For decades the indigenous people of the Chagos islands have fought for an end to British rule and for the right to return to their homes

Chagos Islanders protesting in front of the Houses of Parliament in London, 2008.
Chagos Islanders protesting in front of the Houses of Parliament in London, 2008. (Getty Images)

The decades-long dispute between Britain and Mauritius over the Indian Ocean archipelago of the Chagos Islands remains unsolved, but the campaign for an end to the British rule continues. 

The United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to demand that Britain end its “colonial administration” of the Chagos Islands, which includes a US air base, and return them to Mauritius. 

A total of 116 countries voted in favour of the resolution, presented by African countries, that urged Britain to “withdraw its colonial administration” from the Chagos Islands within six months. 

Only six countries, including Britain, the United States, Israel, and Australia, voted against the measure in the assembly, while 56 nations abstained, including Canada, France and Germany. 

The resolution is part of a wider campaign and comes three months after the International Criminal Court decided that Britain had illegally split Mauritius and the islands, and should give up the control of the islands. 

FILE PHOTO: Diego Garcia, the largest island in the Chagos archipelago and site of a major United States military base in the middle of the Indian Ocean leased from Britain in 1966./
FILE PHOTO: Diego Garcia, the largest island in the Chagos archipelago and site of a major United States military base in the middle of the Indian Ocean leased from Britain in 1966./ (Reuters)

After Britain rejected the court ruling, Mauritius turned to the United Nations. 

Although the General Assembly resolution is not legally binding, it does carry some weight in international politics. 

After colonisation by France in the 19th Century, the island chain was given to Britain and in 1903 it merged the islands with Mauritius. 

In 1965, just three years before the independence of Mauritius, Britain separated the Chagos Islands and kept them under British control. 

The UK then leased the islands to the US for 50 years and Washington has since built a military base on them.

To make way for the base, the indigenous population was forcibly uprooted, expelled, and prevented from returning.

A British diplomatic cable described the removal of some “Tarzans and Man Fridays”. 

The US military base on Diego Garcia, the largest island, was of major strategic importance during the Cold War. 

Today, nearly 10,000 people from the Chagos Islands live in Mauritius, the Seychelles and Britain. 

A Chagossian man shows his identity card stating his birth place as the Solomon Island, Chagos on January 17 2005 in Port Louis, Mauritius
A Chagossian man shows his identity card stating his birth place as the Solomon Island, Chagos on January 17 2005 in Port Louis, Mauritius (AFP)

In 2007, a British appeals court ruled in favour of locals to be able to return their islands but its decision was annulled by the upper House of Lords the following year. 

In 2010, Britain declared the islands 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”. 

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

African countries which supported the resolution in the UN assembly, consider the dispute an issue of decolonisation. 

Addressing the assembly ahead of the vote, Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Kumar Jugnauth said UN member states must send “a clear signal to the world that colonialism can no longer be tolerated”. 

Richard Gowan, International Crisis Group UN director, said Britain would never win the vote as many UN member states were “very proud of the General Assembly’s history of fighting colonialism during the Cold War and see this as an extension of that legacy”. 

On the other hand, Gowan described the vote as “an embarrassing moment for the UK” and said that it will negatively affect Britain’s efforts to remain an influential global player after Brexit. 

Source: TRTWorld and agencies