UN Calls Time On The Last Traces of British Colonialism

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Chagos islands. Wikimedia commons.

In the time before the Second World War, Great Britain still had an empire. The tiny European island wielded power across the globe by way of colonialism, with the Commonwealth spanning much of Africa and the developing world. That’s no longer the case - combinations of political pressure and an acceptance by the state that some of its past conduct was wrong have led to British overseas territories being returned to their native peoples. 

The last time a significant British overseas asset was returned to domestic rule was in 1997, when the British handed Hong Kong back to China. That’s left three remaining overseas territories in dispute; Gibraltar, which is claimed by the Spanish; the Falkland Islands, which are claimed by the Argentinians; and the Chagos Islands, which are claimed by Mauritius. It’s the latter of the three which has recently been the subject of a ruling by the United Nations

The colonial history of the islands is long and complicated. The islands - along with wider Mauritius - have at times been under the control of various European powers including the Dutch and the French, before finally ending up under British control during the 19th century. The land and its people were put to work for the betterment of the British empire, with natives from Madagascar and Mozambique shipped in to farm coconuts on British-owned plantations. This remained the case until 1960 arrived, when official decolonization acts were underway, and the independence of Mauritius became an inevitability. 

The UN of the time were keen to see all Mauritian territories returned to local administration, and specifically instructed the British not to attempt to separate or partition any of the land. Despite this, the British entered into negotiations with the United States of America, who had declared an interest in establishing a military presence in the area. The outcome of those negotiations was the annexing of the land and the eviction of the native people of Chagos from their homeland. Those who were already abroad were declined permission to return. Those who lived there were forcibly evicted. 

The British justified this by stating that they’d entered into negotiations with the newly independent Mauritian state, who had voluntarily agreed to allow Britain to maintain control of the islands. The Mauritians have long disputed this version of events, stating that they were threatened into surrendering the islands by the British. They have since spent decades in international courts pleading their case for the islands to be restored to them, and their people allowed permission to return home. With the UN ruling, they now have solid evidence that the international community agrees with their case, and they are now eagerly awaiting compliance from the British. 

Despite the ruling of the United Nations, it does not appear that Britain will voluntarily return the islands, or allow Chagossians to return to it. The court in the Hague hearing the case had the power to make advisory rulings only, meaning that there's no compulsion for the British to comply, nor any punishments or sanctions available in the event of non-compliance. The British Government has already stated that they disagree with the ruling, and are currently considering their legal options. The Government of Mauritius initially expressed joy at the verdict, along with a hope that they could soon begin to relocate their displaced people, but at present, that possibility seems as remote as it did before the hearing. 

The specter of colonialism is a difficult and shameful one for the British Government and the image of the British abroad. The people of Britain view themselves as peaceful and benevolent; a public of countryside walks, friendliness with other nations and long evenings spent socializing in bars, as per the imagery used in the ‘Down the Pub' slot game at Amigo Slots, which uses the cliches and tropes of a standard British civilian enjoying a standard British night out. The comparison to a slot game is a prudent one, though; the objective of any slot game is to invest a little speculative money in the hope that there will be a greater return. With their colonies, the British undoubtedly invested in industry and infrastructure, but all the profits gained from such endeavors went to the British treasury rather than benefiting the locals. To use a casino term, ‘the house always wins.' 

The Spanish and the Argentinians will be watching the debate and the legal ramifications with interest. Gibraltar, another island off the coast of Spain, has been in British hands since 1704 when it was captured during a war. Since 1830, it’s been a formal British colony, with a population who consider themselves to be British. That sits at odds with the Spanish view, who view it as their territory as it sits inside their waters. With wrangling continuing between Britain and the EU over the subject of Brexit, the Spanish are trying as hard as possible to put the future of Gibraltar on the negotiating table in the context of any deal between the parties. The British Government has repeatedly stated that the matter is not up for negotiation. 

The Falkland Islands, known to the Argentinians as Las Malvinas, are similarly disputed. The recent legal and political history of the UK-Argentine dispute over the territory isn't one which offers much hope to the Mauritians; the United Nations have in the past ruled that it resides within Argentinian waters, and have strongly indicated that they believe it should be returned to the Argentinians. The British have consistently stated that they won't give it up. There was a brief war over the islands during the 1980s, with Britain emerging as the victors, but lingering tensions remain. As with Gibraltar, the population of the Falklands consider themselves to be British, and have consistently voted in favor of remaining British when referendums have been offered on the subject. 

Whatever the future of the Chagos Islands, the ruling by the UN represents a black mark on Britain's international reputation, during a time when Brexit is already damaging its standing among the international community. It will be interesting to see what changes - if anything - in the months and years to come. 

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