Home Chagos Islands Should Britain hand back the Chagos Islands?

Should Britain hand back the Chagos Islands?


Submitted by George Callaghan…

The history of the Chagossian people is a sordid story of woe, of dispossession, of suffering, of cant, of insincerity and injustice. This much put upon people is a tale the world would rather not hear. It reflects no credit on the United Kingdom or the United States.

The Chagos Islands lie in the Indian Ocean. These isles are sometimes called the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). The islands have been in unbroken British possession since 1814. The people of these islands are of black ancestry. The islands were a few hundred kilometres from the British colony of Mauritius. The Chagos Islands were incorporated into Mauritius.

The British Empire largely overlooked this tiny and remote archipelago. Only during the Cold War did these isles take on any significance. By the 1960s planes had such long ranges that the islands took on a new importance. Whoever controlled the airbases on the islands would have a major advantage in any battle in the Indian Ocean. The bases were also well within striking range of any South Asian country. The United States knew it could not match the USSR much less the Chinese on land in sheer numbers. However, America ruled the waves. The US Navy was larger than the Soviet Navy and its technology was a generation ahead. Therefore the US was confident it could hold islands.

In the 1960s there were stirrings for independence among the people of Mauritius. Harold Wilson’s Labour Government was willing to accede to the settled will of the Mauritians. Wilson had kept the United Kingdom out of the Vietnam Conflict. The US was pressing Wilson to be helpful in other ways. As the pound slid Wilson did not wish to irk Uncle Sam. President Lyndon Baines Johnson was aware of the value of the Chagos Islands. If the British were not prepared to send troops to Vietnam then perhaps the Brits would agree to be helpful with regard to the Chagos Islands.

In 1965 London granted independence to Mauritius in return for Mauritius giving the Chagos Islands to the UK in perpetuity. The UK then granted the United States a long lease over the islands. The US wanted to have the islands without a pesky civilian population. Therefore London maintained that the Chagos Islands had no permanent population. There is some truth to this in that people on the islands were usually on short term contracts. But these contracts were renewable. Some people were born in the islands. A few people had been there for generations. In the late 60s the forcible deportation of the Chagossians commenced. This involved even killing pets in front of children. By 1973 the people of the archipelago had all been removed to Mauritius. It is not just Labour that was responsible. The unwilling emigration of the Chagossians was carried out by a Conservative Government too. The United States then constructed a large base on Diego Garcia which is the largest of the islands.

The United States military is honor bound to defend freedom. That is why is forcibly removed the people of the Chagos Islands from their home. It was force majeure. No sacred property rights for them!

The Chagossians spoke a unique creole. They were often treated as a laughingstock in Mauritius. The United Kingdom paid money to the Mauritians to be disbursed to the Chagossians. There were four years of legal wrangling over this. After a protracted rigmarole the monies were finally paid out.  In fairness to the United Kingdom some compensation has been paid. Moreover, in 2004 many Chagossians were granted British citizenship.

The Chagossians long petitioned for the right to at least visit their ancestral homeland and to lay flowers on the graves of their ancestors. In 2002 this was finally supposed to happen. At the last minute the US military decided not to do so. Visiting a graveyard with no military significance at all and doing so under military escort would somehow have presented a mortal peril to the mightiest power on earth. The decision was exasperating, bewildering, ludicrous and infuriating.

The US Government has tried to bat aside petitions from the Chagossians for a right of return. Oddly, Washington DC supports a right of return for those who are allegedly of Israeli stock. The United States sidesteps the Chagossian Issue. There are bland expressions of empathy before handing the issue over the London. The American stratagem is to treat the issue as an internal British matter. That is despite the US being the one that has almost all the troops in the Chagos Islands. The US is not know for its respect for the sovereignty of other states. But in this case it is handy to pretend to care deeply about the sovereignty of other countries.

In 2016 the US lease was due to expire. The UK could have done right by the Chagossians. Instead David Cameron chose to extend the lease by an additional twenty years. There are Chagossians in the United Kingdom. British-Chagossians sometimes demonstrate in London for their rights to be respected. It would take a heart of stone not to feel some compassion for the travails of these people.

Mauritius is now raising the issue. It has been before the International Court of Justice. The issue has also been voted on by the UN General Assembly. The UK has been heavily outvoted. The UN General Assembly’s resolutions are non-binding due to the chapter of the UN Charter that they are passed under. Nevertheless it does not look good for the UK. The United States, Israel and a few others have voted for the UK in this dispute. Given the appalling record of these two countries this is not company one would wish to keep. Further, all EU countries voted against Britain. So much for the Treaty of Lisbon and EU states supporting each other in a spirit of loyalty and solidarity. Mauritius is reclaiming the islands. They say that they only ceded them because it was the only way to gain independence. The argument is that the UK has not fulfilled its obligations under the decolonisation agenda.

What should be done? The UK could give the islands to Mauritius. The Chagossians could then return if the US military left. Would the US recognise Mauritian sovereignty? It is doubtful. Perhaps a compromise could be thrashed out. The US could keep a military base. It is not necessary to have all the civilians removed from all the islands. There are scores of US military establishments with civilians populations around them. Britain also uses the base but the British military is so small now that it can hardly use Diego Garcia.

If the UK resolved the Chagos Issue then a historic injustice would be rectified. That would surely improve Britain’s reputation.

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