Posted by: Lister | May 23, 2007

Chagos Islands and the right of return

Great news for the Islanders expelled from their homes 30 years ago. They have won the right to return

Families expelled from the Chagos Islands to make way for the Diego Garcia US airbase won their legal battle to return home today.

The families – ordered from the islands by the British government 30 years ago – packed the Court of Appeal to hear the ruling, which condemned government tactics preventing their return as unlawful and an abuse of power.

Three judges, headed by the Master of the Rolls, Sir Anthony Clarke, refused a stay on the effect of their judgment, allowing the islanders to return to their Indian Ocean homes immediately.

[…] The only island they will not be able to resettle, under the original high court orders allowing their return, will be Diego Garcia itself.

A great victory for the people of Chagos. And it shows that decades is not too long to wait for justice.

I haven’t followed the history of these events, in fact today is the first day I have heard of Chagos. Googling turns up some BBC reports. There was a ruling in favour of the Islanders in November 2000. At that time there were 3 to 4 thousand exiles (and their families) living on Mauritius.

Sir Sydney Kentridge QC, appearing for the islanders, had told the court at a hearing in July that the British authorities took steps to hide the truth from Parliament and the United Nations as the people of the Chagos archipelago were sent packing.

The islanders were “simply dumped on the dockside” 1,200 miles away on Mauritius and other faraway destinations between 1967 and 1973 and left to a life of distress and poverty which many were still experiencing, he said.

[…] The Chagos group came under British sovereignty when Mauritius, together with its dependencies, were ceded by France at the end of the Napoleonic war.

Sir Menzies Campbell, then Foreign Affairs spokesman for the Lib-Dems, suggested that it was too late for return and that the Islanders should be offered compensation.

The eviction of these people was described as

“A very sad and by no means creditable episode in British history.” That was how Sir Sydney Kentridge QC, barrister for the Chagos islanders or Ilois, described their forced removal from their “paradise” homeland in the 1960s and 1970s.

[…] In the mid-1960s, the US was worried about possible Soviet expansion in the Indian Ocean and wanted a base in the region – but one without a “population problem” which might upset the base’s operation. In return, the US was willing to offer the UK an $11m subsidy on the Polaris submarine nuclear deterrent.

That payment was kept secret from both governments. But worse than that, the reason they switched from their first choice (the island of Aldabra, north of Madagascar) was because:

Aldabra was the breeding ground for rare giant tortoises, whose mating habits would probably be upset by the military activity and whose cause would be championed noisily by publicity-aware ecologists.

The alternative was the Chagos Islands, part of Mauritius, then a British territory campaigning for independence.

Although there was 1800 islanders, the British government wanted it to be understood that there was no permanent inhabitants. A telegram from the UK to the UN in November 1965:

“We recognise that we are in a difficult position as regards references to people at present on the detached islands.

“We know that a few were born in Diego Garcia and perhaps some of the other islands, and so were their parents before them.

“We cannot therefore assert that there are no permanent inhabitants, however much this would have been to our advantage. In these circumstances, we think it would be best to avoid all references to permanent inhabitants.”

Sir Paul Gore-Booth, senior official at the Foreign Office, wrote to a diplomat in 1966: “We must surely be very tough about this. The object of the exercise is to get some rocks which will remain ours… There will be no indigenous population except seagulls…”

The diplomat, Dennis Greenhill, replied: “Unfortunately along with the birds go some few Tarzans or Man Fridays whose origins are obscure and who are hopefully being wished on to Mauritius.”

As far back as 1965, Colonial Secretary Anthony Greenwood had warned that it was “important to present the United Nations with a fait accompli”.


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