The Chagos Islands: Britain’s Quiet Colonialism

In a UN Permanent Court of Arbitration (PAC) session in Turkey this week, the UK Government has been fighting a legal battle with the Government of Mauritius. The dispute centres on the future of a relatively obscure archipelago in the Indian Ocean known as the Chagos Islands. These are currently UK sovereign territory but host a large US military base.

Diego Garcia, the largest of the island group, achieved infamy owing to its alleged role in supporting US rendition and subsequently torture of foreign nationals. The case before the UN PAC, however, sheds light on different misdeeds, perpetrated over a range of decades.

The court case sounds banal enough looking at it without context. The Mauritian Government is disputing the legality of a Marine Protected Area established by the UK Government in 2010, which covers the entirety of the Chagos Islands. Little more than a cursory reflection on the Britain’s treatment of the archipelago, however, is sufficient to recognise that greater sins have occurred than an over-zealous desire to protect sea flora.

Populated for the first time in the 18th century by slaves brought by French colonialists, The Chagos Islands passed into British hands in the early 19th Century. The administration of the islands was left to the then self-governing British colony of (relatively) near-by Mauritius. Shortly prior to Mauritian independence, the UK “detached” the Chagos Islands from its soon-to-be former colony, creating what remains known as the “British Indian Ocean Territory.” The Mauritian Government, backed by all African nations, has claimed this was illegal under international law and leaves “the decolonization of Africa incomplete.”

Britain of course did not retain the Chagos Islands out of mere sentimentality. Diego Garcia was to be leased to the USA, to enable their military to develop an Indian Ocean hub, which remains in active use today. The inhabitants of the islands were simply to be deported. And in 1971, only five years after the “lease” to the US had been agreed, all Chagossians were forcibly exiled to The Seychelles and Mauritius.

Over 40 years later, the Chagossians remain exiled. Apart from a hard-won but brief sanctioned visit in 2006 to tend their families’ graves, the Chagossians have never been allowed to return. Depopulation of the islands was in fact a specific clause of the lease of the islands to the US. Another term, not made public at the time of the deal, gave the UK a huge discount in its purchase of Polaris nuclear weapons from the US.

If such a ‘great power’ carve-ups of foreign territories sounds more like the darkest days of colonialism rather than the 1970’s, it is also worth noting the blithely racist spirit in which the lease of Diego Garcia was negotiated.

Messages exchanged between UK and US diplomats during the development of the lease demonstrate that ideas of racial superiority remained central in Anglo-American attitudes to the people of The Chagos Islands. A British diplomat dismissed the islands as “uninhabited,” save for a few birds, apparently forgetting the one thousand-plus human inhabitants. His American counterpart managed to both correct his mistake and be even more explicitly racist noting “a few Tarzans and Man Fridays” also came with the island and would require removal.

Considering these circumstances, it is hardly surprisingly the Chagossians have twice won prominent cases in the UK High Court. Judgments passed in 2000 and 2006 branded the British expulsion unlawful and gave the Islanders the right to return home. On both occasions, however, the Government appealed or simply rejected the decision.

The UK Chagos Support Association, which has helped lead these legal challenges, has continued to pursue a variety of legal avenues. The aforementioned 2010 creation of a Marine Protected Area, however, appears to be less belated concern for the effects of decades of military activity on a fragile ecosystem and more a cynical extra-legal attempt to prevent any future legal challenges over the Chagos Islands.

In an example of just how grimly history can repeat, another leaked exchange of messages between US and UK diplomats suggested that the Marine Protected Area was specifically designed to prevent the Chagossian exiles from ever returning. Significant economic activity or human habitation is not allowed in these zones, rendering a return impossible. If the attitudes of racial superiority, or at least blindingly arrogant self-interest, are not obvious, consider how likely any these events, forced deportations or military leases, would have been in the Channel Islands or the Falklands.

A return would admittedly not be a simple matter. Forty years of hosting a sizable military facility will have degraded the eco-system of Diego Garcia. A 2002 feasibility study commissioned by the UK Government suggested a host of further problems, including rising sea levels, which would make a return for the Chagossians difficult.

This report was though criticised by a Harvard resettlement academic for exaggerating the difficulties and relying on false assertions. In any case, it seems inappropriate for decisions regarding the future of the Chagos Islands to be dependent upon a “feasibility study” commissioned by the current colonial power. Whilst there is a will from the Chagossians for a return to the islands, and it is clear that remains, it is the responsibility of the UK make such a return feasible.

The decision of the UN’s Permanent Court of Arbitration will be binding and should the Mauritian case be upheld, it could make a return for the Chagossians a real possibility. The UK’s lease of Diego Garcia to the US military expires in 2016 anyway and would require the consent of both Governments to be extended. With an election between then and now, the Chagossians will hope enough political will can be generated to extract assurances from leading politicians that a shameful chapter in British history can have something like a just conclusion.

To sign a petition supporting the Chagossians Islanders right to return to their home, please click here.