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UN says Britain must give up the Chagos Islands

REUTERS/Andrew Winning (BRITAIN)
Chagos Islanders demand the right to return to their archipelago, from where they were forcibly removed in the 1960s and ’70s to make way for an American airbase.
By Yinka Adegoke
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The UN is demanding that Britain return control of the Chagos Islands to Mauritius.

The non-binding General Assembly resolution passed 116 to six, with France, Germany and 54 other countries abstaining.

Acquired from Mauritius in its negotiations for 1965 independence, the Chagos Islands—a British Overseas territory—are one of the last vestiges of UK colonial rule. Mauritius has long claimed it was forced to give up the islands. The Indian Ocean islands are probably not well known to most Africans: They are situated some 1,800 kilometers (1,100 miles) from Mauritius and the other nearest African nation, Seychelles.

Back in 1964, while Mauritius was negotiating its independence, London had entered into secret talks with the US to acquire the Chagos archipelago for use as a military base. The attraction was obvious: Its more than 60 islands are located just 600 kilometers off the coast of the Indian subcontinent, a convenient and strategic site for air and sea operations. Without disclosing this interest, the UK formally disaggregated the Chagos Islands from Mauritius during independence negotiations in 1965, paying Mauritius a sum of £3 million. Mauritius was granted independence in 1968.

Between 1967 and 1973, UK forcibly removed the islands’ more than 3,000 occupants, moving them to Seychelles and Mauritius. Declassified correspondence from the time reveals that this was in accordance with the agreement that the UK had reached with the US, which included assurances that there will be “no indigenous population left on the island except seagulls.” The US promptly built a military base on the largest of the atolls, Diego Garcia, that remains in use till today. The lease on Diego Garcia—the US’s largest military base beyond its own shores—does not expire till 2036.

The specter of Brexit has also loomed over the Britain’s ambitions to keep hold of Chagos. Before its vote to leave the EU, Britain could have expected stronger support from European countries with its bid.

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