Britain Must Retain the Last Vestige of its Empire in Africa

Britain Must Retain the Last Vestige of its Empire in Africa

The international court of justice ruled last year that the tiny but strategically important British Chagos Islands must be given to Mauritius, itself a former British colony. With 116 votes in favour and six against, the UN general assembly endorsed the court’s findings. Britain was given a deadline of November 2019 to surrender control. In a rare, albeit small, act of assertiveness on the international stage, the British Government has refused to comply with the ruling. Months later, the UN secretariat declared the end of Westminster's rule over the Chagos Archipelago while drawing up a new cartographic plan of the Indian Ocean. Britain argues that both the court ruling and UN motion are not legally binding, and remains resolute about its sovereignty over the colony, which dates back to Napoleonic times. The Foreign Office has said the islands would remain in British custody until they are no longer needed for defence purposes.

Tory MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham Daniel Kawczynski has been a passionate advocate of the government's position, and argues that the Chagos Islands are the "perfect strategic military outpost in a sensitive region". Located within striking distance of east Africa, the Middle East, and South East Asia, the Chagos Islands have become indispensable for NATO's armed forces. The largest of the islands, Diego Garcia, was lent to the United States for use as a military base in the early 1970s. In 2016, Britain extended the rent-free lease of the base to 2036. The Chagos Islands also contain the most eastern British military base in the world. Amid rising tensions between India and China, it is essential that Britain maintains these military outposts. There is legitimate fear among Tory MPs that if Mauritius does gain control of the islands, they will lease them to China, with whom they have had close diplomatic relations for decades. A British loss of the territory effectively green-lights Chinese expansionism across the whole of the area. As Britain turns its back on the European Union, where not one EU country supported its case at the UN, it is vital that Britain stands by its American and Australian allies, both of whom have a great deal to lose due to the threat from China.

Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's 1960 'Winds of Change' speech acklowedged that the Conservative government could no longer prevent the process of decolonisation begun by the Labour Party. By the time of the Lancaster Conference in 1965, it had become clear that Britain wanted to relieve itself of the Mauritius colony. That year, the government declared the Chagos Islands to be part of the newly formed British Indian Ocean Territory, along with the islands of Aldabra, Farquhar, and Desroches, which were returned to Seychelles in 1976. Mauritius gained independence in 1968, three years after the Chagos Islands were separated, and therefore Mautitius itself has never held sovereignty over them. After 40 years of independence, Mauritius is attempting to overturn a legally binding international treaty, which they agreed to of their own volition. The UN's declaration, unlike Mauritius's agreement with Britain, is not legally binding, and is highly unlikely to hold up in an international court. The claim of Mauritius is effectively a fabrication, based on little more than Chagossian discontentment, geographical proximity, and Chinese pressure.

The cause is not helped by the Left in Britain undermining the government's position. Around 30 Labour, Liberal Democrat, and SNP MPs have now signed a letter calling on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to surrender control of the territory.  They claim that the government's refusal to do so is "arrogant and jeopardises our credibility on the world stage". This week, Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth spuriously linked the UK's continued control of the Chagos Islands with the Black Lives Matter movement, which he said "remind us of our deep concerns as to historic wrongs in relation to race and slavery...The continued occupation of the Chagos Archipelago inscribes itself in these historic wrongs". The statement was a clear exploitation of ongoing racial tensions in Britain in an attempt to implicate and damage the government's stance. Those who believe that British overseas territories are little more than shameful and antiquated colonial relics, which ought to be given away as expeditiously and discreetly as possible, are overlooking major security concerns.

The UN's actions thus far may have stalled, but there will be further attempts to force Britain out. Anglo-American military strength is dependent on the retention of the Islands, which enables NATO to have a forward position across the whole of the Middle East, and the Indian sub-continent. As the worldview of the Anglosphere become increasingly opposed to that of China, it is vital that the British Government continues to put security first. The Empire may be gone, but some of its fragmented remnants have a crucial role to play in the days ahead.