The British Government must leave the Chagos Islands

The little known story of the Chagos Islanders is one of the worst crimes in recent British history.

The Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, were first settled by the French in the eighteenth century, originally with slave labour to work on coconut plantations. They were governed by France from Mauritius. Mauritius became a British colony at the end of the Napoleonic wars, along with its distant Chagos Islands dependency a thousand miles further east.

By the 1960s, when Mauritius was approaching independence, there were about 2000 Chagos Islanders, mostly living on the largest island, Diego Garcia. They were deeply rooted in the Islands, having developed their own separate Creole language. Around this time the United States and the UK secretly agreed that the Islands should be cleared of their inhabitants to make way for a US military base on Diego Garcia.

When the Prime Minister of Mauritius, Seewoosagar Ramgoolam, came to London seeking independence, he was told by Prime Minister Harold Wilson that he could have it, provided that it did not extend to the Chagos Islands which the UK intended to retain. Ramgoolam was under big domestic pressure to deliver independence, and agreed to Wilson’s terms, effectively under duress. Mauritius became independent without the Chagos Islands, which were renamed the British Indian Ocean Territory.

The Islanders were forced to leave. First the Government bought out the coconut plantations which were the Islanders’ livelihood and closed them. Then it cut off transport to the Islands, so that Islanders who were in Mauritius (for example, for medical treatment) could not return home. Finally it “closed” the Islands, telling the inhabitants that they had to leave or starve to death. The Islanders were put on to overcrowded boats to Mauritius, on which they were only allowed to take with them what they could carry. They were not allowed to take any pets, all of which were systematically gassed. They were dumped on the dockside in Port Louis, Mauritius, to make their own way. Several committed suicide. Most settled in the slums of Port Louis where they remain today, though there are also communities in the Seychelles and in the UK, notably in Crawley. Some limited compensation was eventually paid to them many years later.

The British public and Parliament knew nothing of these events. Nor did the United Nations, as UK officials knowing lied to the United Nations Decolonization Committee, informing it that the Islands had no permanent inhabitants.

In 2000 the Islanders won an important victory when the High Court in London decided that their expulsion was illegal under English law. Robin Cook, then Foreign Secretary, announced that the UK Government would not appeal the decision and would prepare to resettle the Islanders. However, after Jack Straw became Foreign Secretary, he, revoked Robin Cook’s decision, for reasons never convincingly explained, and said that the Islanders would NOT, after all, be allowed to return. Legal challenges to Straw’s decision eventually narrowly failed in the Supreme Court.

Last year the United Nations General Assembly referred the issue of British occupation of the Chagos Islands to the International Court of Justice, which found that the British occupation was illegal. Last month the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly that the UK should withdraw from the Chagos Islands within 6 months. The British Government has announced that it does not accept the validity of the International Court judgment and has no intention of withdrawing from the Islands.

I hope that Liberal Democrats will raise their voice against this defiance of international law by the UK. The Chagos Islanders have no objection to the US base on Diego Garcia, nor has Mauritius opposed its continuation. There is therefore no insuperable obstacle to the transfer of the Islands to Mauritius and the return of the Islanders to their homeland.

Let us not be so distracted by Brexit and climate change that we let the Government get away with this illegality being done in our name.

* Paul Harris is a Councillor on Oxford City Council, representing St Margaret’s Ward. He was the founder of the Bar Human Rights Committee, and is currently counsel representing the Chagos Islanders in litigation against the British Government.

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8 Comments

  • Well said, Paul. Great to see a Lib Dem taking up a human rights issue in a good old traditional Liberal way.

    I’m going to write to my M.P. (with whom I’m on friendly personal terms) because I’m sure he’ll take the matter up. I hope others will do the same.

  • nigel hunter 3rd Jun '19 - 1:09pm

    seeing that the Chagos Islanders and Mauritius have n. o problem with the base the Govnt has no excuse NOT to let them go home. This could show that our influence in the World is waining as the last 3 years have been watched by the rest of the World and are not impressed by our ,once wise, leadership.

  • Andrew Toye 3rd Jun '19 - 2:24pm

    This is the same government that keeps on about “Sovereignty” and “Taking Back Control”. Such shameful hypocrisy.

  • We should absolutely not give the Chagos Islands to Mauritius. When the Chagossians were moved from the Islands to Mauritius, we gave the Mauritian government 3 million pounds to handle the resettlement of the Chagossians. It was then later revealed that most of this money never reached the Chagossian people and the Mauritian government kept most of the money for itself, and also later told the Chagossian people to renounce their right to return to the Islands.

    I encourage everyone to watch the Jon Snow interview with the President of the Chagos Islands Council and put into action what he advocates which is to keep the Islands as a British Overseas Territory, allow the Chagossians to return to the eastern side of the Islands so they could work there or to get jobs at the American military base, and then once they can sustain themselves they can then vote to become independent or to stay as a BOT.

    Jon Snow interview with Allen Vincatassin, President of the Diego Garcia and Chagos Islands Council: https://www.channel4.com/news/president-of-chagos-islands-council-we-prefer-to-stay-a-british-overseas-territory

  • Humphrey Hawksley 4th Jun '19 - 8:02am

    Britain’s response to the Chaggos dispute underlines exactly why the current world order is breaking down. There have been two international court rulings, 2015 and 2019, and the recent UN General Assembly vote of a crushing 116 to 6 against, yet Britain has done nothing to comply. How then, can it, advocate a rule-based order based on international law. The 2015 ruling came from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, the very same court that rules against China’s claim to the South China Sea. Little wonder that China is in the ascendancy when those who initiated the concept of international law so blatantly ignore its rulings. Good luck to the HMS Queen Elizabeth when she heads off for her Global Britain gun boat diplomacy to challenge Beijing’s new military bases in the South China Sea.

  • Whilst I fully accept the arguments for the return of the islands and sovereignty, the problems I have are, firstly this isn’t the first and only group of people forceably removed from their homes and prevented from returning due to GB military reasoning, also there is the new world order and that strategic US airbase…

    I can’t see the US letting the airbase go, knowing that if they did, it would most probably be replaced by a Chinese version. Which begs the question: would the Islanders be better off if the islands were overseen by either the US or China. So I suspect the ‘best’ (or least worst) outcome will be for the status of the islands to be altered, but still be a UK protectorate, with on-going monitoring by the UN to ensure the relevant people are properly provided for.

  • Sue Traverso 5th Jun '19 - 7:52pm

    A very helpful and informative article. I was aware that the inhabitants had been removed under duress but not how badly they had been treated. Absolutely right Britain should give the islands back and the Americans kicked out of Diego Garcia. Not exactly a stunning example of our Special Relationship!

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