The Chagos Archipelago, or Chagos Islands (formerly the Bassas de Chagas, and later the Oil Islands), is “a group of seven atolls comprising more than 60 islands in the Indian Ocean about 310 miles south of the Maldives archipelago” (Wikipedia). Diego Garcia is currently the only inhabited island in the archipelago, all of which comprise the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). These remote islands in the Indian Ocean have been under British control for over 50 years.
I wrote about the Chagos Islands in this blog as far back as January 2017 (see Article 103: “Heaping insult on injury”), and February 2017 (Article 104: “Playing long and loose with peoples’ lives”). My attention has recently been refocused on these islands, and the lives of their former inhabitants, in consequence of the renewed attempts by Mauritius, which had jurisdiction over the Chagos Islands prior to British control and is now renewing its attempt to reclaim the islands and their banished citizens.
Mauritius is doing so after the United Nations has recently pronounced that the United Kingdom must now hand back the islands and their people to Mauritian jurisdiction. The UK has refused to do so, citing the security concerns surrounding the United States’ military base on the island of Diego Garcia (authorised by the Wilson administration early in the UK’s jurisdiction over the Archipelago in the 1950’s, and considered by some commentators to be the reason for the British interest in these islands in the first place).
A British journalist, Andrew Hardy, reporting for the BBC, has commented that, after decades of exile since the British government expelled the islanders from their homeland, some of the former Chagossian islanders have returned to the archipelago. However, the visiting islanders will not be able to stay. They have been allowed to pay the islands a brief visit, during which time they can attend to tidying up the ruins of their former homes – once prosperous villages now looking like a lost world, overgrown and decrepit. These Chagossians are, naturally, feeling angry at the treatment they have received from the British, whom, in the words of one visitor, “did not respect the fundamental rights of the people”.
The UK still claims sovereignty over all these islands. However, international law states that the UK must allow all Chagossian islanders to return permanently to the archipelago and must not cling-on to a piece of its old empire. The International Court of Justice has ruled that the Chagossians have a right to return to their islands. Failure to continue to prevent them from doing so is, in the words of Philippe Sands, a legal adviser to the Mauritian government, “to be recognised as a crime against humanity”.
Responding to this criticism of the British position, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development office in London said: “Successive British governments have expressed sincere regret about the manner in which Chagossians were removed from BIOT in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and we are currently delivering a £40m support package to Chagossians over a 10-year period.”
Against this background, Mauritius is preparing their claim to the Chagos Islands, believing that the British position is untenable, and that the time, during which the islands have been virtually hidden from the international community, should end. In being represented in the group that has recently visited the island, the Mauritian government wishes to challenge and, hopefully, change the existing situation of British hegemony over the islands, so that it does not remain that way for very much longer.
In the meantime, the islanders plan a return visit, and they commit themselves to fervently believing in the possibility that, one day, their return will be permanent.