Diego Garcia: an unavailing 50-year struggle for uprooted civilians

Comment: Written by Rayyan Sorefan.

Islanders, who were forcibly evicted to make way for a US military base in the Indian ocean over half a century ago, have lost their legal battle to return to their homeland. 

The Chagos Archipelago (BIOT territory) – a group of Islands located in the Indian ocean – was depopulated more than 50 years ago for the sole purpose of accommodating a strategic US military base during the Cold War.

An agreement was struck between the UK and US government and has since generated extensive litigation in national courts and the European Court of Human Rights.

Approximately 1,500 islanders were removed from their abode in 1971 to make way for a US military base in Diego Garcia. Under the deal, undisclosed at the time, the US agreed to contribute to the costs of establishing the base while waiving the UK’s payment towards the joint missile programme. In 2004, the islanders right of abode on BIOT were denied partially on the basis of a feasibility study conducted by the UK government.

However, shockingly the UK government has spent over £1 billion since 1982 helping an alternate group of British islanders – those living on the Falkland Islands.

David Cameron said, “We will always be there for them…we believe in the Falkland islanders right to self-determination”.  This is an overt paradox as the case was dealt with 12,000 km away; the European Courts of Human rights have since reported that the judges have refused to accept the “perceived need to right an injustice.”

So why can’t Cameron and the UK government show the same commitment towards the Chagossian community – a society they uprooted?

In exercising prerogative powers to remove the islanders from their abode, the crown is expected to achieve ‘good government’, one of the compelling issues raised in this case.

However, this was systematically discounted by the majority of the lords who argued that ‘the right of abode’ is not a fundamental constitutional right. According to the House of Lords judgement, the right of abode is a creature of the law. And the law gives it and takes it away.

Many of the exiled Chagossian community now live in Crawley, West Sussex, however the majority have migrated to the neighbouring islands of Mauritius and Seychelles.

Louis Oliver Bancoult, who brought the legal challenge forward said the ruling was “not the end of the road”. He was exiled with family when he was four.

Bancoult told The Guardian: “It’s impossible to accept that other people can live in our birthplace but we can’t. Chagossians will be on Chagos very soon. We want to be allowed to return. We implore the British government to go ahead with the exercise to allow us to go back to our homeland.”

A further legal challenge by Chagos Islanders over their loss of fishing rights in the Indian ocean is expected to be heard in court next year.

Judicial review is said to limit the power of the executive and its development over the last century has led to increased scrutiny of public bodies and officials. It allows for a last resort for people who have exhausted all other options. It helps to maintain the rule of law by discouraging ministers from going above the legal duties.

One the one hand, the system seems wholly ineffective when faced with such a blatant and clear case of the Chagossians. It seems like a veil of democracy is portrayed in the judicial review because it has not been able to help a community resettle in their homes, of which they were exiled from over half a century ago.

While there have been significant advancements since then, the Chagossians have been left at a standstill, unaware of what the future holds for them.

On the other hand, the rule of law is not simply a branch of ethics and morality. If it were the case, legal decisions would be wholly subjective and precedence would have inconsequential effects on the law. The courts did not impede the decision taken by the democratically accountable parliament.

Colonialism may appear to be a relic of a past, with the lingering question of whether it should be a past to be celebrated or treated as a source of embarrassment. This case is a clear reminder that colonialism still exist in the 21st Century and the rights of colonial inhabitants are secondary to that of colonial power.

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