It is four decades since the Chagossian people were tricked, coerced and eventually forced into leaving their Indian Ocean islands, so that the British Government could lease the main island of Diego Garcia to the US, for use as a military base.
Today, for the third time, a British court has upheld what the Chagos islanders always knew was theirs – the right to live on their homeland.
The Chagossians’ first court victory in 2000 was accepted by the then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, but since then they have seen nothing but delays and dirty tricks. Firstly the Government wasted time with feasibility studies which were roundly ridiculed for their inexplicable conclusions and failure to consult the islanders. Then it resorted to Royal Prerogative powers to bypass parliament and overrule the previous decision. These secret royal orders were later quashed, and today’s appeal court ruling called them an ‘abuse of power’.
Today’s headlines tell of victory, and the judges certainly consider the decision final – refusing permission for a further appeal to the House of Lords. But it must be hard for these islanders – who know first hand how low the Government is willing to stoop – not to wonder what it will pull out of its sleeve next.
For too long the Government has hidden behind phoney arguments against resettlement, in the knowledge that the islanders are not in a position to re-establish their lost island society without help.
Compensation settlements made in the 1980s were inadequate, mismanaged and one-sided; the security threat of a population on the outer islands is minimal; and claims that resettlement is not viable have not been backed up. Treaty obligations to the US are cited as a reason why obligations to British citizens must take second place.
This time the Government needs to take resettlement seriously, engaging in discussions with the islanders, conservation groups, and potential partners who could help develop fisheries and tourism in the islands.
The surviving islanders, who still vividly remember being rounded up, shipped off and dumped helpless on the docks of Mauritius and the Seychelles, would be devastated if the Government were to drag their suffering out even longer.
Millions of pounds have been spent trampling on the rights of these vulnerable people. Now it is time to respect the court’s decision, and start pumping those resources into putting the islanders back.
Robert Bain is a London-based journalist who campaigns voluntarily for the exiled Chagos islanders