A New Round in the Fight for Military Superiority in the Indian Ocean

On September 3, the International Court of Justice starts hearings on the problem of sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago and its residents who were forcibly removed from there at the turn of the 1960-70s to clear the place for a US military base on Diego Garcia atoll.

This case is related to a key US military facility in the Indian Ocean. The Americans asked their British allies to be granted a right to have their military infrastructure on Indian Ocean islands as early as the 1950s, their plan being to incorporate the region in their global military network. As a first step, a satellite tracking station opened on the Mahe Island in the then British colony of the Seychelles (existed until 1996) in 1963. But soon after that the US Navy and the US Air Force urged the British to let them establish their bases in the region and the selection and surveying of islands fit for the purpose began.

Back in 1941, the British had established their own naval base on the Gan Island, the southernmost atoll belonging to the Maldives. In 1957, it was handed over to the Royal Air Force. When, as part of the movement towards independence (finally obtained in 1965), the sultanate government asked for an increase in lease payment or the withdrawal of the base, the British openly incited a separatist campaign in southern Maldives, where, in 1959, they established the self-proclaimed United Suvadive Republic, which, naturally, went out in support of the British base. This separatist gamble was used to pressurize the Sultan of the Maldives, who eventually consented to the continued existence of the base. As a result, the British disbanded the Suvadive Republic in 1963, granting its president refuge on the Seychelles. The Gan base was closed in 1976.

With the island nations of the Indian Ocean stepping up their fight for independence in the latter half of the 1960s, the British announced a new strategy of reducing their military presence east of Suez. At the same time, they increased support for the US policy of creating military bases in the region. It is in this context that the British introduced a new administrative entity, British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), in 1965, when, in violation of UN General Assembly Resolution 1514 of December 14, 1960, on the inadmissibility of metropolitan nations modifying the borders of their colonies, the British government transferred to it the Chagos Archipelago from the colony of Mauritius and the islands of Aldabra, Farquhar and Desroches from the colony of the Seychelles. During the first few years, the Seychelles Governor served concurrently as the BIOT Commissioner.

At this point we should also mention a clash of interests between the US Navy and the US Air Force. The Navy preferred to use Chagos as strategically located in the very center of the Indian Ocean, while the Air Force favored Aldabra, from where it was more convenient to reach Africa. The rest of the BIOT islands were put on hold as backups. The interagency conflict (about how many bases to build, two or one, and if one, then where?) delayed the start of the construction stage by approximately five years. During this period, a sweeping international ecological campaign was launched in defense of the unique environment of the Aldabra atoll, the only surviving natural habitat of the Aldabra giant tortoise. As a result, it proved possible to block the plans to build a military base on Aldabra. In 1976, when the Seychelles gained independence, the British returned Aldabra, Farquhar and Desroches to the Seychelles. However, Chagos was not restored to Mauritius when it was granted independence in 1968. Unlike Aldabra, it had no giant tortoises and therefore the environmentalists were silent. At that time, the Western public opinion was unconcerned about people, the local residents.

Upon taking the final decision to build their base on Diego Garcia, the Americans urged the British to evict all locals both from Diego Garcia and all other Chagos islands. In their correspondence with the Brits they cynically called this “sanitizing.” Thus, between 1967 and 1973, the British forcibly removed the local population from the Chagos A rchipelago, doing this in three stages. (Over 3,000 people were resettled to Mauritius and about 1,000 to the Seychelles.)

Worse still, the British gave them practically no aid in terms of housing, jobs, land plots, or money compensation, with the Chagossians finding themselves in dire poverty and practically on the verge of a humanitarian disaster. It should be said for the new independent states, Mauritius and the Seychelles, that they did their best to ease the plight of the settlers from Chagos. They were also increasingly active in swaying the international public opinion in favor of the Chagossians, with the world learning more and more about their eviction. Known as ilois (Creole for “islanders”), the settler communities were also actively contributing to its greater awareness. Their eviction was widely recognized as genocide of the Chagossians.

This resulted in a protracted legal battle designed to make the British and the Americans pay them a decent compensation (as a minimum) and secure an unconditional return of the Chagossians to their homes and Chagos to Mauritius (as a maximum).

At first these suits were filed in British courts, where official representatives of the UK government used open administrative pressure to block them. While in a number of cases the plaintiffs managed to obtain certain, if insufficient, compensation, the British authorities were adamant that there was no question of a return home for the islanders. In 2016, after decades-long judicial and administrative litigation, the British government turned the Chagossians down again. As for returning the archipelago to Mauritius, the British said they were ready to give it back when there was no need of using it for military purposes. Considering the modern realities, this means never.

This happened even when the opinion in Britain itself began displaying a favorable attitude to the Chagossians. For example, in an article published on November 16, 2016, the Guardian described their eviction as “one of the most shameful episodes in British colonial history after the Second World War.” The new Labor leader, Jeremy Corbyn, also defended the Chagossians’ right to return. In the last few years, the British government, in search of a pretext for banning their return, made an attempt to use the environment as a political tool. Specifically, they unveiled plans to create an off-limits marine reserve on the Chagos Archipelago, where people could not visit without special authorization (the restrictions did not extend to US military, of course). In fact, however, environmentalism is a cover for the same old “sanitizing.” Not accidentally, the British press, in responding to these plans, carried reports saying that the US military had been dumping unpurified wastewater from Diego Garcia into the ocean for years. These facts led even the BIOT administration to start an investigation. True enough, the Americans are denying everything and are unwilling to disclose sensitive information even to their closest ally.

As a result, despairing of British justice, Mauritius decided to apply to the UN court. At its initiative, which was supported by the African Union, the UN General Assembly ruled on June 22, 2017, to request an ICJ advisory opinion on the legitimacy of the Chagos Archipelago being separated from Mauritius in 1965. The ICJ will hold the first hearings on this case in September 2018. Even though, under the procedure, its decisions will be just of advisory nature, there will be huge repercussions. It is important to note that an international coalition in support of Mauritius, one including not only the island states in the region and African countries but also such major powers as India, began taking shape ahead of the court sessions. Judging by the preliminary lineup, the UK and the US will be clearly in a minority.

Another notable thing is the trial’s serious political context, which includes not only the issue of historical justice in relation to the Chagossians and the restoration of Mauritius’ territorial integrity, but also the first judicial challenge to Western powers and their military presence in the Indian Ocean. In the last few years, China, India and other regional powers have been building up their military infrastructure in the region thereby increasingly putting into question the US military dominance in the region. If the UN court confirms the historical illegitimacy of their presence on Diego Garcia, this may serve as an important argument in favor of a serious change in the military balance in this geopolitically crucial region of the world.

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