By Dr Sean Carey
Last week, there was huge disappointment amongst Chagossian communities in Port Louis, Mahe, Crawley, Manchester, Geneva and Montréal. A seven-judge chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decided by majority that the case regarding the right of return of the exiled islanders was inadmissible. Two reasons were given. Firstly, it was judged that all Chagossian claims had been “definitively” settled in the UK courts. Secondly, the UK had paid compensation in 1982.
Geographically and legally it has been a long journey with many twists and turns for the islanders, the descendants of African slaves and Indian indentured labourers. The decision by the Strasbourg court means that they continue to be barred from returning to their homeland in the Chagos Archipelago, after their forced removal by the British authorities between 1968 and 1973, so that the US could acquire Diego Garcia, the largest and southernmost island, for its strategically important military base.
Olivier Bancoult, an electrician who works for the Municipality of Port Louis, has been behind the legal case which was launched in 1998. An indefatigable campaigner, ably assisted by hard-working legal teams in the UK and Mauritius, headed by solicitor Richard Gifford, Bancoult has held firm to the belief that one day he and other native-born islanders, as well as their families would be able to return to the outer islands of the Archipelago like Peros Banhos and Salomon. The legal options are now being reviewed, including the possibility of an appeal to the Grand Chamber of the ECHR.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has used nearly every trick in the book, from the 2004 Orders in Council overturning the High Court ruling in 2000 allowing the islanders the right of return, to the establishment in 2010 of the world’s largest no-take marine protected area in the British Indian Ocean Territory. As WikiLeaks later revealed the reserve was in large part designed by the FCO to make it difficult or impossible for the islanders (disgracefully described as “Man Fridays” by Colin Roberts, the former British Indian Ocean Territory Commissioner), who traditionally relied on subsistence fishing, to go back to their homeland. (That will be the subject of a judicial review in the High Court in the New Year.)
With the conspicuous exception of the late Robin Cook, who described the exile of the Chagossians as “one of the most sordid and morally indefensible I have ever known,” successive recent foreign secretaries – Jack Straw, Margaret Beckett, David Miliband – and up to this point – current occupant William Hague – do not come out of this episode very well. Whatever their personal beliefs, something obviously happens to Parliamentarians when they cross the threshold of the FCO and become Ministers.
For example, in March 2010 before the general election in May, Hague wrote in reply to a letter from a human rights campaigner: “I can assure you that if elected to serve as the next British government we will work to ensure a fair settlement of this long-standing dispute.” By August, the view had changed. An FCO official replied to another letter from the same campaigner to the newly installed Foreign Secretary: “The Government will continue to contest the case brought by the Chagos Islanders to the European Court of Human Rights. This is because we believe that the arguments against allowing resettlement on the grounds of defence, security and feasibility are clear and compelling. And we do not see the case for paying further compensation as this has already been paid in full and final settlement of all claims. Both of these issues have already been decided by the UK courts.”
Hague, author of a critically acclaimed biography of anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, would do well to ponder what the new judgement means for the 700 or so native-born islanders who are still alive. Many would like to live out their final days in the Archipelago. So would many of their descendants keen to escape the poverty and slum conditions in which they live in Mauritius and the Seychelles, as well as those now living in Crawley in West Sussex and other parts of the diaspora.
Although recent UK governments have expressed “regret” about the past, it is very revealing that no formal apology has been made to the Chagossians. Irrespective of the decision of the Strasbourg court, on moral and ethical grounds, it is time for a change in tone and policy. That should include a debate in Parliament in the New Year, and the Foreign Secretary working in close collaboration with the Chagos All Party Parliamentary Group.
William Hague should also take the opportunity to invoke the spirit of William Wilberforce by apologising for the mistakes of previous UK governments and allow the islanders to return to their homeland.
Dr Sean Carey is research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Roehampton
* Published in print edition on 28 December 2012