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How Britain Annexed the Chagos Archipelago: The Story of an American Military Base

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

By Petyo Rakov

Fifty years ago, in April 1973, a series of national expulsions were orchestrated and executed by the UK and the US. The strategically-important Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean was inhabited by the Îlois community for centuries. En route to the sheer ambitions of the Great Powers, this minor obstacle had to be removed at any cost. Hence, the islanders were forcefully relocated to Mauritius and the Seychelles. This violation of human rights went unnoticed in history, a small interlude in the high drama of the Cold War.

Military Base at Diego Garcia ©USGS/NASA Landsat data/Gallo Images/Getty Images

Geography is Destiny

The second half of the twentieth century was characterised by the collapse of European colonial empires. To accelerate this process of decolonisation, in 1960, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted Resolution 1514.

This resolution reaffirmed the right to self-determination and advocated for an immediate end to any colonial rule. Meanwhile, the United States and the Soviet Union were expanding their respective spheres of influence by engaging in proxy wars, installing friendly puppet governments and establishing military bases abroad.

To gain a foothold in the Indian Ocean, an area of great strategic importance, the US collaborated with the United Kingdom. During the infamous Lancaster House Agreement of 1965, representatives of the colony of Mauritius and the British government negotiated the future of the Chagos Archipelago.

The chain of islands was detached from the newly-independent Mauritius: the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), an overseas territory of the UK, was formed. Moreover, the islands were to be depopulated so as not to impede the functioning of the US military facilities that would be built on Diego Garcia, the largest and most populated atoll.

As part of the agreement, the UK agreed to pay the costs of resetting the Chagossians into Mauritian slums. This ‘compensation’, paid to the Mauritian government, and not the Chagossians, amounted to approximately 71.50 million in today’s pounds (81 million euros).

It should be noted that some Chagossians were offered meagre financial compensation and British citizenship.

In return for the base, the US provided the UK with a substantial discount on Polaris nuclear missiles, believed to be worth approximately 134.15 million in today’s dollars (121 million euros).

The legitimacy of this bilateral agreement is questionable since it has been executed without legislative approval or public knowledge. Instead, the de facto treaties are post-factum declassified diplomatic cables that assure that “there will be no indigenous population [referred to as “Tarzans or Man Fridays”] except seagulls”.

During the following decades, a 50-year lease of the Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia on the newly-formed BIOT was institutionalised through exchanges of notes. After the end of the initial lease term in 2016, a 20-years extension option was exercised, extending the occupation to 2036.

“That’s When the Nightmare Started”

The approximately 2000 Chagossians or Îlois, who primarily lived on the islands, were forcibly evicted between 1967 and 1973 in four stages. The first stage was the unannounced prevention of the re-entry of Chagossians who left the archipelago for medical or tourist purposes.

The second stage was the imposition of import restrictions, which led to food scarcity and made staying on the island challenging. This was followed by threats and coercion, including the destruction of housing.

Furthermore, the 1971 Immigration Ordinance No.1 prohibited Chagossians from entering or remaining on the islands. The approximately 800 dogs left behind were lured into a converted farm building where they died due to carbon monoxide, which was pumped into the building.

Camp Thunder Cove, Formerly Camp ‘Justice’

After the 11 September 2001 attacks, the BIOT became a launchpad for bombers that participated in the American-named Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom until forward bases were established in Afghanistan and Iraq respectively.

In addition, counter-terrorism and anti-piracy operations in the Horn of Africa and freedom-of-navigation expeditions in the South China Sea have been initiated from the BIOT. To accommodate the influx of military personnel, the Camp Justice complex was built, capable of housing up to around 3,000 people.

A heavy strategic B-2 Spirit bomber at Diego Garcia Air Base © INEWS

Notoriety was attracted to the naval base when British military officials, nominally in command of the atoll, re-designed one building as a prison three months after the 11 September attacks.

There it has been speculated that the CIA had detained and torturously interrogated suspected terrorists. In 2014, this was confirmed by then-President Obama.

Point of No Return?

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a universal call to action to protect the planet. In particular, the fourteenth goal targets the conservation of coastal and marine areas. By 2030, ten per cent of coastal and marine areas should be protected.

In ‘compliance’ with this environmental framework, the British government established the Chagos Marine Protected Area on 1 April 2010. The reserve encompasses 640,000 square kilometres of ocean waters, 70 small islands and seven atolls of the Chagos Archipelago.

Within this parameter, fishing is prohibited, even though the area was already a highly-regulated zone with a licensing system. According to the UK, the uninhabited nature of the archipelago is the main reason for its rich and unimpacted marine habitat. Thus, human resettlement would jeopardise the pristine condition of the environment.

However, the island of Diego Garica, which houses the military base, has its three-mile territorial waters exempted from the marine protected area (MPA). It should be noted that the waters around Diego Garcia are the only area where evidence of overfishing is present with more than 28 tonnes of fish being caught in 2010.

In leaked cables by WikiLeaks, officials from both the UK and the US imply the ulterior motive for the creation of the MPA. Removing the primary source of substance and economic sustainability would prevent the Chagos Islands’ former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling to the BIOT.

Recent Developments

In 2019, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) conducted a non-binding advisory vote in favour of the British Government returning the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritius. The ICJ ruled the separation an illegal breach of Resolution 1514, which specifically banned the breakup of colonies before independence.

Furthermore, the general assembly voted 116 to six that the UK never decolonized Mauritius. Two of the six opponents of the claim were the UK and the USA.

However, both the UK and the US are reluctant to withdraw due to the previously-mentioned strategic importance of the BIOT. Hence, even if Mauritius regains control of the BIOT, it would, financially, make sense to continue leasing the military base to foreign states.

Beijing has been extending its influence in the Indian Ocean as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. The purpose of the initiative is to increase the Chinese share of global trade via the construction of Chinese-financed infrastructure abroad.

That being said, participation in the project should be cautious. This integration has been criticised since the ‘beneficiary’ countries may not be able to repay the costly investments, thus becoming debtors to China. This situation has already occurred in Sri Lanka.

The Mauritian government has sought to assuage Western concerns by offering to lease the land to the US for up to 99 years if it is returned to their control. Thus, fears of China occupying Diego Garcia should not be a pretext for the UK to retain control of the islands.

However, the Mauritian offer to the US seems concerning. While London is ‘prioritising’ nature over people by establishing the Chagos Marine Protected Area, Mauritius might be prioritising lawful but solely nominal national sovereignty and potential financial gains.

Sources: Politico, The White House, WikiLeaks, Financial Times, The Guardian

Written by Petyo Rakov

May 2023

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