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“Finders, keepers, shut up!” – Britain and the Chagos Islands

On the 14th of February, Mauritian officials raised the flag of Mauritius on the atoll of Pero Banhos. This atoll is part of a larger chain known as the Chagos Islands or, for the more reactionary among you, the British Indian Ocean Territory. 

Let’s be honest, you’ve never heard of them. I’ll bring you up to speed. The islands located south of the Maldives passed through the hands of a few colonial powers over the decades, finally ending up under the control of the British in 1814 along with the island of Mauritius. 

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Now, Mauritius and the Chagos Islands were governed as one entity but upon Mauritius’ independence, the Chagos Islands were separated and retained under the control of the UK. This was done to realise the American wish of using the islands as a military base in the Indian Ocean. The Mauritians were compensated and the Diego Garcia base was constructed. 

However, there was a small problem with building a massive military installation on an atoll. Firstly, there were already people living there. So, what should be done? Well, Colonial Office head, Lord Greenhill of Harrow wrote in a diplomatic cable that the “Tarzans or Men Fridays” should be “wished on to Mauritius etc.” It was then by 1973 that the forced deportation of the Islanders was complete. Around two thousand Chagossians were either forced to leave, or if they had been abroad, were not allowed to return as the islands were now “closed”. 

Unfortunately, since then, the file in the Foreign Office labelled “The Chagossian issue”, fell into the drawer marked “fairly ignorable”, and consequently, not much has changed. In 2000 the British High Court ruled that they be allowed to return, but this was delayed by the Foreign Office, and in 2004 the Queen got involved, using the Royal Prerogative to effectively ban the Islanders from ever returning. 

But one “good” thing has come out of the ethnic cleansing of the Chagossians. The United Kingdom has established the Chagos Marine Protected Area, the world’s largest marine reserve. What a fantastic idea, supporting the local biodiversity and the environment. However, a strange and completely accidental side effect of this marine park is that this would make it legally impossible for Chagossians to ever return. This effect was noted by US Political Counselor Richard Mills in diplomatic cables with British Director of the Foreign Office Colin Roberts leaked by WikiLeaks in 2010, stating it would “be the most effective long-term way” of preventing any resettlement and would “put paid to resettlement claims”. What a strange use of the word effective! It almost seems as if the critically endangered status of the islands’ hawksbill turtle is not the first priority of the US Military. 

The Anglo-American case for maintaining control of the islands has been weakening in recent years, however. The Hague, the International Court of Justice and the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea have all handed down rulings declaring the continued occupation unlawful, the Marine Protected Area illegal, and that the administration should be terminated as quickly as possible in line with the principle of decolonisation. But do not be worried, they’re totally saying a blanket “no”. 

The future of the islands is still uncertain. There have been no signs of movement nor reconciliation from the UK or US. The raising of the Mauritian flag was met by a reaffirmation of the sovereignty of the island by the Foreign Office. The UK has stated that the island will be returned to Mauritius when they are no longer needed for defence purposes, whenever that is. For me, this is very worrying as I don’t know how I would be able to sleep at night if one day we are not able to as easily airstrike a patch of the Indian Ocean 6,000 miles away. 

Perhaps one day we will see the Chagossians return to the islands after almost fifty years of exile. One thing that gives hope is that it seems the western claim to the islands is becoming increasingly untenable as the situation remains. Furthermore, it has even been stated by the Mauritians that they would be ready to lease out the base if the islands were handed over anyway. It is now just a case of unnecessary obstinacy that doesn’t do any favours for the image of so-called “Global Britain”, not that the image of the project could really be saved anyway.

On the whole, I think it is important for all of us to understand the underlying moral message of this saga. That being if you have three or more international courts telling you that what you’re doing is “illegal”, you are probably doing something illegal.

Image via Alvin Tirant