Decades ago, the United Kingdom’s government made a covert plan with the United States to force the entire population of the Chagos Archipelago into exile. The two powers agreed that a US military base would be built on Diego Garcia, the largest of the inhabited Chagos islands (whose inhabitants would be forcibly removed), while the UK would split the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius, creating a new colony, the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). By doing so, the UK could claim to the United Nations that they were not continuing their colonial rule because Chagos had “no permanent population,” according to Human Rights Watch.
From 1965 to 1973, the UK and US forced the entire Chagossian population from all the inhabited Chagos islands, not only Diego Garcia but also Peros Banhos and Salomon. The Last Colony, a book written by historian and barrister Philippe Sands, claims that the British closed down the island’s plantations and cut off food supplies, telling families they had to depart, or they would eventually starve. The transport ships abandoned them in Mauritius or Seychelles, where they had to live in abject poverty.
The US and the UK felt they could get away with these human rights violations without consultation, compensation, or redress because of the origins of Chagossians. “They are predominately descendants of enslaved people, forcibly brought from the African continent and Madagascar to the then-uninhabited Chagos islands where they worked on coconut plantations under French and British rule. Over the centuries, they became a distinct people with their own Chagossian Creole language, music, and culture,” the organization explains.
Additionally, the UK government has gone out of its way to claim that the human rights treaties it has ratified do not apply in the Chagos islands. Thereby implying that in its view, Chagossians do not have basic rights protections.
A HRW report indicates that the UK stands accused of three crimes against humanity – the ongoing forcible displacement of the Chagossians from their homeland, continuing to prevent Chagossians from returning to their home islands, and finally, the persecution of the Chagossians on racial and ethnic grounds.
In terms of the latter, the report’s primary author, Clive Baldwin, detailed that when held in contrast to other similar British territories with military bases, such as the Falkland Islands and Cyprus, “the treatment of Chagossians is starkly different. Unlike in Chagos, the UK government did not forcibly remove the inhabitants of the Falkland Islands, islands where several thousand of the inhabitants are of white, European descent, on the grounds of maintaining the security of its bases, despite it housing significant military facilities.”
“Nor has it gone out of its way to deny the inhabitants of their human rights. In fact, the UK government has explicitly extended the application of the European Convention on Human Rights to those living near its bases in Cyprus and allows islanders to bring cases to the European Court of Human Rights.” It adds.
The illegal claim to the Chagos Archipelago
Ultimately Britain’s claim to sovereignty over the strategically placed islands was comprehensively rejected by the United Nation’s special international maritime court in 2021.
The case started after an advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice, endorsed by the UN general assembly, found the UK in breach of international law by seeking to maintain its claim to the archipelago in 2019. Because the UK ignored the ICJ and the UN opinions, dismissing them as advisory, Mauritius had to press its claim to the international maritime court.
The court also explicitly criticised the UK’s failure to hand the territory over to its former colony, Mauritius, as earlier decided by a near-unanimous vote at the UN’s General Assembly.
Speaking after the judgment, Mauritius’s prime minister, Pravind Kumar Jugnauth, said the UK should end its unlawful occupation of the Chagos Islands. “The judgment of the special chamber of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) is clear and unequivocal: Mauritius is sovereign over the Chagos archipelago,” he said.
“The UK must now bring itself into full compliance with international law – it must immediately terminate its unlawful occupation of the Chagos archipelago which the International Court of Justice, and now today ITLOS, have determined to fall exclusively within the sovereignty of Mauritius.”
The UK rejected the ruling, saying, “The UK has no doubt as to our sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory, which has been under continuous British sovereignty since 1814. Mauritius has never held sovereignty over the BIOT, and the UK does not recognise its claim.”
It also claims that due to safety and cost, they cannot allow Chagossians to return to their homeland. Among the other deflection tactics the UK government is employing is offering British citizenship.
The government website stipulates, “the Home Office has listened to the concerns raised by the Chagossian community about the impact the combination of the removal of the Chagossians from the British Indian Ocean Territory in the 1960s and 1970s, and the limited recognition of their removal in nationality legislation, has had on their ability to access British nationality.”
“Having carefully considered the unique situation of the Chagossians, we have concluded it would be feasible to create a bespoke British nationality route for Chagossians, without weakening the general legal principles governing the acquisition of British nationality overseas by descent.” The application process for this special category was opened in November 2022.
Tangible changes and Reparations
Because of their continued refusal to comply with the law and use of vague perfunctory reasons for the standing human rights abuses against Chagossians, the HRW is calling for the UK and US governments to provide full reparations to the Chagossian people in three key areas.
- First, the UK should provide restitution by immediately lifting the ban on Chagossians permanently returning to the Chagos islands. The UK and the US should also ensure financial and other support and cooperation to restore the islands and enable the Chagossians to return and live and work in dignity across the Archipelago, as they would have done if the UK and US had not forced them to leave.
- Second, the UK and the US should provide financial compensation to all Chagossians, regardless of whether they wish to or can return, for the harm suffered from the crimes committed against them. This would include the physical, psychological, and economic harms they suffered both during the forced displacement and ever since.
- Third, the UK and the US should provide satisfaction and a guarantee that similar crimes will not happen again. After consultations with the Chagossians, this could entail full apologies from the UK and the US and their heads of state, including the British monarch, acknowledging the extent and nature of the crimes. The UK and US should publish all material concerning the treatment of the Chagossians. They should ensure investigations into these crimes and accountability for the individuals and state institutions most responsible.