Chagos and Britain’s Imperial Present

Author: Cai Green

Harold Macmillan’s speech “Wind of Change”, in 1960, declared the start of a government-led program of decolonisation. Nevertheless, the British Government did not abandon its position as an imperial power. Any reference to Britain’s imperial past today is simply ill-informed; even in the present day, the UK exerts its political power to deny rights to supposedly independent peoples around the globe.

The little-known archipelago of the Chagos islands is a constant reminder of Britain’s ongoing colonial action and its continued obstruction of justice. Between 1968-1973 the British government acted against the rights of the people of Chagos. Furthermore, the UK has repeatedly abdicated its own responsibility to ensure the self-determination of peoples, under Chapter XI of the Charter of the UN.

To make way for a US military base, the British government expelled over 1,000 Chagossians from the islands which had been their home for over a century and a half. Threats of violence were made against the population and those who left the island, for holidays, were not permitted to return. Journalist John Pilger described how the pet dogs of the islanders were gassed in order to coerce the population into leaving. When the population was finally evicted they were only permitted to take a single suitcase each, a primary cause of the poverty which continues to plague the community. In order to justify, and legalise, their actions the UK denied the identity of the Chagossians as the inhabitants of the island, instead, they acted as if they were simply “contract labourers”. As the descendants of the formerly enslaved plantation population of Chagos, the Chagossians know no other home.

Even today many Chagossians, most of whom were exiled to Mauritius, still remember their homeland and the British government’s repeated refusal to allow their return. Chagossians are overwhelmingly prone to financial destitution, primarily because their livelihoods were denied to them due to imperial ambition and callous policy.

In order to reclaim the islands, the Chagossians have been forced to work within the British legal system, rather than an impartial court. Despite victory in the British High Court, an appeal to the Lords of Appeal in Ordinary by the British government overruled the claims of the people of Chagos.

Mauritius has also sought to recover the islands, which it lost in the negotiations for its own independence, due to British political manoeuvring, in a series of decisions described as “blackmail” by the Mauritian delegation. Attempts by the Mauritian government to put the matter to the International Court of Justice have been met with threats from the British Foreign Office, in particular, to undermine their economy. There have even been accusations that the foreign secretary, who at that time was Boris Johnson, telephoned the Mauritian prime minister in order to intimidate the small nation.

Despite the British government’s posturing as a modern, liberal and democratic nation it still seeks to deny these rights to the people of Chagos. The idea of imperialism solely as a dark stain on Britain’s past cannot be accepted, not until it there is full decolonisation. The suffering of the Chagossians cannot be overlooked, they have a right to return to the homeland which was stolen from them. A modern Britain has repeatedly circumvented international law in order to violate the international rules it had laid down in 1945, with the founding of the United Nations. Violence and coercion against peoples and governments in order to maintain colonial influence is deplorable, particularly by a nation which espouses its virtues as a modern, democratic state.

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