By Thea Busuttil (MSc Violence, Conflict and Justice)
Decolonisation is not a thing of the past. The Golden Age of the British Empire has long been over but its remnants still linger. A few islands around the world are still British colonies, and in the Indian Ocean, somewhere under the Maldives and to the right of the Seychelles, you will find the Chagos Islands; a small, beautiful and strategically important archipelago.
In 1814 these islands legally became a British colony, as part of Mauritius. However, in 1965, Britain decided to annex the Chagos Islands from Mauritius, just three years before Mauritius declared independence. The UK entered into an agreement with Mauritius to purchase the archipelago for £3 million to create the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). However, the UK gave the Mauritian government certain assurances in writing as part of the sale.
In 1966 the UK settled an agreement with the U.S. to lease out the largest island, Diego Garcia, for the creation of a U.S. military base. From a strategic perspective the island is perfect – the atoll gives the US control over the Indian Ocean and surrounding countries. The agreement meant that the U.S. could use the BIOT for defence purposes for 50 years until 2016, and the lease could be extended for 20 years.
No money changed hands to purchase the archipelago (thus the U.S. government avoided asking Congress for funds) but the US wiped out $14 million in UK military debt, which effectively discounted the sale of the Polaris missiles. The creation of this base gave the U.S. the capacity to utilise long-range bombers in their past wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and whilst the US Army might have nicknamed it the “footprint of freedom”. The U.S. has now admitted that the CIA used the atoll as a black site in its rendition programme.
To add insult to injury, in order to provide the United States with an “uninhabited” island, between 1968 and 1973 the UK used a variety of methods to remove these people from their islands. Firstly, whomever left the archipelago for a vacation or for medical reasons was not allowed back in. They then restricted food and medical supplies to the residents to push them to leave voluntarily. In a macabre and brutal tactic, the British personnel rounded up and gassed all the pet dogs on Diego Garcia in front of their owners. The 1,500 or so Chagossians who still remained on the islands were forcibly deported to Mauritius and the Seychelles. Since then, the Chagossians have never been allowed to return home.
An entire nation was exiled for no good reason, dependent on states, which saw them as aliens and gave them meagre help. The community won a court case in Britain in 2002 in order to be eligible for British citizenship and many moved to Britain over the years. However, the Overseas Territories Act of 2002 only gave citizenship to those who were native born and some second generation (born between 1969 and 1983), thus splitting families apart.
Besides the serious human rights violations, which have been laid at Britain’s door, Mauritius has claimed that the separation of the Chagos archipelago in 1965 was in violation of UN Resolution 1514, which bans the breakup of colonies before independence. On the other hand, the British government has stated that its claim to the islands was part of the agreement it made with Mauritius in 1965 and therefore legitimate. Britain continues to promise that it will return the islands once they are no longer needed for defence purposes.
In 2010, Wikileaks leaked a diplomatic cable, which stated that the UK aimed to establish a marine reserve around the BIOT, in order to prevent the former residents from ever returning home. Wikileaks quotes Colin Roberts, a Foreign and Commonwealth Office official, who said the BIOT’s “former inhabitants would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if…[they]…were a marine reserve.” He even went on to say, “We do not regret the removal of the population”.
In April 2010 the Chagos Marine Protected Area (MPA) was declared, which also took away the livelihoods of Chagossians living in Mauritius who had continued to fish around the BIOT. Mauritius objected to the establishment of the MPA, and took the case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which declared it a violation of international law in March 2015, as Mauritius had fishing, oil and mineral rights in the archipelago and the right to its eventual return. The judgement was based on the assurances given by the UK to Mauritius in 1965 as part of the sale, which the tribunal argued became legally binding once Mauritius became an independent state.
In 2016, when the lease was up for renewal, the Chagossians waited to hear whether they would be given the right to return home from the Foreign Office, however they were denied that right in November. The latest development in this case happened in June 2017. Mauritius brought a resolution before the UN General Assembly to seek an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague on the legal status of the Chagos Archipelago. In a surprising turn of events the UN delegates voted overwhelmingly to back Mauritius, effectively referring the legal status of the BIOT to the ICJ. The UK has argued that this is a bilateral dispute and should be resolved as such. They have further pointed out that both states party to the conflict have to agree for their case to go before the ICJ, which is clearly not the case here.
The Chagos Islanders Movement is pushing to change UK law so that all Chagossians and their descendants can have the opportunity to register as British Overseas Territories Citizens. They are outraged that the UK is still ignoring them and taking no responsibility for the Chagossian people, even when the UN has them an indigenous people.
Crawley’s MP Henry Smith will present an amendment to the Nationality Law to Parliament, and if you wish to show your support, please sign their petition on change.org. In the meantime the Chagossians will keep fighting for the right to return home. Check out the Chagos Islanders Movement at www.chagosislandersmovement.com to see what else you can do to help!