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Chagossians take struggle for justice to the heart of British government

22 November 2004

The islanders of Diego Garcia, evicted from their homes by the British government in the 1970s to make way for a US military base, have taken their claims for justice directly to the House of Commons. A public event, ‘Diego Garcia: A Crime Against Humanity?’ organized by Minority Rights Group International, addressed the treatment of the islanders and the future of Diego Garcia, and brought together members of the community, lawyers, Members of Parliament, human rights experts, academics and the media. Considering legal, social and political aspects of the Chagossian’s claims, the event was a unique opportunity to address the actions of the government and the demands of the islanders in front of an expert audience. The event, one of the first of its kind for the islanders, comes as they prepare to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights, the next step in their long legal battle.

Held on 16 November, the event was sponsored by Jeremy Corbyn MP, who has long supported the claims of the islanders and continues to be an active advocate for their rights. Mr Corbyn called for sustained efforts to ensure that the issue remained on the political agenda and strongly criticized the use by the government of a ‘prerogative power’ to over-rule a high-court judgment that the expulsion was illegal. An introduction to the legal case and the question of crimes against humanity was provided by Richard Gifford, the long-term legal representative to many of the islanders. He considered the nature of the deportation of the islanders in view of the British government’s claims that no force had been used to remove them and therefore it could not be considered as a gross violation of rights, or crime against humanity. According to Gifford, the bulldozing of villages, gassing of dogs, and general climate of fear engendered in the community at the time of their removal was tantamount to force since it left them in fear for their lives and with no option but to leave. Mr Gifford made a convincing case that the forced deportation was a crime against humanity, drawing interesting comparison with the criteria and findings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

Olivier Bancoult, who is visiting London with a delegation of islanders, described their removal and his own family’s experience of going to Mauritius for medical care, only to be told that they would not be allowed to return to their home on Diego Garcia. In an impassioned address he described not only the exile from the island in the 1970s, but ongoing hardship, poverty and suffering of the islanders who have struggled to rebuild their lives while maintaining their legal struggle for justice. According to Bancoult, such treatment and violations of the rights of the community clearly constitute a crime against humanity, for which those responsible should be held to account. MRG’s own report on the issue, published in 1982, describes the lives of the islanders in the slums of Port Louis without food, money, housing or compensation. The report highlights documents detailing multiple cases of suicide and ‘families that had died together in poverty’. Bancoult’s delegation had earlier in the day met with Foreign Office Minister, Bill Rammell, in a meeting which they suggested did little to inspire faith in any government rethink on their position to allow no further consideration of the rights to return or compensation for the islanders.

Laura Jeffery, an anthropologist studying the situation of the islanders at Cambridge University, described how the displacement or ‘uprooting’ of the community has come to be central to contemporary Chagossian cultural identity. However, for a younger generation she suggested, the struggle for return has been overtaken by more immediate concerns facing them in Mauritius and the Seychelles, including high unemployment, lack of skills training, alcoholism, drug addiction, crime and prostitution, all of which have impacted heavily on the community. Some of the participants suggest that the British government is playing a waiting game in the hope that younger generations born outside the islands, may give up their claims as the emotional ties to the islands become weakened and Chagossian identity and unity is eroded. Chris Martin, Producer of the recent John Pilger documentary ‘Stealing a Nation’ spoke of the universal condemnation that the story of the Chagossians continues to inspire, and the need for immediate media, political and NGO attention to raise awareness of the case and maintain pressure on the government while the original islanders are still alive.

Representative of islanders currently living in the UK, Allen Vincatassin, strongly countered media accusations that the community was simply living on benefits. He discussed the efforts made by many members of the community to gain employment and education and play a full role in society. However he stated that underlying this was a strong desire to be allowed to return to Diego Garcia. He discussed the practical efforts being made by those who have migrated to develop skills and pursue education, both to help their families in the UK and also to support those who remain poor and vulnerable in Mauritius and elsewhere through welfare projects. Vincatassin’s group, The British Indian Ocean Islanders Movement (BIOT), encourage continued efforts to be allowed to return amongst a community who are currently exerting their right of abode, as British citizens, in the United Kingdom.

Notes for editors

  • Minority Rights Group International is helping to support the Chagossians in their legal case through its long experience in international human and minority rights law and standards.
  • Download the full text of MRG’s 1982 (updated in 1985) report ‘Diego Garcia: A Contrast to the Falklands‘ by John Madeley.

For more information, contact the MRG Press Office on [email protected].