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JEAN-JACQUES CORNISH: British control of Chagos Archipelago can't continue

Morocco’s illegal occupation of Western Sahara is called Africa’s last colonial vestige.

Recent events at the International Court of Justice in the Hague and the United Nations General Assembly remind us there is another: Britain’s continued administration of the Indian Ocean Chagos Archipelago.

Holding sway over the empire upon which the sun never set, Britain began calling the shots on developments in the Indian Oceans around Mauritius from 1814.

Before giving that country independence in 1968, Britain paid four million pounds for the Chagos Archipelago and called it the British Indian Ocean Territory.

In the mid 1960s it leased one of the islands, Diego Garcia, to the United States.

The Pentagon built a strategically important military base there, secure in the knowledge that it had tenure until 2035.

At Washington’s behest, Britain moved the 1,800-odd islanders off their home. They have never been allowed to return.

This type of behaviour might have been generally accepted in a bygone era of colonial administration.

It does not wash today - certainly not from a country that has long passed the twilight of its global power.

FILE: Chagos Islanders leave London's Houses of Parliament on 22 October 2008 when the British government won its appeal to Britain's highest court over previous rulings that allowed displaced Indian Ocean islanders to return home. Picture: AFP.

FILE: Chagos Islanders leave London's Houses of Parliament on 22 October 2008 when the British government won its appeal to Britain's highest court over previous rulings that allowed displaced Indian Ocean islanders to return home. Picture: AFP.

Britain has set aside 40 million pounds to assist the displaced Chagoans who are mostly in Britain, the Seychelles and Mauritius.

Still not good enough.

The matter was brought to the United Nations’ top court that found in February that Britain had acted illegally by hiving off the archipelago to continue its occupation. The ICJ ruled this should end as soon as possible.

In the General Assembly this week, an African-sponsored motion was passed by 116 votes to six, giving Britain six months to get off Chagos.

Britain’s ambassador to the world organisation Dame Karen Pierce said candidly that this would not happen.

Britain is determined to continue its control of Chagos at least until 2036.

Not surprisingly, the United States was one of the half-dozen opponents of the resolution.

It reminded the international community that operations from Diego Garcia protect the region from terrorists and pirates. The base is also used for humanitarian purposes like reducing tsunami victims.

Diego Garcia is not used to house terror suspects, but it is used as a refueling stop in transitioning them from points of capture to places of incarceration.

It was also used for US bombing raids on Iraq and Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington 18 years ago.

Neither the ICJ ruling nor the UNGA resolution is binding. General Assembly resolutions cannot be enforced. However, they strongly reflect international opinion.

Flying in the face of it brings into question Britain’s commitment to the multilateral system of governance.

With its military power having waned, Britain, like most other countries, has to rely on moral clout.

Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth urged countries to support the General Assembly resolution, saying failure to do so would be endorsing colonialism.

He maintains the United States can lease its military base from his government, adding that Mauritius would find it deeply offensive if Washington did not regard it as a trusted security partner.

Jean-Jacques Cornish is an Africa correspondent at Eyewitness News. Follow him on Twitter: @jjcornish

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