Supreme Court rejects Chagos Islanders’ Right to Return

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Chagossians demonstrating outside the High Court in 2014
Chagossians demonstrating outside the High Court in 2014

CHAGOS Islanders were left disappointed and angry on Wednesday when the Supreme Court rejected their legal challenge to be allowed to return to their homeland.

The latest court decision was the most recent chapter in a long struggle which will no doubt not end here. The struggle of the Chagos Islanders began in December 1966, when the British government under Labour prime minister Harold Wilson made an agreement with the United States to allow the Americans to construct a military airbase on Diego Garcia, the largest island of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean.

According to the book ‘Island of Shame: The secret history of the US Military Base on Diego Garcia’ by David Vine, the plan had been hatched by American military officials and then approved by president Kennedy in 1963. US ‘exclusive control’ and the islands being ‘without local inhabitants’ were essential parts of the deal.

After the US insisted on turning this plan into a reality, the British created a new colony, the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) separating Chagos and three islands of the Seychelles from Mauritius. High pressure was applied to Mauritius, which was threatened with a delay in achieving independence if it fought to hold onto the islands.

This was the area which was to be depopulated and taken over by the US for building their base.

A secret payment of $14 million was made by the US to the British to seal this deal, which was never put up for parliamentary or congressional approval. The Americans also agreed to pay for the cost of the depopulation. ‘ABSOLUTELY must go!’ said Admiral Elmo Zumwalt of the Chagossians to US navy officials.

For two hundred years, the Chagossians, descendants of African slaves and Indian labourers on the plantations which had once covered the islands, had developed a unique culture and a peaceful society, until they justifiably felt themselves to be indigenous to the islands.

Both the British and the Americans put out lies that the Chagossians were itinerant workers and not rooted in the islands, but this was found to be false even by the US military personnel when they started arriving on the islands.

‘It was a life free of want, where everyone had jobs and in exchange for their work received generous employment benefits: salaries; cash and food; free health care; free education; they had their own land, their own houses,’ reports Vine in his book.

However, 2,000 Islanders were deported from their home from 1967-1973.

Dirty tactics were used to force the Chagossians out, including killing their animals, and restricting food and medical supplies to the island. One Chagos Islander, Marie Bancoult, left Diego Garcia to seek medical treatment for one of her children, who later died, as is recounted in Vine’s book. When she attempted to return home, she was told, ‘Your island has been sold; you will never go there again.’

Another Chagossian put it this way: ‘It’s as if I was pulled from my paradise to put me in hell.’ They were loaded onto boats and taken to Mauritius and the Seychelles, where they were dumped into slum-like camps. Many remain there today, struggling to live in desperate conditions. An immigration order was issued in 1971, and they have been barred from returning ever since.

The islands today remain as the British Indian Ocean Territory, under British control.

The $300 million airbase on Diego Garcia has since been used by the US for many bloody imperialist wars, including the Gulf war, the Afghanistan war and the Iraq war; this, while the native inhabitants of the islands were eking out a meagre existence as victims of the same imperialism.

However, as they were also granted British citizenship, several hundred Chagossians made their way to the UK, where they formed a community in Crawley, in West Sussex near London. Today there are around 3,000 Chagossians in Crawley. This community has led the way in fighting the struggle for the right of all the Chagos people to return.

The legal campaign for the Chagos return, of which the Wednesday result is just the latest twist, has been long and winding. They won a major victory in 2000, when the High Court ruled that they did have the right of return to 65 of the Chagos Islands, excluding however Diego Garcia. This decision was never to be implemented, however.

The Blair government resorted to using the ‘royal prerogative’ in 2004 – using the Queen’s supposed authority to overrule the court decision in an attempt to prevent the return.

This was declared unlawful in 2007, but one year later the House of Lords overturned that decision and found in favour of the government, against the Chagos Islanders. A study into the feasibility of moving back to the Chagos Islands was studied by the Law Lords but not released to the Chagossians or their lawyers, information which was essential to their case but which was withheld.

Lord Hoffman insulted the Chagossians by saying their former conditions of life, before the destruction wrought by Britain and America, were ‘Crusoe-like’, ‘poor’ and ‘barren’.

Seven other judges, however, said that the right of the Islanders to return was ‘so fundamental’ that there was no way it could be denied.

Some argued that the decision was financially motivated, as, had the British allowed their return, they would have had to pay for the rebuilding of the homes and community at a time when the 2007-8 economic crash was starting to bite deeply.

Last year, the Islanders brought their case to the Supreme Court, reopening their challenge on the grounds of the previously denied information. Edward Fitzgerald QC, head of the Chagossians’ legal team, said, ‘There has been a significant injustice in the earlier proceedings, whether or not there was bad faith, and there is clearly no alternative remedy.’

Judgement from the case was delayed until this week, when the Supreme Court judges voted 3-2 against granting the Chagos people the right to return. The News Line stands behind the Chagos Islanders and supports their struggle for return, which is their right which no imperialist power may take away from them.

This judgement may not have gone in their favour, but we are confident that it will not be long until they can return to the Islands, and the military base on Diego Garcia is dismantled forever like all of the armed colonies of America and Britain will be.