Ongoing colonial crimes in the Chagos Archipelago


Excerpt from a longer article first published by Human Rights Watch, read the full article here

About 60 years ago, the United Kingdom government secretly planned, with the United States, to force an entire Indigenous people, the Chagossians, from their homes in the Chagos Archipelago. The Indian Ocean islands were part of Mauritius, then a UK colony. The two governments agreed that a US military base would be built on Diego Garcia, the largest of the inhabited Chagos islands, and the island’s inhabitants would be removed. The UK government split the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius, creating a new colony in Africa, the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). So that it would not have to report to the United Nations about its continued colonial rule, the UK falsely declared that Chagos had no permanent population.

The reality was that a community had lived on Chagos for centuries. The Chagossians are predominately descendants of enslaved people, forcibly brought from the African continent and Madagascar to the then-uninhabited Chagos islands where they worked on coconut plantations under French and British rule. Over the centuries they became a distinct people with their own Chagossian Creole language, music, and culture.

But the UK and US governments treated them as a people without rights, who they could permanently displace from their homeland without consultation or compensation to make way for a military base. From 1965 to 1973, the UK and US forced the entire Chagossian population from all the inhabited Chagos islands, not only Diego Garcia but also Peros Banhos and Salomon. They abandoned them in Mauritius or Seychelles, where they lived in abject poverty.

Years later, the UK paid, through the Mauritian government, a small amount of compensation to some Chagossians, and decades later awarded citizenship to Chagossians, but has otherwise refused to even discuss reparations to the Chagossians. The US, which has benefited from the military base ever since, has consistently denied any responsibility towards the Chagossian people.

In recent decades, much of the secret planning of the forced displacement has been exposed through the publication of official documents. They exposed not only the plans, but the blatant racism of UK officials toward the Chagossians that highlights the discriminatory nature of their treatment.

Chagossians of all generations have striven, including in litigation in domestic and international courts, for acknowledgment of the violations committed against them and recognition of their rights, notably the right to return home. Today, thousands of Chagossians live around the world, mostly in Mauritius, the UK, and Seychelles, but the UK government, with the involvement of the US, still prevents them from returning and permanently living in their homeland.

The UK government has since acknowledged that the treatment of the Chagossians was “shameful and wrong.” But both the UK and the US have refused to right the wrongs they have committed against the Chagossians for the last half century, now opposing their return on the grounds of cost and security.

shameful and wrong

The forced displacement of the Chagossians and ongoing abuses amount to crimes against humanity committed by a colonial power against an Indigenous people. UK colonial rule in the Chagos Archipelago, unlike in most of its other colonies in Africa, did not end in the 1960s, and it has continued at extraordinary cost to the people of Chagos. This colonial rule was built on systematic racism and ethnic and racial discrimination in the treatment of the Chagossians. Private comments about the Chagossians written by senior UK officials during the planning of the expulsion, calling the Chagossians “Men Fridays … whose origins are obscure” illustrates this discrimination. The UK authorities have continued to treat the predominately African Chagossians very differently from other islanders under their rule, such as in Cyprus and the Falklands, islands which have UK military bases. The UK has tried to treat Chagos as a territory where international human rights law does not apply. And the US has continued to benefit from the operation of its geopolitically strategic military base on Diego Garcia, while refusing to take responsibility for the crimes against the Chagossians.

For many years, the government of Mauritius has claimed the return of its sovereignty over the territory of Chagos. On November 3, 2022, the UK government announced that it had opened negotiations with Mauritius on the future of the Chagos islands, to “secure an agreement on the basis of international law to resolve all outstanding issues, including those relating to the former inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago.” Even with this significant development, at the time of writing the Chagossians still cannot return to permanently reside on the islands, with many never having had the opportunity to visit since their families were forced to leave. It is unclear how any new agreement will affect them, including whether it will address the issue of reparations for the expulsion and decades of abuse. There is, currently, little transparency about the negotiations and no clear declaration that the Chagossian people will be effectively and meaningfully consulted in this decision that will affect them profoundly, and that their right to reparations, including the right to return, will be fully and effectively centered in the negotiations and guaranteed in the outcome.

This report, based on interviews with Chagossian people and extensive review and analysis of documents, examines the abuses committed by the UK and US governments against the Chagossian people, the decisions that led to their expulsion, and the abuses they suffered during and since their eviction from the Chagos islands.

The report explores the poor conditions under which the Chagossians lived in Mauritius, Seychelles, and, more recently, the UK; their efforts to reclaim their rights to permanently return home; and the failure of the UK and US governments to adequately compensate them or provide any other form of reparations.

In the 1960s, the UK and US secretly agreed to build a military facility on Diego Garcia, which, like the rest of the Chagos islands, was part of the British colony of Mauritius. The US wanted Diego Garcia without inhabitants. Under the plan, the UK would keep control of Chagos, despite the imminent independence of Mauritius, and would expel the population of the islands. The UK pressured the government of Mauritius, before independence, to give up Chagos. The UK then declared, in 1965, Chagos as a new colony—the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT)—the last colony the UK created, and now its last colony in Africa.

Map of the Chagos Archipelago © 2023 John Emerson/Human Rights Watch

The UK, with the US, then expelled the entire Chagossian population over the next eight years. The UK government forced the entire population of Chagos, not only Diego Garcia, from their homes. UK officials have, as documents show, admitted to having lied in claiming that there were no permanent inhabitants of Chagos. Documents written at the time illustrate the institutional racism and bigotry behind the treatment of the Chagossians, with senior British officials writing and joking about the population in openly racist terms.

After the agreement with the US and the creation of the BIOT, the UK authorities expelled the population of Chagos in three stages—often using the coconut plantation companies on the islands to do so. First, from 1967 they prevented Chagossians who had left the islands temporarily, on holiday or for urgent medical treatment, from returning. People who, for any reason, had left Chagos assuming they were only on a short trip away were told that they could not return home and were separated from their families without any warning. The frequency of ships bringing food and other supplies to the islands from Mauritius was also drastically reduced. The next stage in the expulsion, once the US decided to proceed with the construction of the military base, involved the BIOT administrators telling the remaining population of Diego Garcia, in January 1971, that they had to leave. British officials emphasized the point by ordering the killing of the Chagossians’ dogs. Some were initially allowed to go to Peros Banhos and Salomon islands, still within Chagos. In the final stage, starting in June 1972, the authorities told the remaining population of Peros Banhos and Salomon islands to leave. By 1973, all Chagossians had been forced to leave the islands.

The BIOT authorities forced Chagossians to go to Seychelles or Mauritius. There, many lived in extreme poverty and experienced difficulty finding sufficient and adequate food, work, and housing. Chagossians said that some of those displaced, including children, died from the economic hardship and, they believe, from the emotional devastation (which they call “sagren”) of being torn from their homeland. They experienced discrimination in their new communities, and many have said they still experience severe economic hardship. After the UK government granted some Chagossians citizenship in 2002, many came to live in the UK, where they also described not being accepted, not having housing or work on arrival, and experiencing discrimination.

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The US and UK governments paid considerable sums, including sums in kind, for the establishment of the US base on Diego Garcia. The UK financially compensated the Mauritian government for the loss of the Chagos territory. The coconut plantation company owners were bought out and compensated by the UK. In return for the base, the US gave the UK a substantial discount on nuclear weapons it sold to the UK.

But the Chagossians, who had suffered the international crime of forced displacement, initially received no compensation. Following demonstrations, spearheaded by Chagossian women, and litigation brought by Chagossians, the UK, on two occasions, paid the Mauritius government what amounted to a small sum for Chagossians in Mauritius, which was eventually paid to some Chagossians. But the UK government required Chagossians who received payments to sign, or thumbprint, a document purportedly giving up their right to return to Chagos. Those who signed it said that it was written only in English, a language unfamiliar to many of them, with legal terms that they did not understand nor had explained to them. Chagossians exiled to Seychelles received nothing.

Chagossians have struggled over the years for recognition of the harms done to them and their right to return. In 2000, a UK court declared the BIOT Immigration Ordinance of 1971 that authorized the forcible removal of the Chagossians from their homeland to be unlawful. Many of the secret documents from the 1960s were made public at this time, showing the deceit and racism behind the Chagossians’ expulsion. The then-UK government accepted the ruling, said it could not defend what had been done to the Chagossians in the past, and revoked the laws that prevented the Chagossians from returning and living in Chagos—except for the island of Diego Garcia where they were still legally banned from returning.

The Chagossians did not, however, receive adequate financial compensation from the US or UK governments, or the support they needed to restart their lives on the islands during this short-lived period, so none were able to return to live in Chagos. Then, in 2004, with Diego Garcia being used by the US as a key base in the so-called “Global War on Terror,” the UK government reversed its position. Queen Elizabeth II, on behalf of the government, issued new “Orders-in-council”—a legal device that allows the executive to avoid going through parliament—to once more ban Chagossians from returning to live on any of the islands.

The UK government has never provided an adequate explanation as to why it was considered viable in 2000 to lift the ban on Chagossians from permanently returning home, and yet the UK government considered it necessary to reinstate this ban after four years. Successive UK governments have argued that it is not possible for the Chagossians to return based on vague assertions of security and cost—the latter, they suggest, would place an unfair burden on the British taxpayer. The US has kept a low profile and side-stepped its responsibilities by claiming it is not responsible for the Chagossians.

In 2012, the UK government started a review of policy toward the Chagossians, commissioning a survey by the global firm KPMG that found that the vast majority of Chagossians it spoke to wished to return, that their return was practicable, especially with the cooperation of the US, and that the maximum cost would be approximately GBP£500 million. But in 2016, the UK again announced that it would block the return of Chagossians, once more claiming security and cost as its reasons. This has remained its position to present, as negotiations with Mauritius began in late 2022.

In 2019, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in an advisory opinion, ruled that the UK had acted unlawfully in detaching Chagos from Mauritius and creating a new colony, the BIOT. The ICJ also stated that the rights of the Chagossians to be resettled should be addressed by the United Nations General Assembly. Until November 2022, the UK ignored this ruling.

This report reflects the views of Chagossians living in Mauritius, Seychelles, and the UK with whom Human Rights Watch spoke. Although there is no consensus about which country should control Chagos, all agreed that Chagossians should have the right to return, and the majority of those who spoke to Human Rights Watch, of all generations, said they personally would return to Chagos as soon as they could. They did not ask for the closure of the US base, but say they want to be able to live alongside it on Diego Garcia as well as the other habitable islands.

Human Rights Watch found that the abuses committed against Chagossians, as individuals and as an Indigenous people, to be serious violations of international human rights law and international criminal law. The violations were committed against those forced to leave their homes more than 50 years ago and continue against them and their descendants today who are denied their right to permanently return.

continued abuse of international human rights

Human Rights Watch found that the continuing forced displacement of the Chagossians, the prevention of their permanent return to their homeland, and their persecution on racial and ethnic grounds amount to crimes against humanity. Crimes against humanity, including “deportation” and “persecutions” on racial grounds, were set out in the 1945 Charter (drafted by the US and UK governments, with France and the Soviet Union) that created the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, and have become part of customary international law. The prohibition of crimes against humanity is a preemptory norm of international law, meaning it is applicable to all states and no derogation is permitted. Crimes against humanity were also included in the statutes of the international tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Crimes against humanity are defined in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as certain acts when committed as part of a “widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population”—which is defined as “a course of conduct” involving multiple such acts committed as part of a state policy to “commit such attack” (that is, a policy to commit the crime). It has become clear over the years that the decisions to expel the Chagossians, and to prevent them from returning, and the racial and ethnic discrimination—treating the Chagossians differently from other islanders under UK rule—were UK state policies.

The UK and Mauritius are states parties to the International Criminal Court, which acts as a court of last resort to determine individual criminal responsibility for crimes within its jurisdiction when national authorities do not conduct genuine proceedings.

Three apparent crimes against humanity have been committed against the Chagossians by UK authorities: “deportation or forcible transfer of population” as a continuing crime; “other inhumane acts,” which can include prevention of the return of a population to its home, as with the Rohingya in Myanmar; and persecution on the grounds of racial, ethnic, or other grounds. The first crime, at least, was jointly committed by UK and US authorities.

The information available shows that the Chagossians have been severely deprived of their rights by intentional acts because of their race and ethnicity. This was evident not only in the manner of their expulsion from Chagos, but in the institutional and systematic way that UK authorities continue to treat the Chagossians, as people whose rights, especially the right to return, need not be respected.

Human Rights Watch calls on the UK and US governments to provide full reparations to the Chagossian people in three key areas. First, the UK should provide restitution by immediately lifting the ban on Chagossians permanently returning to the Chagos islands. The UK and the US should also ensure financial and other support and cooperation to restore the islands and enable the Chagossians to return and live and work in dignity across the Archipelago, as they would have done if the UK and US had not forced them to leave.

Second, the UK and US should provide financial compensation to all Chagossians, regardless of whether they wish to or can return, for the harm suffered from the crimes committed against them. This would include the physical, psychological, and economic harms they suffered both during the forced displacement and ever since.

Third, the UK and US should provide satisfaction and a guarantee that similar crimes will not happen again. After consultations with the Chagossians, this could entail full apologies from the UK and US and their heads of state, including the British monarch, acknowledging the extent and nature of the crimes. The UK and US should publish all material concerning the treatment of the Chagossians. They should ensure investigations into these crimes and accountability for the individuals and state institutions most responsible.

UK & us must end the double standards now

The UK should ensure that the treatment of Chagossians today is free from racism and all forms of discrimination, starting with the UK acknowledging that all human rights obligations that apply in the UK also fully apply in the Chagos islands. This would end the double standards where the UK government has effectively treated Chagos as a territory where international human rights and criminal law does not apply, and where the inhabitants have no human rights protections.

Human Rights Watch also recommends that other governments, notably Mauritius, should publicly commit to support and assist the return to Chagos of all Chagossians, regardless of their nationality or current residence. Mauritius, the UK, and Seychelles should guarantee the rights and equality of Chagossians living in their territory, including ensuring full and equal citizenship, and rights of family reunification. Judicial officials in all states should consider investigating and prosecuting those implicated in crimes against humanity in national courts under the principle of universal jurisdiction and in accordance with national laws.

With the announcement in November 2022 of negotiations between the UK and Mauritius over the future of Chagos, it is vital that both countries ensure meaningful and effective consultations with the Chagossian people. The history of the last 60 years is of governments making deals that affect the future of the Chagossians but without involving them. Any future agreement concerning Chagos needs to be centered around the rights of the Chagossians, including the right to return, and full reparations for the decades of abuse.

The abuses against the Chagossians also show the failure of UK and other courts, as well as the European Court of Human Rights, to acknowledge and remedy ongoing colonial crimes, including recognizing them as crimes against humanity. International and domestic institutions, especially those responsible for addressing international crimes, should treat crimes against humanity committed by UK and US officials like those committed by any other state.

The history of colonial crimes, even those as current as against the Chagossians, is a history of a failure to recognize—let alone address—them as such. As the UN expert on truth, justice and reparations Fabián Salvioli, quoting Wolfgang Kaleck, said in 2021:

There have never been serious efforts to investigate colonial crimes before national or international courts, nor to punish any of the surviving perpetrators, nor sanction the governments involved or to compensate the victims for the ongoing health problems triggered by the crimes.

But the Chagossian story is also one of struggle and survival. The Chagossian people have not accepted the wrongs done to them and continue to persevere for their cause through their organization, activism, and the law. It is because of them that we know the history of the harms they endured. It is time to finally repair the wrongs that have been done.

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