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The British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) or Chagos Islands is an overseas territory of the United Kingdommarker situated in the Indian Oceanmarker, halfway between Africa and Indonesiamarker. The territory comprises the six atolls of the Chagos Archipelagomarker with over 1,000 individual islands.

The largest island is Diego Garciamarker, the site of a joint military facility of the United Kingdommarker and the United Statesmarker.

History

The ancient Sanskrit phrase Lakshadweepa referred to the Islands of Lakshadweepmarker, Maldivesmarker, Suvadives and the Chagos Archipelago as well. They were ruled from India originally, although never settled.

Maldivian mariners knew the Chagos Islands well. In Maldivian lore they are known as Fōlhavahi or Hollhavai (the latter name in the closer Southern Maldives). According to Southern Maldivian oral tradition, traders and fishermen were occasionally lost at sea and got stranded in one of the islands of the Chagos. Eventually they were rescued and brought back home. However, these islands were judged to be too far away from the Maldivesmarker to be settled permanently by them. Thus for many centuries the Chagos were ignored by their northern neighbors.

The Islands of Chagos Archipelagomarker were charted by Vasco da Gama in the early sixteenth century, then claimed in the eighteenth century by Francemarker as a possession of Mauritiusmarker. However, in 1810, Mauritius was captured by the United Kingdom, and France ceded the territory in the Treaty of Paris. Agricultural workers migrated to the Islands in the late nineteenth century, settling on the main island of Diego Garciamarker and establishing copra plantations.

In 1965, the United Kingdom split the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritiusmarker, and the islands of Aldabra, Farquharmarker and Desrochesmarker (Des Roches) from the Seychellesmarker to form the British Indian Ocean Territory. The purpose was to allow the construction of military facilities for the mutual benefit of the United Kingdom and the United Statesmarker. The islands were formally established as an overseas territory of the United Kingdommarker on 8 November 1965. On 23 June 1976, Aldabra, Farquhar and Desroches were returned to Seychellesmarker as a result of it attaining independence. Subsequently, BIOT has consisted only of the six main island groups comprising the Chagos Archipelagomarker.

In 1966, the British Government purchased the privately owned copra plantations, and closed them down, and forcefully removed the entire population (known as the Chagossians, or Ilois) of Diego Garcia to Mauritius. In 1971, the United Kingdom and the United States signed a treaty, leasing the island of Diego Garcia to the American military for the purposes of building a large air and naval base on the Island. The deal was important to the United Kingdom, as the United States agreed to give them a substantial discount on the purchase of Polaris nuclear missiles in return for the use of the islands as a base . The strategic location of the island was also significant at the centre of the Indian Ocean, and to counter any Sovietmarker threat in the region.

Work on the military base commenced in 1971, with a large airbase with several long range runways constructed, as well as a harbour suitable for large naval vessels. Although classed as a joint UK/US base, in practice it is mainly staffed by the American military, although a British garrison is maintained at all times, and Royal Air Force long range patrol aircraft are deployed there. The United States Air Force used the base during the 1991 Gulf War and the 2001 war in Afghanistan, as well as the 2003 Iraq War.

During the 1980s, Mauritius asserted a claim to sovereignty for the territory, citing the 1965 separation as illegal under international law, despite their apparent agreement at the time. The UK does not recognise Mauritius' claim, but has agreed to cede the Territory to Mauritius when it is no longer required for defence purposes. The Seychelles also launched a sovereignty claim on several of the islands.

The islanders, who now reside in Mauritius and the Seychelles, have continually asserted their right to return to Diego Garcia, winning important legal victories in the English High Courtmarker in 2000, 2006 and 2007. However, in the High Court and Court of Appeal in 2003 and 2004, the islanders' application for further compensation on top of the £14.5 million value package of compensation they had already received was dismissed by the court.

On 11 May 2006 the High Court ruled that a 2004 Order in Council preventing the Chagossians's resettlement of the islands was unlawful, and consequently that the Chagossians were entitled to return to the outer islands of the Chagos Archipelago. On 23 May 2007, this was confirmed by the Court of Appeal. In a UK Government-sponsored visit, the islanders visited Diego Garcia and other islands on 3 April 2006 for humanitarian purposes, including the tending of the graves of their ancestors. On October 22, 2008, the British government won a case in the House of Lordsmarker regarding the royal prerogative used to continue excluding the Chagossians from their homeland.

Politics and law



As this is a territory of the United Kingdommarker, the head of state is Queen Elizabeth II. There is no Governor appointed to represent the Queen on the territory, as there are currently no longer any native inhabitants. The head of government is the Commissioner, currently Colin Roberts (since July 2008, replacing Leigh Turner) and Administrator Joanne Yeadon (since December 2007, replacing Tony Humphries), all of whom reside in the UK. The Commissioner's representative in the Territory is the officer commanding the detachment of British forces.

The laws of the territory are based on the constitution, set out in the British Indian Ocean Territory (Constitution) Order 2004, which gives the Commissioner full powers to make laws for the Territory. Applicable treaties between the United Kingdom and the United States govern the use of the military base. The United States is required to ask permission of the United Kingdom to use the base for offensive military action.

The UK has an agreement with Mauritius to return the territory if it is no longer required for defence purposes.

Geography and communications

Map of the British Indian Ocean Territory since 1976
The territory is an archipelago of 55 islands, the largest being Diego Garcia, accounting for almost three-quarters of the total land area of the territory, which is 60 km². The terrain is flat and low, with most areas not exceeding 2 metres above sea level. The climate is tropical marine; hot, humid, and moderated by trade winds.

With the exception of one two-lane motorway, most of the islands in the territory have no roads of any sort. Diego Garcia has a short stretch of paved road between the port and airfield; otherwise most transport is by bicycle.

Diego Garcia's military base is home to the territory's only airport (one paved runway over 3000 metres long), capable of operating very heavy USAF bombers like the B-52, and only one major seaport.

Economy

All economic activity is concentrated on Diego Garciamarker, where joint UK-US defence facilities are located. Approximately 2,000 native inhabitants, known as the Chagossians or Ilois, were forcibly relocated to Mauritius before construction of UK-US military facilities; in 1995, there were approximately 1,700 U.K. and U.S. military personnel and 1,500 civilian contractors living on the island. Construction projects and various services needed to support the military installations are carried out by military and contract employees from the U.K., Mauritiusmarker, the Philippinesmarker, and the U.S. There are no industrial or agricultural activities on the islands.The licensing of commercial fishing provides an annual income of about $1 million for the territory.Separate telephone facilities for military and public needs are available, providing all standard commercial telephone services, including connection to the Internet. International telephone service is carried by communications satellite. The territory has three radio broadcast stations, one AM and two FM, and one television broadcast station. Because of its extreme equatorial location, Diego Garciamarker can use geosynchronous satellites over the Indian Oceanmarker and also some over the eastern Atlantic Oceanmarker. Fairly active amateur radio operations occur from Diego Garcia, using the British callsign prefix VQ9.

Postage stamps have been issued for British Indian Ocean Territory since January 17, 1968.

See also



References

  1. Xavier Romero-Frias, The Maldive Islanders, A Study of the Popular Culture of an Ancient Ocean Kingdom. Barcelona 1999, ISBN 84 7254 801 5. Chapter 1 "A Seafaring Nation", page 19
  2. News - Telegraph
  3. This is a draft of the judgement to be handed down on ––––– 2000 at ––––– a.m. in Court No –––. It is confidential to Counsel and Solicitors, but the substance may be communicated to clients not more than one hour before the giving of judgement. The offi
  4. BBC NEWS | UK | Paradise regained - for a few days
  5. AFP: Britain wins appeal over Chagos islanders' return home
  6. House of Commons Hansard Written Answers for 21 Jun 2004 (pt 13)


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