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Chagos Archipelago

Right in the middle of the Indian Ocean lies the Chagos Archipelago, the most important island of which is Diego Garcia. It was visited in the eighteenth century by both English and French ships, and in 1784 the English made an abortive attempt to settle it from Bombay. Shortly afterwards it was annexed by the French at Mauritius, who made the island a refuge for lepers. It was subsequently taken by the Mauritians for the sake of the coco-nut industry.

The Chagos islands have been British since they were ceded to Britain by France in 1814. Following the French practice, they continued to be administered from Mauritius. Prior to Mauritius achieving independence, and with the agreement of the Mauritius Council of Ministers, the islands were detached in 1965 to form part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). The Territory was created to provide for the defence needs of both the United States and Britain. At the time, the British Government gave Mauritius an undertaking to cede the islands to Mauritius when they were no longer required for defence needs. However, since 1982, successive Mauritius Governments have asserted a sovereignty claim to the islands, arguing that they were detached illegally.

This group of islands, but little known till the late 19th Century, lies about 250 miles S. by W. from the southernmost of the Maldiva Islands. They belong to Britain, and are a dependancy of Mauritius. They were explored and surveyed by the French in 1744. They were partially examined by Lieut. Archibald Blair, in 1786, and were more completely surveyed by Capt. Moresby, of the Indian Navy, in 1837. From this latter chart they occupy a space of about 200 miles N.N.E. and S.8.W., and have the chief portion of the groups of islets on their western side.

The~whole space between the outer islands is occupied by a bank, named by Captain Moresby the Great Chagos Bank, the outer edge of which is dangerous for ships, having in some parts only 4 fathoms, and seldom more than 6 or 7 fathoms, when over the edge the soundings suddenly deepen to 30 and 40 fathoms, with here and there patches of 8 and 6 fathoms. As a caution to navigators, they are advised not to pass over this bank, except in a case of necessity, and that only in the daytime. Should a ship in the vicinity of these islands be in want of stock, water, and wood, it can easily be procured, without passing over or near this bank, by visiting either Peros Banhos or Diego Garcia, both of which lie without the bank, and afford every facility for vessels touching there.

In 1788, M. Depuit de la Faye obtained a grant of Great Chagos Island from the government, and commenced a trade, which has continued ever since. In 1810 and 1814 it came to the British as a dependancy of Mauritius, but it not being deemed expedient to colonize them, grants were made of the various groups to certain persons of French extraction, who, in lieu of rent or revenue, engaged to Rupply the colonial government, at a fixed price, a certain annual amount of cocoa-nut oil. This, in 1849, amounted to 140,000 gallons.

The islands abounded with pigs, living on the refuse of the cocoa-nuts. The meat is exported to Mauritius and Reunion. Poultry is plentiful. Colonies of bees are sometimes brought from Mauritius ; they thrive well without any attention. Another curious source of revenue lay in the sale of dogs. A valuable breed of pointers exists, and a large number are reared. On nearly every part of the islands there grow, at intervals, large clumps of gigantic trees, the Bois Mapan, or rose tree, which attains an enormous eize and height, even to 200 ft. Their growth and decay is most rapid, and these fallen and decayed trunks formed a large portion of the vegetable mould of the archipelago.

Chagos was occupied from the 18th century, during which time most of its native vegetation was converted to coconut plantations. This industry lasted until the 1970s. Two of the five atolls were abandoned for economic reasons and social problems in the 1930s, and in the early 1970s the plantations on the remaining three atolls were closed due to the establishment of a military facility.

Several thousands of native Chagossians were forcibly deported from the island of Diego Garcia as the United Kingdom secretly leased the archipelago and detached it from Mauritius to make way for US ships and aircraft. The people were moved to various countries, notably Mauritius and the Seychelles, and some eventually to Europe, especially England. The remaining plantations were already in some decline given diminishing world demand for coconuts and the ascendency of palm oil from elsewhere, but nevertheless political issues surrounding the forced removal of the last inhabitants has been mired in controversy ever since.

Mauritius became independent in 1968, through mutual agreement between the Council of Ministers of Mauritius and the UK Government. In separate talks with the Council of Ministers, Mauritius had earlier accepted the detachment of the Chagos Archipelago: an agreement that Mauritius continued to respect until the 1980s. The General Assembly had not discussed this matter for decades.

Successive UK Governments expressed their sincere regret about the manner in which Chagossians were removed from the British Indian Ocean Territory in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The UK Government paid substantial compensation to Chagossians—nearly £15.5 million in current prices — and the British courts and the European Court of Human Rights confirmed that compensation had already been paid in full and final settlement. The United Kingdom had decided against resettling the Chagossians on the grounds of feasibility, cost, defence and security interests. However, it was implementing a $50 million support package designed to improve their livelihoods.

There is an aspiration among some Chagossian communities for resettlement, but demand appears to fall substantially when those consulted understand more about the likely conditions of civilian life on what are very remote and low-lying islands. KPMG provided a comprehensive analysis of the resettlement options. The report gave a whole range of possible scenarios, and consultation then followed. Only 25% of the 832 people who responded after further discussions indicated that they would want to return. These are very, very small numbers that would, under the KPMG report, trigger a very high cost per capita.

In August 2015 the previous Conservative Government began a consultation exercise with Chagossians and other interested parties that ran until the end of October. A summary of the consultation responses was published in January 2016. Among the headlines was the finding that 98% of 895 Chagossian respondents had supported resettlement.

The UK Government looked carefully at the practicalities of setting up a small remote community on low-lying islands and the challenges that such a community would face. We were particularly concerned about the difficulty of establishing modern public services, about the limited healthcare and education that it would be possible to provide — which would create difficulties for any new population and especially for elderly Chagossians returning to the islands — and about the lack of realistic economic opportunities. The Government considered all the available information and decided against the resettlement of the Chagossian people on the grounds of feasibility, defence and security interests, and the cost to the British taxpayer.

On 22 June 2017, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted resolution A/RES/71/292 in which, referring to Article 65 of the Statute of the Court, it requested the International Court of Justice to give an advisory opinion on the following questions: “Was the process of decolonization of Mauritius lawfully completed when Mauritius was granted independence in 1968, following the separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius and having regard to international law, including obligations reflected in General Assembly resolutions 1514 (XV) of 14 December 1960, 2066 (XX) of 16 December 1965, 2232 (XXI) of 20 December 1966 and 2357 (XXII) of 19 December 1967?”;

“What are the consequences under international law, including obligations reflected in the above-mentioned resolutions, arising from the continued administration by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland of the Chagos Archipelago, including with respect to the inability of Mauritius to implement a programme for the resettlement on the Chagos Archipelago of its nationals, in particular those of Chagossian origin?”

The draft resolution was supported in a 94-15 vote with 65 abstentions. Most European Union countries, including Germany and France, abstained as well as Russia.

Speaking before the action, Anerood Jugnauth, Mauritius’ Minister Mentor and Minister for Defence and Rodrigues – also a former Prime Minister and President – said “a vote for the draft resolution […] is a vote in support of completing the process of decolonization, respect for international law and the rule of law”. Recalling that that he had been accompanied by Chagossians forcibly evicted from their islands following the separation, he emphasized that his country had never accepted the situation, and had not been in a position to consent before gaining statehood, even if the United Kingdom claimed that compensation had been given for its consent.

Describing the Chagos Archipelago as part of his country since at least the eighteenth century, when France had governed it, he said the entire territory had been ceded to the United Kingdom in 1810, and kept intact until the unlawful excision of the Chagos Archipelago on 8 November 1965. He added that information had come to light about British efforts to manipulate the international community at the time, and to present the United Nations with a fait accompli regarding the separation. Those facts alone should warrant a fresh look at the situation, he emphasized.

The representative of the United States said the Assembly’s action represented the circumvention of normal procedure, describing it as a “back-door” way to get the issue on the Court’s docket.

In June 2015 the Supreme Court heard an application for the 2008 verdict of the House of Lords – which ruled that the use in 2004 of Orders in Council to prevent the Chagossians from returning had been lawful – to be set aside. In June 2016 the Supreme Court ruled against the application by a majority of 3 to 2. However, the decision of the previous UK Government against allowing resettlement has led to an application for judicial review of the original ban.

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