A boat docks without permission on a beach of coconut palms to demand that the United Kingdom return the sovereignty of Chagos
The Government of the island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, planted its flag on a beach on the Peros Banhos atoll on Monday. It is a new claim of its sovereignty over the Chagos archipelago, whose population was forced to leave the islands half a century ago, because the United States wanted to build a military base on one of them, Diego García.
Chagos is part of what the United Kingdom named the British Indian Ocean Territory in the 1960s. The International Court in The Hague issued an opinion in 2019, according to which London must leave the archipelago as part of the decolonization process. This opinion was endorsed by the Assembly of the United Nations Organization.
Mauritius’ ambassador to the UN, Jagdish Koonjul, presided over the event. Through the loudspeaker of the ship that transported the expedition, the President of the Republic, Pravind Jugnaught, sent “a message to the world, as a sovereign state of the Changos archipelago, that we will administer its territory well, its maritime security, the conservation of their marine environment and the return of the Chagossians of origin’.
It was estimated that around a thousand were forced to leave the archipelago in 1971. They now number about 3,000 in the United Kingdom and between 1,500 and 2,000 in Mauritius. Five of them returned for the first time to their land. Olivier Blancourt, who started lawsuits in London and now resides in Mauritius, expressed his anger to the journalists present. “If we were white like the Falklands, they wouldn’t treat us like that,” he said.
The archipelago was discovered by the Portuguese, later occupied by the Dutch and conquered by the French in the 18th century. They created coconut plantations with the labor of slaves brought from different places. At the end of the Napoleonic wars, it passed into British sovereignty. It was part of Mauritius for the convenience of the colonizers until the independence of the great island, in 1968.
Two years earlier, London reached an agreement with Washington to buy Diego Garcia’s land. It compensated Mauritius with some fifty million current euros to agree to the archipelago being broken up, and has provided aid to Chagossian refugees through Mauritius or directly to residents of England. The United States took over the construction of the base.
Ambassador Koonjul stated in his speech at Peros Banhos: “We are carrying out a symbolic act of raising the flag, as the British have done so many times to establish colonies. But we are reclaiming what was always ours.” The UN can agree with them, but, as with the Malvinas or Gibraltar, politics and force are not in favor of the plaintiffs.
Diego García is an “indispensable platform” for the Pentagon, the largest outside its territory. It has conventional and nuclear submarine ports, two runways for aircraft, a large radar. It favors logistics and surveillance in East Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. The British promised Mauritius that they would return the archipelago to them when the base is dismantled. His contract with Washington was for fifty years and was extended another twenty in 2016.
If the British and Americans rule out the abandonment of the base and the repopulation, Chagossian refugees also express rejection of the sovereign ambitions of Mauritius. They complain that they have not been well treated by the rulers of Port Louis, that they have been marginalized in the most peaceful country in Africa and one of the richest countries. Tourism and a financial center are important sources of its national income.
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