Chagos Islands: international dispute and human drama

  • Monday 25, February 2019 12:24 PM
  • Chagos Islands: international dispute and human drama
Sharjah24 – AFP: Britain separated the Chagos Islands from its colony Mauritius more than 50 years ago, expelling the entire population to make way for a strategic US military base.
Britain's 1965 acquisition of the remote Indian Ocean archipelago of about 55 islands has been disputed ever since, with Mauritius demanding its return.

As the UN's International Court of Justice (ICJ) prepares to give a legal opinion on the long-running case on Monday, here is some background.

Indian Ocean colony
Located several hundred kilometres (miles) south of the Maldives, the Chagos Islands were colonised by France in the 18th century and African slaves shipped in to cultivate coconuts and copra.

In 1814 France was made to cede the islands to Britain, which in 1903 merged them with Mauritius, its colony around 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) to the southwest.

Only three of the islands were inhabited: Diego Garcia, Salomon and Peros Banhos.

Strategic military base
The US military base on Diego Garcia, the largest island, became of major strategic importance during the Cold War.

It offered proximity to Asia as an assertive Soviet navy was extending communist influence in the Indian Ocean.

Islanders take action
Chagos islanders living in Mauritius launched legal proceedings in 1975 against their expulsion, resulting in a 1982 payment of four million pounds in compensation along with land valued at one million pounds.

There were no reparations for islanders settled in the Seychelles.

In 2007 a British appeals court paved the way for Chagossians to return home but its decision was annulled by the upper House of Lords the following year.

In 2016 the British government confirmed its opposition to the resettlement of Chagossians, including for reasons of defence, security and cost.

Today around 10,000 Chagossians and their descendants are divided among Mauritius, the Seychelles and Britain.

Marine reserve fiasco
In 2010 Britain declared the islands part of a Marine Protected Area, arguing that people should not be permitted to live there.

Diplomatic cables revealed by WikiLeaks quoted a British official as saying the plan "put paid to the resettlement claims of the archipelago's former residents".

The move backfired as a UN arbitration tribunal declared it illegal in 2015.