Island Diego Garcia, the largest of the Chagos Islands. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Despite a decisive UN vote, Britain still has no intention of giving up the Chagos Islands, reports Jacqueline Mulhallen

On Wednesday 22 May, following a ruling by the International Court of Justice on 25 February, the United Nations general assembly voted by 116-6 against British occupation of the Chagos Islands, allowing six months deadline for Britain to withdraw and return them to Mauritius. Fifty-six nations abstained and Britain’s sole supporters were the USA, Hungary, Israel, Australia and the Maldives. The support for the motion was unprecedented, with countries which had formerly abstained, such as Finland and Norway, now positively voting for Mauritius. However, it is a non-binding resolution and Britain is choosing to ignore it. 

The 55 Chagos islands and the island of Mauritius were French colonies until 1814 when they were ceded to Britain under the Treaty of Paris after the Napoleonic wars. Mauritius gained its independence from Britain in 1968; however, in 1965 the Chagos Archipelago was separated from the colony of Mauritius to form the British Indian Ocean Territory, and around 1500 Islanders were thrown out of their homes and sent into exile. Most were dumped in Mauritius and some in the Seychelles. Evidently their lives meant nothing to the British government who referred to them as ‘Tarzans’ and ‘Man Fridays’. Many Chagossians, who lived in poverty in Mauritius, became very depressed after this forcible removal, and some even died of sagren (sorrow or sadness). Britain gave Mauritius £3m for the islands, but this was not a lawful procedure under decolonisation, therefore since its independence successive Mauritian governments have claimed sovereignty over the archipelago. 

Britain agreed to allow the United States to use the largest and southernmost island, Diego Garcia, as a military base during the Vietnam War – a war Britain claimed not to be involved with. Since then, Diego Garcia has been used for rendition flights. There is no lease with the US, just an ‘exchange of notes’ which underpins the ‘special relationship’ between the two North Atlantic allies. 

The Chagossians, led by Port Louis-based electrician Olivier Bancoult, have fought through the UK (and other) courts to gain resettlement on the islands. In 2006 the British High Court of Justice ruled that their expulsion was unlawful but this was overturned on appeal to the House of Lords in 2008 by a 3-2 majority. The Chagossians could be resettled in their homeland and at minimal cost according to one feasibility study. Yet Britain appears intransigent. In 2010, the then Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, declared the islands a Marine Protected Area, arguing that the exiles and their descendants should not be permitted to return. Despite the UN resolution, Britain claims that the islands are needed for security in the Indian Ocean, and for fighting drugs and piracy. 

If Chagossians do return to the islands, they would undoubtedly be able to make good livelihoods from ecotourism and fishing. As there is currently no formal agreement with the Mauritius government or opposition parties about their rights to the islands, however, the islanders might not be able to take full advantage of these possibilities. In addition, a generation of Chagossians which has grown up away from the islands (some now live in the UK) might well prefer not to go back. And it appears that Mauritius would allow the US to continue to use Diego Garcia as a base. 

Some of the islanders, according to UK-based Allen Vincatassin (Channel 4 News, 23 May), would prefer that Chagos continued to operate under British rule, since they blame Mauritius for their exile and poverty. Mauritius should not have had the responsibility for their welfare, however. The £650,000 compensation provided by the British government in 1972 was not distributed to Chagossians living in Mauritius until several years later, and in any case no amount of money could ‘compensate’ the islanders for their lives being ruined. 

The British government has consistently denied that the forced removal was a crime against humanity, although it was an act identical to the worst excesses of the 16th and 17th centuries when European powers regularly claimed islands to be ‘theirs’ and evicted indigenous populations to keep their rivals in trade from sharing in the profits. The British representative to the UN, Karen Pierce, has admitted that ‘the United Kingdom sincerely regrets the manner in which the Chagossians were removed from the British Indian Ocean Territory’ but since the British still claim sovereignty and refuse the islanders the right of return, this sincerity must be in doubt (and in Foreign Office-speak ‘regret’ is not equivalent to a formal apology). 

Jeremy Corbyn has condemned the decision to defy the UN Advisory Opinion and has committed Labour to allowing the Chagossians to return. Yet if the Diego Garcia base remains, it is doubtful how much will change as the islanders will have to continue with a colonial power in their midst and pollution of their environment.

With thanks to Sean Carey for helpful information.

Jacqueline Mulhallen

Jacqueline Mulhallen, actor and playwright, has co-ordinated King’s Lynn Stop the War since 2003 and initiated and organised 14 Women for Change talks for King’s Lynn & District Trades Council (2012/2013). Her books include The Theatre of Shelley (Openbooks, 2010), and a Shelley biography (Pluto Press, 2015). Her plays include 'Sylvia' and 'Rebels and Friends’.

Tagged under: