An Island Seeks Independence

Dec 9, 2019 By Ritali J, Writer
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Picture of Chagos Islands near AfricaCan you recall why the American Revolutionary War was fought? The American colonists wanted to gain their independence from Britain because they felt unfairly treated. Throughout history, colonies often seek independence from their mother countries when their rights are consistently abused.

Today, the Chagos Islands, the last British colony in Africa, is trying to exit the UK’s control. It wants to reinclude itself as a part of Mauritius, a neighboring island country in the Indian Ocean. 

In May, the United Nations urged the UK to return the Chagos Islands to Mauritius by November 22. In fact, 116 UN member states voted in favor of this action while only 6 nations opposed it. However, the UK ignored this critical deadline as well as international pressure.

The UK claims it has continuously ruled this Indian Ocean Territory since 1814 and still has the rightful authority. But following the missed deadline, the African Union (an organization of African countries) has declared its support for Mauritius and is pushing the UK to decolonize the Chagos Islands.

The Conflict Over Chagos

Map of Chagos IslandsThe Chagos Archipelago and Mauritius were a single territory since the 18th century. The British colonized the islands until Mauritius gained independence in 1968. But in 1965, when the UK was still in charge, it separated the Chagos Islands from Mauritius by purchasing the island for $3 million. Mauritius claims that it was forced to exchange the islands for its independence.

Between 1968 and 1973, the UK forced 2,000 Chagos inhabitants to move into poor conditions in Mauritius and Seychelles. This was because the UK decided to let the U.S use Diego Garcia, the largest island of Chagos, as a military base until 2036.

The island’s central location in the Indian Ocean was crucial during the Cold War (worsening relations between the U.S and Russia after World War II) and later for bombing terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Iraq. The CIA also utilized the base for questioning terrorism suspects following the 9/11 attacks.

Why Britain Wants Control

In February, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) decided that Chagos is a part of Mauritius. However, because it is still a colony of Britain, that means Mauritius hasn’t been fully decolonized.

The ICJ ordered the UK to return Chagos as quickly as possible. Britain refused, so Mauritius asked the United Nations to intervene. It also highlighted that by ignoring the UN court’s ruling and deadlines, Britain failed to follow international law. 

Mauritius understands the military importance of Diego Garcia and has confirmed that it would allow operations to continue. So why isn’t the UK willing to give up Chagos?

For one, the UK is losing power on the international stage. The decision to exit the European Union -- known as Brexit, has isolated Britain from the rest of Europe. Its allies are no longer voting in favor of Britain at the United Nations. Also, for the first time in its 71-year history, Britain doesn’t have a judge on the International Court of Justice (ICJ). 

Britain is most likely holding onto its last colony in Africa to assert its global influence. If the world sees Britain as a violator of law, then Britain will end up losing its power in institutions like the UN Security Council. All eyes will be on the UK and how it resolves the situation. 

Sources: AlJazeera, BBC, Guardian, CNBC, DW.com