishing a base in Djibouti as part of its Belt and Road Initiative: ‘It was China’s actions in 1962 that led to the base, and it is now China’s Indian Ocean military footprint that increases [Chagos’s] value beyond its role in supporting US military operations in the Persian Gulf region.’ Although the original lease was for 50 years from 1966, the UK has allowed the US to continue using the base until 2036, paying £40m in compensation to islanders and their descendants.
Karen Pierce, British ambassador to the UN, told the UN General Assembly that the UK’s sovereignty had existed since 1814, the islands had never been part of Mauritius and that country had freely entered into the 1965 agreement in return for fishing rights. She added that the 1965 accord included the UK’s commitment ‘to cede the territory when it is no longer needed for defence purposes’.
That might be a long time, however. The Johnson government’s Cabinet Office security and foreign policy review, Global Britain in a Competitive Age, published this year, predicted: ‘By 2030, it is likely that the world will have moved further towards multipolarity, with the geopolitical and economic centre of gravity moving eastward’ and promised a corresponding ‘tilt to the Indo-Pacific’. With the UK more keen than ever to ‘project cutting-edge military power in support of Nato and international maritime security’, and in light of ‘China’s military modernisation and growing international assertiveness … we will pursue deeper engagement in the Indo-Pacific.’
Jagdish Koonjul, Mauritian ambassador to the UN, suggested last year that ‘the writing is on the wall’ and it was only a matter of time until the UK ceded sovereignty: ‘The UK will realise that its own interests require it to get on the right side of history.’ However, it seems the UK is looking more to medium-term strategic interests than to the judgment of history.
As Mauritius has pledged to give the US and Britain a long-term lease to Diego Garcia, David Vine, a professor of anthropology at American University and a fierce campaigner for the Chagossians, said the issue was not really about US defence needs. ‘The answer is power, and ongoing forms of colonialism,’ he said. ‘It is appalling that the Biden administration is defending colonialism and Britain’s attempt to hold on to one of its last colonial possessions.’
In the short-term, the UK and US expose themselves to charges of hypocrisy and high-handed neo-imperialism by demanding China observes international law while ignoring it themselves. ‘Attempts to justify a continuation of British control of the Chagos Islands look like destroying the rules-based order in order to save it and reinforce China’s vision of a world in which the weak suffer what they must,’ said Herzinger.
As the post-Brexit UK government turns its back on its European neighbours in favour of projecting its stringently rationed military power in the Indo-Pacific region, it seems that however many friends it loses, the British government appears determined to hang on to its Diego Garcia base for a long while yet – even if it means remaining the colonial villain of the piece.