Britain defeated in UN vote on Chagos archipelago: Islanders 'decolonisation' bid gains momentum

Mauritius and the Chagos Islanders have won a major victory at the United Nations in one of the last remaining issues related to decolonisation. The United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of an African Union-backed resolution against the United Kingdom, on the legal status of the disputed Chagos archipelago.

Britain had separated the Chagos Islands from Mauritius just before Mauritius was granted independence, and created a new colony it called the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). The Chagos Islanders were forcibly expelled from their homes and dumped in Mauritius and Seychelles without any compensation. The dispute acquired a wider dimension once an American military base was established on Deigo Garcia, the largest island in the Chagos archipelago.

India has been a firm supporter of the Mauritian claim to the islands and had strongly opposed the establishment of an American naval base just 1,200 kilometres from the Indian coast. The Chagos Islands lie just 500 kilometres west of the Maldives.

File image of Diego Garcia, the largest island in the Chagos archipelago. Reuters

File image of Diego Garcia, the largest island in the Chagos archipelago. Reuters

Mauritius and the exiled Chagos islanders have fought a long battle for redressal through the past five decades. The UN General Assembly has now referred the issue to the International Court of Justice for an opinion on the legality of British action on separating the Chagos Islands from Mauritius. The resolution received 94 votes in favour with 15 against and 65 abstentions. Though Britain argued that it was a bilateral matter between it and Mauritius and a security issue, the majority of the UN members saw it as a decolonisation issue.

The resolution received 94 votes in favour with 15 against and 65 abstentions. Though Britain argued that it was a bilateral matter between it and Mauritius, and a security issue, the majority of UN members saw it as a decolonisation issue.

What has come as a major embarrassment for the British government is that only four European Union members voted in its favour; some observers have speculated that it is the effect of Brexit. The British government made vigorous efforts to garner support; British foreign secretary Boris Johnson had asked the Indian government to use its influence on Mauritius over the issue, during his last visit to India earlier this year.

Britain leased out the islands to the United States in a secret deal in the late 1960s for building a military base at Deigo Garcia. It became a major American military base to counter Soviet influence in the Indian Ocean region. It remains an important airbase and naval refuelling station that the US used during the Vietnam war and later for bombing missions to Afghanistan and Iraq. It has also been used by the US for its rendition and interrogation operations in the fight against terrorism.

The Chagos dispute has a human rights issue in its fold as well. The Chagossians are descendants of African slaves and Indian workers brought from Mauritius in the 19th century to work on the French coconut plantations. At the time of their expulsion, the British claimed that the islanders were temporary workers brought to work for short periods. The islanders, some of whom have moved to

The islanders, some of whom have moved to the United Kingdom, have been fighting prolonged legal battles in the British courts against their deportation from the islands, but successive British governments used various means to overturn the effects of court verdicts in the Chagossians favour. In 2008 the British Law Lords overturned a verdict of the Appeal Court in favour of the government.

In 2008, the British Law Lords overturned a verdict of the Appeal Court in favour of the government. The Chagossians have continued to appeal to the courts and last year the UK Supreme Court heard an appeal that focused on a feasibility study into how difficult it would be to allow the Chagossians to resettle in the islands.

The Chagos support association in the UK has argued that civilians live in the vicinity of military bases without being security threats and that the islands could be resettled in one of the distant islands.

The Islanders are banned from visiting the islands even for a short visit though Salomon Islands, located about 100 kilometres from Diego Garcia in the Chagos group, remains a favourite halt for yachts sailing across the Indian Ocean.

Mauritius had taken the issue to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. In 2015, the Court had ruled against Britain, holding that Britain had acted illegally in its exercise of territorial control over the Chagos Islands. It was also critical of the way in which Britain had established a marine protection zone around the Chagos Islands that curtailed fishing rights in the region. The marine protection zone next to a major military zone was meant to ensure that the Chagossians did not return to the islands.

Britain had promised to return the Chagos Islands to Mauritius when they were no longer required for defence purposes but has not given a date for return. The American lease was renewed last year till 2036.

Following the favourable verdict at The Hague, Mauritius took up a vigorous campaign to gather support for a resolution at the UN General Assembly. The International Court of Justice rulings are not binding, but they carry a moral weight. But the Chagos Islanders still retain the hope that they can return to their island paradise someday.


Published Date: Jun 23, 2017 03:27 pm | Updated Date: Jun 23, 2017 03:27 pm


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