(CN) – Defying the United Nations and human rights activists, the United Kingdom said Friday it has no intention of giving up control over the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean, the site of a strategic and secretive U.S. and British military base.
Friday was a deadline imposed by the United Nations for the U.K. to cede control of the Chagos islands to Mauritius, an island nation off the southeastern African coast.
Besides being a territorial dispute, the U.K. is under pressure to allow families and descendants forcefully removed from the islands to be able to return to them.
The Chagos archipelago, a group of more than 60 islands about 310 miles south of the Maldives, was home to about 1,500 people, most of whom were descended from people brought to the islands to work on plantations, most often as slaves.
The archipelago’s largest island, and the only one inhabited since 1971, and only by military personnel, is Diego Garcia. The U.K. and United States evicted all the inhabitants on the Chagos islands beginning in 1967 to build a joint military base on Diego Garcia. That base has served as a launching pad for military strikes in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
It allegedly has also served more sinister purposes, according to numerous news reports. It was allegedly used as a detention center and refueling site for the CIA’s rendition and torture program. In 2016, Britain renewed the U.S. base’s lease for 20 years.
Pressure has been building on the U.K. to give up the islands and by extension end its colonial presence in Africa. The archipelago is the last African territory held by the U.K.
In February, the International Court of Justice issued a non-binding ruling that the Chagos archipelago rightfully belongs to Mauritius. Britain kept the archipelago during negotiations that led to the independence of Mauritius in 1968. The court’s decision was an advisory opinion for the U.N.
In May, the U.N.’s general assembly voted 116-6 to condemn Britain’s occupation of the islands and called on the U.K. to turn them over to Mauritius. The U.N. set Friday as a deadline for ceding control.
But the U.K. is not budging.
“The U.K. has no doubt as to our sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory [the Chagos islands],” the Foreign Office said in a statement to Courthouse News.
The Foreign Office said the islands have been under British rule since 1814 and that the U.K. does not recognize Mauritius’ claim over them.
In court pleadings, Mauritius argued that Britain coerced it into abandoning the Chagos islands by threatening to block independence unless it agreed to give them up.
The U.S. has backed the U.K. on the matter. Mauritius has said it would allow the base to continue functioning if the archipelago becomes part of its territory..
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is aware of the U.K.’s action and he will submit a report to the general assembly about the matter, said Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for the secretary-general.
Britain argues that it has provided compensation for the islands’ inhabitants after they were removed. In the 1970s, Britain paid about $830,000 in compensation, and another $5 million in 1982.
Britain is also promising to provide about $51 million to improve the lives of Chagossians.
After removal, the people living on the Chagos islands were scattered to Mauritius, Britain, the Seychelles and elsewhere. There are about 6,000 Chagossians today, according to the UK Chagos Support Association. The group did not reply to a request for comment Friday.
In a statement, the group called on Britain to cede control to Mauritius and do more to help Chagossians return to the islands. The group said only a tiny amount of the $51 million in aid to Chagossians has been released.
“Chagossians cannot wait any longer,” the group said. “Chagossians are united in demanding their fundamental right to live on their islands and recompense for over 50 years of abuse and neglect.”
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)