British Indian Ocean Territory

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British Indian Ocean Territory
Flag of British Indian Ocean Territory Coat of arms of British Indian Ocean Territory
Flag Coat of arms
Motto: "In tutela nostra Limuria"  (Latin)
" Limuria is in our charge"
Anthem:  God Save the Queen
Location of British Indian Ocean Territory
(and largest city)
Diego Garcia
Official languages English
Government British Overseas Territory
 -  Commissioner Leigh Turner
 -  Administrator Tony Humphries
Created 1965 
 -  Total 60 km² ( n/a)
23.2  sq mi 
 -  Water (%) 0
 -   estimate 3,500 ( n/a)
 -  Density 58.3/km² ( n/a)
160.0/sq mi
Currency Pound sterling1 ( GBP)
Time zone ( UTC+6)
Internet TLD .io
Calling code +246
1 U.S. dollar also accepted.

The British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) is an overseas territory of the United Kingdom situated in the Indian Ocean, halfway between Africa and Indonesia. The territory comprises the six atolls of the Chagos Archipelago with over 1,000 individual islands.

The largest island is Diego Garcia, the site of a joint military facility of the United Kingdom and the United States.


The Islands of Chagos Archipelago were discovered by Vasco da Gama in the early sixteenth century, then claimed in the eighteenth century by France as a possession of Mauritius. 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 Garcia and establishing copra plantations.

In 1965, the United Kingdom split the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius, and the islands of Aldabra, Farquhar and Desroches (Des Roches) from the Seychelles 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 States. The islands were formally established as an overseas territory of the United Kingdom on November 8, 1965. On June 23, 1976, Aldabra, Farquhar and Desroches were returned to Seychelles as a result of it attaining independence. Subsequently, BIOT has consisted only of the six main island groups comprising the Chagos Archipelago.

The creation of BIOT has been subject to legal controversy, as some legal opinions from international law experts say that the decision to separate the BIOT from Mauritius was illegal because international law does not allow the dismembering of a country before independence. However the decision was taken with the full agreement of the Mauritius Council of Ministers.

In 1966, the British Government purchased the privately owned copra plantations, and closed them down, and 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 lease. The strategic location of the Island was also significant at the centre of the Indian Ocean, and to counter any Soviet threat in the region.

View of Diego Garcia, showing military base.
View of Diego Garcia, showing military base.

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, the Mauritian Government 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 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 Court of Justice in 2000, 2002 and 2007. These judgements were appealed by the British Government, who subsequently lost the appeals.

On 11 May 2006 the High Court ruled that the Order-in-Council was unlawful, and consequently that the Chagossians were entitled to return to the Chagos Archipelago. On 23 May 2007, this was confirmed by the Court of Appeal. The islanders were granted the right to visit Diego Garcia on April 3, 2006 for humanitarian purposes, including the tending of the graves of their ancestors.

Politics and law

BIOT prior to Seychelles independence in 1976. (Desroches is not shown, but is a part of the Amirante Islands).
BIOT prior to Seychelles independence in 1976. (Desroches is not shown, but is a part of the Amirante Islands).

As this is a territory of the United Kingdom, 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 Leigh Turner (since July 2006, replacing Tony Crombie) and Administrator Tony Humphries (since February 2005, replacing Charles A. Hamilton), 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 in the event that they are no longer required for defense purposes.

Geography and communications

Map of the British Indian Ocean Territory since 1976
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 threequarters 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, moderated by trade winds.

With the exception of one four-lane motorway, the only one of its kind in the South Indian Ocean, 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) and only major port.


A stamp issued in the territory
A stamp issued in the territory

All economic activity is concentrated on Diego Garcia, where joint UK-US defence facilities are located. Approximately 2,000 native inhabitants, known as the Chagossians or Ilois, were relocated to Mauritius before construction of UK-US military facilities; in 1995, there were approximately 1700 UK and US military personnel and 1500 civilian contractors living on the island. Construction projects and various services needed to support the military installations are done by military and contract employees from the UK, Mauritius, the Philippines, and the US. There are no industrial or agricultural activities on the islands. The licensing of commercial fishing provides an annual income of about one million dollars 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 satellite. The Territory has three radio broadcast stations, one AM and two FM, and one television broadcast station. Its Internet country code (top-level domain) is .io.

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

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