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.
Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Photo: Getty
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The Polish government is seeking $1trn in war reparations from Germany

“Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

The “Warsaw Uprising Run”, held each summer to remember the 1944 insurrection against Nazi occupation that left as many as 200,000 civilians dead, is no ordinary fun run. Besides negotiating a five- or ten-kilometre course, the thousands of participants must contend with Nazi checkpoints, clouds of smoke and a soundtrack of bombs and machine-gun fire.

“People can’t seem to see that this is not a normal way of commemorating a tragedy,” says Beata Tomczyk, 25, who had signed up for this year’s race but withdrew after learning that she would have to run to the sound of shooting and experience “the feeling of being an insurgent”. “We need to commemorate war without making it banal, without making it fun,” she tells me.

The race’s organisers are not the only ones causing offence by focusing on Poland’s difficult past. The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) has revived the issue of German reparations for crimes committed in Poland during the Second World War.

The move followed large street protests against the government’s divisive proposals for legal reform. The plans also added to the country’s diplomatic isolation in Europe. The EU warned that Poland’s funding could be cut in response to the government’s attempts to erode the rule of law and its refusal to honour commitments to take in refugees under an EU quota system. In response, the PiS leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, argued that Poland’s funding from the EU is not linked to respect for common European standards. Instead, he claimed in July, it was tied to Poland’s wartime suffering.

PiS lawmakers then asked parliament to analyse the feasibility of a claim for reparations from Germany. “We are talking here about huge sums,” said Kaczynski, who co-founded the right-wing party in 2001, “and also about the fact that Germany for many years refused to take responsibility for the Second World War.”

Soon after the government announced that it was considering reopening the reparations issue, posters appeared in Warsaw in support of the initiative. “GERMANS murdered millions of Poles and destroyed Poland! GERMANS, you have to pay for that!” read one.

Reparationen machen frei” read another poster promoted by the right-wing television station Telewizja Republika, in a grotesque parody of the “Work sets you free” sign above the gates of Nazi concentration camps. Poland’s interior minister said in early September that the reparations claim could total $1trn.

The legal dispute over reparations goes back to a decision by the postwar Polish People’s Republic, a Soviet satellite, to follow the USSR in waiving its rights to German reparations in 1953. Reparations agreed at the 1945 Potsdam Conference were paid directly to the Soviet Union.

Advocates of the cause argue that the 1953 decision was illegitimate and that Poland has never given up its claim. Germany strongly disputes this, saying that Polish governments have repeatedly confirmed the 1953 deal.

Since the reparations announcement, Angela Merkel has signalled that she won’t be cowed by the claim and has continued to criticise the Polish government for its policies. “However much I want to have very good relations with Poland… we cannot simply hold our tongues and not say anything for the sake of peace and quiet,” she told a press conference in August.

The PiS’s willingness to broach a subject widely regarded as taboo across Europe has angered many Poles who regard the achievements of a decades-long process of Polish-German reconciliation as sacrosanct. A recent survey showed that a majority of Poles oppose the reparations claim.

“This policy is not only primitive and unwise but also deeply immoral,” says Piotr Buras, the head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “To blame and punish the second and third generations of Germans for atrocities committed over 70 years ago threatens what should be our ultimate goal – that of peace and reconciliation between nations.”

Karolina Zbytniewska, a journalist and member of a Polish-German network of young professionals, says: “It’s true that Poland didn’t receive proper compensation, but times have changed and Germany has changed, and that matters a lot more than money.”

Government propaganda about contemporary Germany is curiously contradictory. On one hand, Germany is portrayed as a threat because it hasn’t changed enough – Kaczynski has implied that Merkel was brought to power by the Stasi and that Germany may be planning to reclaim part of western Poland. On the other, Germany is presented as dangerous because it has changed too much, into an exporter of liberal values that could flood Poland with transsexuals and Muslim migrants.

The government’s supporters also denounce the “pro-German” sentiments of Poland’s liberal opposition, whose members are portrayed as German agents of influence. This paranoia came to a head during protests in cities across Poland in July, when tens of thousands took to the streets to oppose a government attempt to pass legislation giving the ruling party control over judicial appointments and the power to dismiss the country’s supreme court judges. PiS leaders accused foreign-owned – and, in particular, German-owned – media outlets of stirring unrest as part of a wider campaign to deny the Polish people their sovereignty.

But if the government’s fears of a German-engineered putsch are exaggerated, so are fears that its German-bashing will poison the attitudes of Poles towards their neighbours. Too many have visited, lived and worked there for anyone beyond a cranky minority to believe that Merkel’s Germany is the Third Reich in disguise.

“I have German friends, and I don’t think of them as the grandchildren of Nazis or people in Warsaw in 1944. They are not responsible for it on a personal level,” says the runner Beata Tomczyk. 

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem