Giving Back Paradise

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In the 1960s, British leaders were in the final stages of dismantling the empire that their forebears had built over the preceding 400 years. Yet, as Africans, Indians, and others were establishing their new nations, Chagossians were losing control of their small island archipelago in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

As Al Jazeera explained, British officials forced around 1,000 inhabitants of Chagos off their islands in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Then the Brits leased the largest island territory, Diego Garcia, to the US to use as a military base.

As the London Review of Books recalled, the islands had evolved from being strategically important for their coconuts and guano, or “seabird excrement rich in nitrogen, potassium and phosphates, sought after as fertilizer,” to becoming an important Western military outpost in the Cold War.

Now, however, the Economist wrote, Britain might be preparing to give up its last African colony.

Labeling British treatment of the Chagossians as a “colonial crime,” watchdog group Human Rights Watch recently called on the United Kingdom to apologize for the displacement 50 years ago, repatriate the Chagossians, and pay them reparations for their trouble. Meanwhile, the organization also published a report entitled, “That’s When the Nightmare Started” to highlight the Chagossians’ suffering.

“Life was easy, it was like paradise,” Louis Marcel Humbert, a Chagossian born in 1955, said in the report, referring to his childhood shortly before the forced migration. “I was very sad when I realized we wouldn’t be able to go back.”

British officials dispute Human Rights Watch’s depiction of the situation. The UK has expressed its regrets about kicking the Chagossians out of their homes, has given them support, and provided them with a special application process for British citizenship, reported the BBC.

Meanwhile, writing in the Conversation, Colorado State University political scientist Peter Harris detailed how decolonizing Chagos is more complicated than it might seem to those who champion the Chagossians’ cause.

The international community regards Chagos as a territory belonging to Mauritius, an island nation off the coast of Madagascar, wrote Harris. American officials will play an instrumental role in determining whether or not they want the military installation on Diego Garcia, used as a logistics hub for Indian Ocean operations, to fall under Mauritian rule. The Americans will likely want an agreement in place governing their use of the territory before the UK exits, for example.

Such an agreement is doable, say proponents of the deal. The US has them with countless nations across the globe. Finalizing one with the Chagossians would be a sign of respect and remorse.

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