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Chagos islands: The fight over Africa’s last British colony

Martina Schwikowski
November 22, 2019

A piece of Britain lies between Madagascar, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. To date the Chagos Islands are still under British control and their inhabitants live in exile. But the UK has missed a deadline to return them.

A man holds up a poster reading "The UK took our island home for a US airbas
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/empicsPA Wire/F. Hanson

The anger in his voice is clearly audible. There is a lack of goodwill on the side of the British government, Olivier Bancoult says. The fight over the Chagos archipelago has been dragging on for too long. "We are continuing to put pressure [on the British government]," Bancoult told DW. As a young boy, Bancoult was one of the Chagos residents who were forced to resettle. Today he lives in Mauritius and as a lawyer has been fighting for the people of Chagos and their descendants to return to the islands. On Friday, November 22, the United Nations deadline for the return of the islands to its people. Bancoult is amongst the organizers of a demonstration outside the British High Commission in Mauritius.

Mauritius, which had once been part of the same colonial territory as the Chagos islands, gained its independence in 1968. Between 1968 and 1973, up to 2,000 residents of the Chagos archipelago were forced to move to Mauritius, the Seychelles and UK in order to establish a military base on the main island, Diego Garcia. In the meantime, the UK has leased it to the US until 2036. Chagos served as a military base for both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. 

Insel Chagos | BIOT (British Indian Ocean Territory): Diego Garcia Base
The largest island, Diego Garcis, serves as a US military base Image: picture-alliance/CPA Media

Geostrategic importance

"We were poor people who are living in peace and harmony until they made the decision to giv one of the largest islands to America to make a military base. Since that time our nightmare started. Many of us were forcibly removed from our native land to live in Mauritius and the Seychelles," Bancoult told DW. In February the International Court of Justice in The Hague, ruled that the archipelago is legally a part of Mauritius. The court said that Britain had illegally separated the islands from Mauritius and should give them back.

The British government rejected the ruling. "The UK has no doubt as to our sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), which has been under continuous British sovereignty since 1814," read a statement by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The statement, however, alleged that Britain had pledged  to hand over the islands to Mauritius when they are no longer needed for defense purposes.

In May, the UN General Assembly also called on the UK to handover the islands. The deadline for the handover expired on November 22, but the resolution is not binding and the UK seems to have no intention to make such a move in the near future.

The strategic location and the military role of the island, make the very calls for its independence very difficult.  Philippe Sands, a British lawyer who advises the Mauritian government on the Chagos matter, believes that talks between the UK, the US and Mauritius will continue to take place. "Mauritius has indicated that the military base could even remain on the island," Sands told DW.

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Karte Chagos Islands EN
The archipelago belings to the same island group as Mauritius which gained independence from Britain in 1968

Clinging onto the last African colony

Sands believes that Britain's reluctance to bow to international pressure lies in the fact that it is still coming to terms with its new place in world politics. "[The UK] is a diminished power. It has lost its judge at the International Court of Justice, it has lost a series of resolutions at the UN General Assembly. I think its just taking time to come to the realization, that ist legal situation and is very different, but ultimately I think the UK will comply with the court," Sands said. 

The UK, Sands explained, is paying a high price for its political losses. "They're in the process of leaving the European Union, and they have to negotiate new trade agreements and political agreements with several countries. The government is in real trouble and I think that is why it is clinging on to its last colony in Africa," Sands said.  For him, keeping the islands under British control amounts to a crime against the people of Chagos.

Chagos | Gerechtigkeit | Flüchtlinge
Chagossians celebrate the news of the UN resolution calling on the UK give up control of the islands (February 2019) Image: Getty Images/AFP/Stringer

Hopes set on upcoming UK elections

According to Sands, the UN is already preparing new maps which show the Chagos islands as part of Mauritius. Additionally Mauritius is the only country that can have legal rights to fishing and overflying rights of the area.

Sands and Bancoult have the hope that the upcoming UK elections set for December 12 could make a difference. "The Labour party has promised to respect the ruling of the International Court of Justice," Sands said. "If the next government is under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn that would be very good,” Bancoult said. "He already supports us."

According to Bancoult, 596 Chagossians who were forced to leave the islands are still alive today. All in all, he said, they have 9.800 descendants who identify as Chagossians. Bancoult himself finds the thought of growing old away from his homeland difficult. "Most old people want to die where they were born," he said.

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