The Chagos Effect: UK Double Standards Pose A Serious Obstacle to Protecting Rohingya, Hong Kong

The Chagos Effect: UK Double Standards Pose A Serious Obstacle to Protecting Rohingya, Hong Kong

[Bruno Stagno-Ugarte is the Deputy Executive Director (Advocacy) at Human Rights Watch.]

Human rights violations committed by the United Kingdom on a remote 53 square kilometer archipelago in the middle of the Indian Ocean may be hampering its ability to take credible action to protect the Rohingya from ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and the fundamental freedoms of Hong Kong from encroaching China.

In 1965, the UK excised the Chagos islands from its then-colony Mauritius before the latter achieved independence in 1968. Following independence, the entire population of the Chagos Islands, the last British colony in Africa, was forcibly relocated by the UK, mainly to “neighboring” Mauritius and Seychelles. The eviction unrooted every man, woman, and child inhabiting the archipelago’s seven atolls. As evidenced in a confidential 1966 memo by the newly created British Indian Ocean Territory colonial administration, the purpose of the exercise was to “get some rocks which will remain ours; there will be no indigenous population except seagulls who have not yet got a committee,” a reference to a United Nations  committee on decolonization, which had proven a thorn in the side of the UK and other colonial powers. The UK then leased the largest island, Diego Garcia, to the United States to build and operate a military base which is still in use today. All native inhabitants have since been prevented from returning to the islands.

Fast forward to 2017, when the United Nations General Assembly challenged the UK’s claims to sovereignty over the islands in requesting an advisory opinion before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague. The following year, the ICJ ruled against the UK in determining its excision of the Chagos to be an “unlawful detachment” from Mauritius and its continuing administration of the archipelago “a wrongful act”. The ICJ concluded, with 13 of 14 judges supporting the finding, that the UK government has “an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible”. London has steadfastly refused to abide by the ruling, in ways that undermine its credibility and authority as a champion of international law.

The Chagos islands may be small in size, but the blatant disregard shown by the UK in not abiding by the opinion of the ICJ has a much larger, and debilitating, effect on its foreign policy. Because the UK has gone rogue, it appears reluctant to criticize other states that may run afoul of other ICJ decisions, and even when it does, the force of those criticisms is blunted.

This is precisely the case with Myanmar, which lost the first round of ICJ proceedings in a case brought against it by Gambia to prevent all genocidal acts against the Rohingya Muslim minority. On 23 January 2020, the Court unanimously adopted six provisional measures that require Myanmar to prevent genocide, aimed at protecting the remaining 600,000 Rohingya after more than 740,000 fled to neighboring Bangladesh. Yet more than six months later, Myanmar has not fully complied with the provisional measures. Most observers will blame China, a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council that has long protected Myanmar from scrutiny. The UK, however, also a permanent member and the self-assigned “penholder” that is lead drafter and gatekeeper on Myanmar, could use its role on the Council to press for a clear directive to Myanmar to comply with the terms of the ICJ’s order.

Back in 1951, when its commercial interests in Iran were affected by the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company by the democratically-elected Mossadegh administration, the UK insisted that the Council had to address the provisional measures indicated by the ICJ– less than three months earlier– regarding the expulsion by Iran of the company staff. Yet today, even though it has characterized the violations against the Rohingya as ethnic cleansing, the UK has been reluctant to use its double role within the Council, and the opportunity provided by the provisional measures, to increase pressure on Myanmar, pointing instead to its commitment to comply with the ICJ order.

The UK may be similarly hampered in challenging China’s flouting of international law by unlawfully encroaching on Hong Kong and violently clamping down on the fundamental freedoms of its inhabitants, in clear violation of the “one country, two systems” formula enshrined in the 1984 Joint Declaration signed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Premier Zhao Ziyang. The ink is barely dry on the new draconian national security law that Beijing has unilaterally imposed on Hong Kong as of 1 July, and there are already reports of hundreds of arrests, including for crimes that did not exist a few days back. While action against China at the ICJ would be far from straightforward, the UK’s reluctance to pursue it may also stem from the fact that it would immediately open it up to criticism for double standards, while it openly ignores a ruling from the same court.

It is just a matter of time before the UK shrinks from using the ICJ somewhere else as a tool in its foreign policy arsenal due to its continuing disregard for the Chagos decision. It is high time the UK stops its continuing violations against the inhabitants of the Chagos, abides by the decisions of the ICJ, and restores its ability to use the Court as an important tool to protect human rights.

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