Britain's other islanders petition the White House

The Chagossians’ campaign for justice gathers pace as a petition passes the 25,000 threshold.

This morning, the We the People petition to the White House asking for justice for the exiled Chagos Islanders has achieved more than the 25,000 signatures required to trigger a response from the Obama Administration.

The petition, launched on 5 March by SPEAK, a Port Louis-based human rights group, started slowly with about 100 people a day signing up. But a week ago, Le Mauricien, one of the main daily newspapers in Mauritius, decided to back the campaign by running a two-page spread featuring contributions from bestselling author and Patron of the UK Chagos Support Association, Philippa Gregory, former British High Commissioner to Mauritius, David Snoxell, and Oslo University’s  Thomas Hylland Eriksen among others.

Eriksen, one of the world’s leading social anthropologists, who has conducted extensive fieldwork in Mauritius over the last two decades, was characteristically forthright about the fate of the 1800 or so people, the descendants of African slaves and Indian indentured labourers, who were forcibly removed from their homeland by the British authorities between 1968 and 1973 to make way for the US base on Diego Garcia. He said:

The displaced Chagossians or Ilois have suffered enough. Economically and socially deprived in Mauritius since the day of their arrival - many were even deported against their knowledge, believing that they were only going on a visit - Chagossians have tirelessly, but so far unsuccessfully, campaigned for a return. Successive governments of Mauritius have also firmly demanded the return of the archipelago to Mauritius, which would enable repatriation.  It is time to act, and nobody who looks at the issue from a neutral perspective can be in doubt as to where justice lies.

Le Mauricien’s endorsement, together with an appeal made by Olivier Bancoult, the leader of the Chagos Group, and Mauritian foreign minister Dr Arvin Boolell, had an immediate effect. The number of signatories, mainly young people in Mauritius, took off. Unfortunately, even though the Indian Ocean island, renowned as a luxury holiday destination, is one of the most prosperous countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Internet penetration is still relatively low at around 25 per cent of the 1.3 million population. This means that only a fraction of poorer households, including the 600 or so surviving native-born Chagossians and their descendants, know how to or have been able to sign up.

Last Thursday, TV adventurer Ben Fogle, another patron of the UK Chagos Support Association, who secretly visited some of the outer islands in the Chagos Archipelago, while researching his book The Teatime Islands, penned an additional piece for Le Mauricien appealing for people to add their names to the petition providing an additional boost to the numbers. He wrote:

The story of the Chagossians at the hands of the UK government is one for which I am ashamed to be British. It is a story of deceit and tragedy that has been described by some as the darkest day in British overseas policy. It has transfixed me for over a decade and shaken my very principles on conservation and democracy. It is a story of deceit that has left thousands of ‘British refugees’ living in misery for the last 40 years, exiled from their island home by a conniving and unrepentant government.

On the same day, John Price, former US ambassador to Mauritius (2002 – 2005), appointed by President George W Bush, revealed on his blog that he had asked Washington on several occasions for financial and other help in order to enable the Chagos Islanders to integrate more fully into Mauritian society. His appeals were unsuccessful. The Berlin-born multi-millionaire businessman, whose Jewish family had fled Nazi Germany in 1933, also wanted his government to explore the feasibility of a return by the Chagossians to the Archipelago’s outer islands like Peros Banhos and Salomon, which lie more than 100 miles north of Diego Garcia. He said:

I understood the Chagossians’ plight, and the desire to go back to their ancestral home. They had never been fully integrated into the Mauritian culture; they had no roots there, and even after thirty years, most still lived in abject poverty. On several occasions on my way to or from the US Embassy in Port Louis, Mauritius, I had taken a circuitous route through the Cassis district at the foot of Signal Mountain, about a mile from the embassy where a Chagossian community was located. They live in crowded shacks made of rusted corrugated metal, with skinny chickens picking through the garbage. With high unemployment, poor health conditions, and limited education opportunities, little will change in the lives of these Chagossians. I could see why many believe their only option was to ultimately return to the Chagos Archipelago. At least it would feel like home, and eking out a living there would be better than struggling to exist in the rat-infested environment of Cassis.

It's not clear whether the former US ambassador has signed the We the People petition, but with some experience of the slum conditions in which the vast majority of the Chagos Islanders in Mauritius are obliged to make their lives as a direct consequence of US and UK foreign policy, he was certainly making a good case for others to do so. He and the Chagossians are now looking forward to the White House’s response.

Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Roehampton

Chagos Islanders leave London's Houses of Parliament. Photograph: Getty Images.
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French voters face a choice: Thatcherism or fascism

Today's Morning Call. 

Francois Fillon has been handed the task of saving France from a Marine Le Pen presidency and, by extension, the European Union from collapse, after a landslide win over Alain Juppé in the second round of the centre-right Republican party primary, taking 67 per cent of the vote to Juppé's 33 per cent. 

What are his chances? With the left exhausted, divided and unpopular, it's highly likely that it will be Fillon who makes it into the second round of the contest (under the French system, unless one candidate secures more than half in the first round, the top two go to a run off). 

Le Pen is regarded as close-to-certain of winning the first round and is seen as highly likely to be defeated in the second. That the centre-right candidate looks - at least based on the polls - to be the most likely to make it into the top two alongside her puts Fillon in poll position if the polls are right.

As I explained in my profile of him, his path to victory relies on the French Left being willing to hold its nose and vote for Thatcherism - or, at least, as close as France gets to Thatcherism - in order to defeat fascism. It may be that the distinctly Anglo-Saxon whiff of his politics - "Thatcherite Victor vows sharp shock for France" is the Times splash - exerts too strong a smell for the left to ignore.

The triumph of Brexit in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump in the United States have the left and the centre nervous. The far right is sharing best practice and campaign technique across borders, boosting its chances. 

Of all forms of mistake, prophecy is the most avoidable, so I won't make one. However, there are a few factors that may lie in the way of Le Pen going the way of Trump and Brexit. Hostility towards the European project and white  racial reaction are both deeply woven into the culture and politics of the United Kingdom and the United States respectively. The similarities between Vote Leave and Trump are overstated, but both were fighting on home turf with the wind very much at their backs. 

While there's a wider discussion to be had about the French state's aggressive policy of secularism and diversity blindness and its culpability for the rise of Le Pen, as far as the coming contest is concerned, the unity of the centre against the extremes is just as much a part of French political culture as Euroscepticism is here in Britain. So it would be a far bigger scale of upheaval if Le Pen were to win, though it is still possible.

There is one other factor that Fillon may be able to rely on. He, like Le Pen, is very much a supporter of granting Vladimir Putin more breathing space and attempting to reset Russia's relationship with the West. He may face considerably less disruption from that quarter than the Democrats did in the United States. Still, his campaign would be wise to ensure they have two-step verification enabled.

A WING AND A PRAYER

Eleanor Mills bagged the first interview with the new PM in the Sunday Times, and it's widely reported in today's papers. Among the headlines: the challenge of navigating  Brexit keeps Theresa May "awake at night", but her Anglican faith helps her through. She also lifted the lid on Philip May's value round the home. Apparently he's great at accessorising. 

THE NEVERENDING STORY

John Kerr, Britain's most experienced European diplomat and crossbench peer, has said there is a "less than 50 per cent" chance that Britain will negotiate a new relationship with the EU in two years and that a transitional deal will have to be struck first, resulting in a "decade of uncertainty". The Guardian's Patrick Wintour has the story

TROUBLED WATERS OVER OIL

A cross-party coalition of MPs, including Caroline Lucas and David Lammy, are at war with their own pension fund: which is refusing to disclose if its investments include fossil fuels. Madison Marriage has the story in the FT

TRUMPED UP CHARGES?

The Ethics Council to George W Bush and Barack Obama say the Electoral College should refuse to make Donald Trump President, unless he sells his foreign businesses and puts his American ones in a genuine blind trust. Trump has said he plans for his children to run his businesses while he is in the Oval Office and has been involved in a series of stories of him discussing his overseas businesses with foreign politicians. The New York Times has detailed the extentof Trump's overseas interests. 

TODAY'S MORNING CALL...

...is brought to you by the City of London. Their policy and resources chairman Mark Boleat writes on Brexit and the City here.

CASTROFF

Fidel Castro died this weekend. If you're looking for a book on the region and its politics, I enjoyed Alex von Tunzelmann's Red Heat, which you can buy on Amazon or Hive.

BALLS OUT

Ed Balls was eliminated from Strictly Come Dancing last night, after finishing in the bottom two and being eliminated by the judges' vote.  Judge Rinder, the daytime TV star, progressed to the next round at his expense. 

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

Helen reviews Glenda Jackson's King Lear.

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Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.