In Depth

Chagos Islands: UK defies UN handover deadline

Government comes in for criticism after ignoring calls to return islands to Mauritius

The UK is facing criticism after ignoring a UN-mandated deadline to return control of the disputed Chagos Islands to Mauritius.

In May, the UN voted to give Britain six months to hand over the Indian Ocean archipelago, which has been a source of controversy for decades.

But the deadline passed today, prompting legal representatives of Mauritius to describe the UK as a “colonial occupier”.

The UK government has long faced criticism over its administration of the islands, in particular the deportation of thousands of its residents in the 1960s and 70s to make way for a US airbase.

Where are the Chagos Islands?

The Chagos Archipelago is located in the Indian Ocean, about halfway between Tanzania and Indonesia, and directly south of the Maldives.

Officially part of the British Indian Ocean Territory, the Chagos were home to the Chagossians, a Bourbonnais Creole-speaking people, for more than 150 years before Britain evicted them to make for the military base of Diego Garcia, for the mutual benefit of the US and the UK.

For years, the US base “has been vital to the military, serving as a landing spot for bombers that fly missions across Asia, including over the South China Sea”, says CNN.

What happened to the evicted residents?

All 2,000 inhabitants of the islands were forcibly deported, after the British government split the Chagos Islands in 1965 to allow for the construction of a US military base.

In 1966, a Foreign Office memo described the residents of the island, known as Chagossians, as “some few Tarzans and Man Fridays whose origins are obscure”, says the BBC.

The expulsions “have long been regarded as one of the most shameful parts of Britain’s modern colonial history”, says The Independent. The Guardian adds that the consequences of the deportation “have reverberated down the generations, disrupting the lives of their descendants”.

Now scattered between the US, the UK and nearby Mauritius, as many as 1,500 Chagossians claim the right to return to their homeland.

But in 2016, Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay told MPs that the British government had decided against resettlement on the grounds of “feasibility, defence and security interests, and the cost to the British taxpayer”.

In May this year, the UN general assembly voted by 116 members to six in favour of condemning the UK’s occupation and demanding Chagos be reunified with Mauritius by 22 November.

What’s happened this week?

After missing the UN’s six-month deadline, the UK has come under severe criticism from the international community.

Prof Philippe Sands QC, who represented Mauritius at The Hague during the bid to have the islands returned, said the failure to hand them over was a “reflection of a continuing colonial mindset” and “undermines the UK’s supposed commitment to the rule of law”.

He added that the deportation of the Chagossians and the refusal to allow them to return is “akin to a crime against humanity”.

At the time of the UN resolution, the Foreign Office said the UK did not recognise Mauritius’s claim to sovereignty, but would stand by an earlier commitment to hand over control of the islands to Mauritius when they were no longer needed for defence purposes.

Bloomberg reports that the African Union, which represents just over 1 billion people across the continent, has also urged the UK to comply with the UN resolution.

Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat said that the union “requests the international community to continue its support to the Republic of Mauritius for a complete decolonisation of the Chagos Archipelago”.

The UK Foreign Office said in a statement: “The UK has no doubt as to our sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory, which has been under continuous British sovereignty since 1814.”

The BBC notes that the deadline “is not binding, so no sanctions or immediate punishment will follow – but that could change”.

The broadcaster adds that sanctions “would be slow, incremental and largely institutional” and the UK will “start to see UN maps reflecting the legal fact that the UN sees these islands as belonging to Mauritius”.

The Labour Party has committed to returning the islands if it is elected in December, with leader Jeremy Corbyn saying that he would “right the wrongs of history” by granting sovereignty to Mauritius.

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