Mauritius stakes a claim

About a year ago we had a look at the dispute over the Chagos archipelago, also called the British Indian Ocean Territory. At that time, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea had just ruled that, despite Britain’s continuing occupation of the islands, as a matter of law there was no longer any doubt: the Chagos belonged to Mauritius.

The government of Boris Johnson was predictably unimpressed. Now Mauritius has upped the ante on the question by sending an expedition to the islands, including a number of the Chagossians who were evicted by the British half a century ago. The expedition raised the Mauritian flag, sang the national anthem and left a plaque reiterating the claim to sovereignty.

This is not an attempt at permanent occupation: officially it is a scientific trip to map the reefs, and the Mauritians will leave having made their point. They were also careful to notify the British beforehand, although they do not describe that as seeking permission. And some of the Chagossians have been allowed to visit before, if only with a British military escort.

Nonetheless, it’s a dramatic assertion of Mauritus’s claim – which, while geographically dubious (the islands are a long way from Mauritius and much closer to the Maldives) has been accepted by the International Court of Justice. Britain, however, shows no sign of giving ground, repeating that it has “no doubt” as to its sovereignty.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the trip is the initial BBC report itself. I often criticise the BBC, but this is the sort of thing it does well: evocative on-the-spot reporting that also gives the reader plenty of context.

It gives fair treatment to the territorial dispute, but centres the story of the Chagossians on the expedition and is clearly sympathetic to their – and by implication, Mauritius’s – point of view, although it quotes their critics as well. It is notably severe on Britain’s past conduct: “British diplomats knew that it was illegal … but felt that a few uninhabited islands might go unnoticed.”

Those who are used to tagging the “mainstream media” as biased and unreliable should take a good look at this story and think about just how far removed it is from the way that an issue of sovereignty would be treated in most countries’ official media. Imagine, for example, a report on Tibet in the Chinese media, or on Western Sahara in Morocco, and think what might happen to a journalist who gave such a sympathetic hearing to their own government’s opponents.

Yes, our media have problems, no doubt. I’m no supporter of government-owned media; I think it always carries major risks (as the BBC is discovering, being engaged in a funding dispute with the Johnson government). But let’s never forget the way that critical reporting is fundamental to democracy.

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