MAINTENANCE. Lawyer Philippe Sands talks about the hidden deportation of the inhabitants of the Chagos archipelago - THECHOWANIECS.COM

MAINTENANCE. Lawyer Philippe Sands talks about the hidden deportation of the inhabitants of the Chagos archipelago

the essential
Home to an ultra-strategic US military base on one of its islands – Diego Garcia – the Chagos archipelago has been emptied of its population by the British government in violation of the law. For 52 years, its inhabitants have been fighting to return to the land of their birth. A court ruling is now forcing Britain to do so, which is still refusing to comply. Through the case of the Chagos, Philippe Sands retraces the history of decolonization, the history of faltering British influence and US covert actions.

In 1971, Britain decided to deport nearly 2,000 people living in the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean. What purpose?

Among the 58 islands that make up the Chagos archipelago, there was one that interested the United States: Diego Garcia. The Americans said to the British, “You wouldn’t follow us to Vietnam, so why don’t you give us this island to use as an air base?” It was “enough” to remove the population of Diego Garcia, about 350 people. The British agreed, but there was a problem. It was the era of decolonization and it was legally impossible to separate part of a colony. Unless there is no more population in the place that it for example consents to leave its territory… And that is exactly what the British did, who claimed that it was not. There was no population in the entire Chagos archipelago, that they were only seasonal workers, whereas these people had been there since the end of the 18th century.

How were the Chagossians moved?

They were ordered to leave their country with 24 hours notice and the right to one suitcase per person. That’s all. They left at night by boat in deplorable conditions. And they arrived after five days in Mauritius, where no one was waiting for them. They had no money, no home, they didn’t know what to do or where to go. They ended up moving into a disused building where they lived for fourteen years. Little by little, they received sums of money in compensation, until today they live in perfect conditions. But so far they have not been able to return to their native island.

How did you get into this fight?

In 2010 I received a call from the office of the Prime Minister of Mauritius. They had read a book I had written about the illegal invasion of Iraq and decided to hire my services to reclaim the Chagos. I knew the Diego Garcia base because the English press was concerned about what the Americans were doing there with certain prisoners.

– on British territory, I remind you – but I knew nothing of this deportation story. I immediately accepted.

Nine years later, in 2019, you stand before the International Court of Justice in The Hague

And we choose to present the testimony of Liseby Elysée, a resident of Chagos who was forced to leave her island at the age of seven. We didn’t know how to make the Chagoss exist in this audience. So we chose to project a video of three minutes and forty-seven seconds in which she tells her story. It is an incredible document. I have to say that I had never heard a room sob like I heard it that day. Suddenly it went beyond the legal issue, it became a human issue.

This hearing resulted in a court ruling ordering Britain to return the archipelago to the Mauritian government. However, nothing happens. Why ?

The UK government claims this is only an advisory opinion. Technically, it is correct. But this decision has a binding effect on the United Nations, whose organs have followed the ICJ’s decision. Things have changed in such a way that the British will have to rethink their position.

How can Liz Truss's government solve this problem?

What is certain is that her time in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs means that she is fully aware of the matter. And that she said she wanted to put an end to this story. The Mauritian government, for its part, is ready to offer a 99-year concession to the Americans to keep Diego Garcia. A solution is therefore possible.

Philippe Sands, French-British lawyer, specialized in international law.

Philippe Sands, French-British lawyer, specialized in international law.

I would add that the Queen’s disappearance will cause many territories to question their links with the Crown, from Antigua to Australia via Northern Ireland. The story of the Chagos is part of this now inescapable question: the role of the United Kingdom in relation to its former colonies now that the Queen is dead.

Part of your roots are in Ukraine. What do you think about what is currently being played out there since the country got its independence in 1991?

This is also the story of a country denying autonomy to a territory that once belonged to it. However, the aspiration for self-determination is stronger than anything else. The Ukrainians made this choice 31 years ago, and they have no intention of abandoning it.

According to you, in the Ukrainian case it is now possible to file a case at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. How?

Indeed, it is possible to prosecute Russia, and especially its leaders, directly for the “crime of aggression”. A crime codified at Nuremberg in 1945 over which the International Criminal Court – which deals with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes – has no jurisdiction. My idea is to create a special criminal court on Russian aggression in Ukraine. And it seems that this proposal, to my great surprise, met with great support from the major countries. Even if some, like France, are against it. I also admit that I still do not understand Mr. Macron’s position on the Ukrainian issue.

We see when we read you that the time of the law can seem terribly frustrating. But, you write, when a line moves, the consequences always end up being felt… So we must remain optimistic?

In the short term, absolutely not. I greatly fear the next ten years and the risks of war which we incur. Especially with the disappearance of those who lived through the war in Europe, like the Queen of England, and their memory. In the long term, however, I remain optimistic. These are projects that take a lot of time. Today’s international law relies on legal tools that were codified in 1945 and that Ukraine has used since the beginning of the war. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to continue these efforts, which will pay off in time.

: Diego Garcia was notably a rear base for bombing Iraq and then a transit camp for Guantanamo detainees

(**): The principal judicial body of the United Nations

To read: “The last colony”, Albin Michel editions, €21.90, 230 pages..

Leave a Comment