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Chagos: dealing with a 50-year-old crime

“The object of the exercise is to get some rocks which will remain ours. … There will be no indigenous population except seagulls,” wrote Sir Paul Gore-Booth, a senior official at the British Foreign Office, as the plan to expel the 2,000 Chagos Islanders from their homes was taking shape in 1966.  “We must surely be very tough about this.”

They were indeed very tough about it. Six years later the Chagossians (‘Ilois,’ as they call themselves) were scooped up, loaded on ships, and dumped on the waterfront of Port Louis in Mauritius, where most of them have lived in abject poverty ever since. But this month a number of them went back to the islands on a Mauritian ship.

Not to stay, yet. They were shadowed by a British ‘fisheries protection’ vessel throughout their visit, which comically claimed that it was ‘cooperating in environmental research.’ But the balance has now tipped so far in favour of the former residents that the British ship dared not stop the Mauritian vessel.

While their own ship’s crew worked to define the territory’s maritime boundaries for the Mauritian government, the Ilois revisited their old homes, now roofless and overrun by vegetation. Afterwards they had to go back to Mauritius – but why were they exiled in the first place?

The crime that Gore-Booth was shamelessly discussing in 1966 was committed on behalf of the United States. The Chagos Islands, an archipelago of 62 coral atolls in the middle of the Indian Ocean, would make an ideal bomber base from which to dominate  most of south Asia and eastern Africa, and the Pentagon wanted it.

Britain, in its usual kiss-up, kick-down mode, was happy to oblige, but there was a problem. The Chagos Islands had been governed as part of the British colony of Mauritius, which was due to get its independence in 1968. The United States wasn’t keen on having a major strategic base in an independent African country, so something had to be done.

The solution, obviously, was to separate the Chagos Islands from Mauritius and declare them the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). Easily done: offer the Mauritians £3 million for the islands, and tell them they can’t have independence unless they accept the deal.

However, this was happening at the height of decolonization, when colonial territories all over the ‘Third World’ were claiming the right of self-determination.  What if the Ilois do the same? Well, then, we’d better remove all the inhabitants.

So that’s what Britain did in 1972, falsely claiming that there was no resident population, only contract workers. The Ilois have not been allowed to return for 50 years, and all the people who were actually born there are getting old, but their children and grandchildren have not forgotten.

They actually managed to get a decision in the British courts in 2000 ruling that the expulsion had been unlawful and ordering the British government to let the islanders go home. It might even have been obeyed – except that 2001 brought the 9/11 attacks, and the US base on the Chagos island of Diego Garcia became a key hub in the ‘war on terror.’

American B-52s flying from the Chagos Islands have bombed Afghanistan and Iraq at intervals for 20 years, and Diego Garcia, with no civilian population, became a transit point for prisoners being flown untraceably between American ‘black sites’ around the planet. The islands were on long lease from the UK, and the US didn’t want them given back.

Britain still insists it is the sovereign power on the islands (although it is the US that runs them), but since the International Court of Justice ruled in 2019 that the whole expulsion had been illegal it has been on the defensive. The UN General Assembly, and more recently the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, have backed that ruling.

It will take some time, but the United States no longer really needs a base on Diego Garcia since it has access to air bases in Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, all much closer to the action. Moreover, Mauritius says that it doesn’t mind if the base stays so long as it gets its islands back.  

So the Ilois will be going home one day soon – and meanwhile, here’s a fun fact. The Chagos archipelago is at the bottom of a giant bowl-shaped depression in the ocean almost 100 metres deep. If the sea was actually level – if not for the huge gravitational anomaly that holds that bowl open – the Chagos Islands would all be in very deep water.

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