The Tale of Chagos Archipelago

The British Empire was one of the biggest imperial powers in the world in the nineteenth and twentieth century. In its long history, the small island nation has invaded all but 22 countries in the world. For once it was said that the sun never sets in the British Empire. In the heights of its colonial rule, one-fourth of the world was under its control. However, post World War II, the authority of Britain came under scrutiny and many colonies sought independence. Through the second half of the twentieth century, many colonies emerged as independent nations. As a British colony ourselves, we are aware of the impact that colonialism and the sudden parting of the colonial masters can have on the nation.

However, not all British Colonies are free today. The United Kingdom today has 14 overseas territories and 3 crown dependencies spread across the globe. One such overseas territory is British Indian Ocean Territory located in the middle of the Indian Ocean, south of Maldives. The Chagos Archipelago is an island cluster that forms British Indian Ocean Territory and this was separated from Mauritius in 1965 to form the BIOT. The Chagos Archipelago comprises of over 1000 tiny islands and the biggest of these is the Diego Garcia. Most human and economic activity is concentrated in Diego Garcia.

To begin with, the United Kingdom aims to retain a strategic island located in the Indian Ocean. Therefore, when Mauritius was granted independence in 1965, this island cluster was separated from it and was retained under the British control as a British Overseas territory. At this point in time, the island of Diego Garcia was inhabited by around 2000 Chagossians. From 1968 to 1973, the British systematically removed these native settlers from the Archipelago and relocated them to nearby nations such as Mauritius. This particular process was carried out to provide an empty island to build a joint military base for the US and the UK. An agreement was signed between the US and the UK to build this base in exchange for military equipment that was purchased by the UK. This happened in the heights of the cold war where a presence in the Indian Ocean was seen as important to counter any Soviet activity in the Indian ocean.

The forced depopulation of the island of Diego Garcia was made possible using the Acquisition of Land Ordinance for public purposes. The private plantations were bought by the British Government with the aim of taking control of all income generating enterprises to force the Chagossians from any kind of employment. By this means, they aimed to force the natives to relocate to nearby nations. This act is often viewed by Chagossians and other human rights activists as a violation of the rights of the natives. In the end, 280 Chagossians filed a petition seeking compensation for their right to abode from the Mauritian government. However, this fund was not distributed until 1977.

The legal basis for the acquisition of Chagos and the forced depopulation have been challenged at various forums. The Islanders faced severe livelihood problems in Mauritius and have campaigned for compensation and for land. These compensations were long delayed and never really reached the Islanders. Today the Chagossians stand at a number of 4500 people who are fighting for their claim to the Archipelago. There have been several judgements made to allow them into the island and many countering the previous claims. The Islanders are anticipating the expiration of the military treaty so that they can return and transform it into a sugarcane and fishing enterprise. Several covert measures like the transformation of the island into a marine reserve were undertaken to prevent the resettlement of the Chagossians.

A 2018 hearing of the International Court of Justice in Hague ruled that the UK had infringed the sovereignty of Mauritius by taking the Chagos Archipelago in 1965 and also meddled with the right to self-determination of the Chagossians. The advisory verdict given by the ICJ came as a major blow to the British and they urged the UK to hasten the decolonization process of Mauritius. The future course of action for Chagos remain uncertain given the way decisions have been made in the past. The present ruling comes as a major blow to the specters of colonialism that continue to remain today. The support and pressures from other nations can help speed up the process and bring justice to Chagossians and the Chagos.

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