Chagos Islands: International Dispute and Human Drama

A U.S. Air Force B-1B bomber takes off from the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, on a strike mission over Afghanistan in 2001. (DoD photo via AFP)
A U.S. Air Force B-1B bomber takes off from the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, on a strike mission over Afghanistan in 2001. (DoD photo via AFP)

More than a half-century ago, the United Kingdom separated the Chagos Islands from its colony of Mauritius, expelling the entire population to make way for the installation of a U.S. military base that is today highly strategic.

Britain's 1965 acquisition of the Indian Ocean archipelago has been disputed ever since, with Mauritius demanding its return.

As the U.N.'s International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague holds hearings on the case Monday, here is some background.

- Indian Ocean colony -

Located several hundred miles south of the Maldives, the Chagos Islands were discovered by Portuguese explorers in the 16th century. The islands remained uninhabited until they were colonized by France in the 18th century.

African slaves were shipped in to cultivate coconuts and copra.

In 1814, the archipelago of about 55 islands was ceded to Britain, which in 1903 merged them with Mauritius, about 2,000 kilometers to the southwest.

After the abolition of slavery in 1834, Indian workers arrived and mixed with the first settlers.

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

- Detached from Mauritius -

In 1965, Britain detached the islands from Mauritius, then a semi-autonomous British territory, using decolonization talks as leverage and paying 3 million pounds for them at the time.

This meant that when Mauritius obtained independence three years later, the islands remained under British control, renamed the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).

In 1966, Britain leased the Chagos Islands to the United States for 50 years, so that it could set up a military base. In 2016, the deal was extended to 2036.

Between 1968 and 1973, around 2,000 Chagos islanders were evicted, a process described in a British diplomatic cable at the time as the removal of "some few Tarzans and Man Fridays."

Most were shipped to Mauritius and the Seychelles.

Citing security reasons, the British authorities have since banned all visits to the islands without special authorization, making it impossible for Chagossians to return.

Mauritius argues it was illegal for Britain to break up its territory. It claims sovereignty over the archipelago and demands the right to resettle former residents.

- Strategic military base -

The Diego Garcia base became of major strategic importance to Britain and the U.S. during the Cold War.

It offered proximity to Asia as the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia diminished Washington's military capabilities in the region, while an assertive Soviet navy was extending communist influence in the Indian Ocean.

After the 1979 Iranian revolution, the United States expanded the base to receive more warships and heavy bombers.

In recent years, it served as a staging ground for U.S. bombing campaigns over Afghanistan and Iraq.

- Islanders take action -

Chagos islanders living in Mauritius launched legal proceedings in 1975 against their expulsion, resulting in a 1982 payment of 4 million pounds in compensation, along with land valued at 1 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, citing defense, security and cost concerns.

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

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This article was written by Roland DE Courson from Agence France Presse and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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