Between 1968 and 1973 the British Government cleared the entire Chagos Archipelago of its inhabitants as part of a scheme to build a US military base on the largest island, Diego Garcia. Today, there are still two disputes arising from these events. One is between the Chagos Islanders (also called Chagossians) and the British Government over the legality of the former’s removal and whether they have any right of return; the other is between the UK and Mauritius about the UK’s claim to sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago.
In June 2016, Chagos islanders living in exile in Britain lost a legal challenge at the Supreme Court. In a majority ruling, justices at the UK’s highest court said disclosure of Foreign Office documents assessing a feasibility report on the Chagossians’ return would not have altered the outcome of a House of Lords judgment in 2008.
In October 2016, a UK Foreign Office minister said that a long-delayed decision on the Chagos Islands, a British Indian Ocean Territory, would be made before Christmas. No one held out too much hope. According to Patrick Wintour in “British government nearing decision on fate of exiled Chagossians” (The Guardian, 26 October 2016):
“A mixture of cost, economic viability and continuing objections from the US military suggests the Foreign Office is leaning towards blocking their return. The Foreign Office has spent £3m in legal fees in efforts to defeat the Chagossians, and it is understood that the US does not wish to share the main island of Diego Garcia, home to its largest military base outside the US, with the former inhabitants.”
Hopes were finally dashed when in mid-November the Foreign Office announced that the islanders would not be given the right of return to resettle. A package of compensation will be offered together with an official apology for the forced removal of 1,500 people, half of whom have since died.
Not long ago, the Prime Minister of Mauritius filed a resolution before the UN General Assembly for Britain to be brought before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for illegal dismemberment of a country prior to independence. The petition was based on what had been long suspected but finally exposed by the Wikileaks Cables: the declaration in 2010 of a protected “Marine Park” adjacent to the nuclear base on Diego Garcia as a ploy to deter recolonization.
In light of this revelation, according to Lindsey Collen writing in New Internationalist (November 2016):
“Mauritius challenged Britain at the UN Convention of the Sea Tribunal, whose judgement last year came as a shock: the Marine Park was declared illegal and Britain was banned from future unilateral actions… However, at the eleventh hour, Britain got Mauritius to postpone the UN General Assembly vote until June 2017 by which time, conveniently, the 50-year UK-US lease will have been renewed.”
Here’s what’s at the back of it. Diego Garcia is the site of one of the most valuable and secretive US military bases, although it is within a nuclear-weapon-free zone covered by Africa’s 2009 Pelindaba Treaty. That is of no consequence to the USA or UK. Diego Garcia has been developed into a fully equipped naval support facility, satellite tracking station, and bomber forward-operating location. Its lagoon is a gigantic natural harbour used for aircraft carriers and upgraded to accommodate the US Navy’s nuclear-powered, guided missile attack submarines.
With Donald Trump as US president, there is now little chance that the Chagossians will ever be allowed to return to the islands even if Diego Garcia were somehow left out of the equation. Yet another example of might is right in an increasingly unstable world.