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'Illegal colonial occupant': UK criticised for ignoring UN deadline to return territory to Mauritius

Britain separated the Chagos Islands from its colony Mauritius more than 50 years ago.

Britain's acquired of the remote Indian Ocean archipelago of about 55 islands for £3 million in 1965.
Britain's acquired of the remote Indian Ocean archipelago of about 55 islands for £3 million in 1965.
Image: Shutterstock/MattD123

THE UK HAS defied an order given by the UN after failing to return control of an overseas territory to the island nation of Mauritius. 

The United Nations overwhelmingly voted in May, based on findings by the UN’s International Court of Justice, to set a six-month deadline for the UK to withdraw from the Indian Ocean archipelago. 

While not legally binding, the UN vote heaped diplomatic pressure on Britain to return the Chagos Islands, with the General Assembly backing the resolution 116 votes to six.

The government of Mauritius accused the UK of being “an illegal colonial occupant” in the Chagos Archipelago shortly after the ruling. 

Britain separated the Chagos Islands from its colony Mauritius more than 50 years ago, expelling the entire population to make way for a strategic US military base.

Britain’s 1965 acquisition of the remote Indian Ocean archipelago of about 55 islands for £3 million has been disputed ever since, with Mauritius demanding its return. When Mauritius became independent three years later, the islands remained under British control, renamed the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).

Jeremy Corbyn vowed to “end colonial rule” if he wins the 12 December election and accused the Conservatives of “shamefully” considering themselves above international law.

“It’s clear that in refusing to return the Chagos Islands to Mauritius and defying the UN General Assembly and International Court of Justice, this Conservative government shamefully considers itself to be above international law,” the Labour leader said.

Mauritius argues it was illegal for Britain to break up its territory. It claims sovereignty over the archipelago and demands the right to resettle former residents.

In 1966 Britain leased the islands to the United States for 50 years so that it could set up a military base. In 2016 the deal was extended to 2036.

Between 1968 and 1973 around 2,000 Chagos islanders were evicted, described in a British diplomatic cable at the time as the removal of some “Tarzans and Man Fridays”.

courts-chagos Source: PA Graphics

Islanders take action 

Chagos islanders living in Mauritius launched legal proceedings in 1975 against their expulsion, resulting in a 1982 payment of four million pounds in compensation along with land valued at one million pounds.

There were no reparations for islanders settled in the Seychelles.

In 2007 a British appeals court paved the way for Chagossians to return home but its decision was annulled by the upper House of Lords the following year.

In 2016 the British government confirmed its opposition to the resettlement of Chagossians, including for reasons of defence, security and cost.

Today around 10,000 Chagossians and their descendants are divided among Mauritius, the Seychelles and Britain.

In 2010 Britain declared the islands part of a Marine Protected Area, arguing that people should not be permitted to live there.

Diplomatic cables revealed by WikiLeaks quoted a British official as saying the plan “put paid to the resettlement claims of the archipelago’s former residents”.

The move backfired as a UN arbitration tribunal declared it illegal in 2015.

The International Court of Justice in February handed Mauritius a victory when it said in a legal opinion that Britain had illegally split the islands and should give up control of the Chagos. After Britain rejected that ruling, Mauritius turned to the General Assembly to press for action.

The Assembly in May voted through a non-binding resolution presented by African countries that urged Britain to “withdraw its colonial administration” from the Chagos Islands within six months.

Asked for a comment, the UK Foreign Office pointed to a recent ministerial statement saying: “The UK has no doubt as to our sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), 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.”

- With reporting from PA, AFP 

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Adam Daly

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