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Disputes over the British Indian Ocean Territory: a survey

Published Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Between 1968 and 1973 the British Government cleared the entire Chagos Archipelago of its inhabitants, opening the way for a US military base on the biggest island, Diego Garcia. The Archipelago was made a British overseas territory, the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). Two main disputes have arisen from these events. One has been between the Chagos Islanders and the British Government over the legality of the former’s removal and whether they have a right to return. The other has been between the UK and Mauritius about sovereignty over the BIOT. The UK has said that it will cede sovereignty to Mauritius once the BIOT is no longer required for defence purposes.

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Between 1968 and 1973 the British Government cleared the entire Chagos Archipelago of its inhabitants, opening the way for a US military base on the biggest island, Diego Garcia. The Archipelago was made a British overseas territory, the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). Two main disputes have arisen from these events. One has been between the Chagos Islanders and the British Government over the legality of the former’s removal and whether they have a right to return. The other has been between the UK and Mauritius about sovereignty over the BIOT. The UK has said that it will cede sovereignty to Mauritius once the BIOT is no longer required for defence purposes.

Can progress be made towards resolving these disputes? Both have at various points in the past appeared to be all but intractable and several domestic and international legal challenges remain in play. But potential ways forward over the next two years are certainly not beyond the bounds of imagination. The British Government is currently reviewing its policy on resettlement, with supporters of the Chagos Islanders arguing that the outer islands of the Archipelago could be feasible sites for limited resettlement. And while the arrangement with the US over its military use of Diego Garcia looks set to be extended for a further 20 years from 2016, some are asking whether, if the outer islands of the BIOT are not required for defence purposes, they could be ceded to Mauritius as an interim step.

This paper surveys the origins and complex subsequent evolution since 1965 of these separate but inter-related disputes over the Chagos Archipelago. It concludes by exploring the prospects for making progress towards resolving these disputes over the next couple of years.

Commons Briefing papers RP13-31

Authors: Jon Lunn; Claire Mills

Topics: International politics and government, Overseas territories

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