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Diego Garcia: UK tries to remove right of return from victims of ethnic cleansing

21 June 2004

The British Government has resorted to a little-used colonial power to overturn without debate a court judgement, which had granted the Chagossian islanders, deported en masse by Britain over 30 years ago to make way for a US military base, the right to return to some of their Indian Ocean islands. The government claims that security considerations post 9/11 give priority to the alleged need for the archipelago to continue to be used exclusively by US forces who lease Diego Garcia island from Britain. In justifying their position, the Foreign Office has also claimed that the expense of supporting the islanders would be too high, and alleges risks to them due to the environmental impacts of global warming.

All of the inhabitants (approximately 2000) of the Chagos Archipelago (formerly part of Mauritius) were secretly removed by the UK by 1973, with most being deposited in Mauritius where they and their descendants remain in poverty. A UK court ruling in 2000 found that the constitution of the ‘British Indian Ocean Territory’ did not permit the removal of the population from the territory for military or political reasons, and therefore the initial deportation had been unlawful. At this time the UK government accepted the court ruling, and changed the law to allow the return by Chagossians to some of the islands. However, the government refused to accept that it had a duty to pay compensation to the islanders or allow return to the main island of Diego Garcia (where the US has its base). Since 2000, the UK has, in effect, prevented the return of any islanders to the islands, despite the United Nations requesting (in 2002) that the UK should ensure the islanders’ right of return, and consider compensation. In the last week (with the islanders’ appeal against the rejection of their claim for compensation being heard) the UK has completely reversed its 2000 acceptance of the judgement, by summarily changing the constitution of the territory to the effect that no person has the right to abode or unrestricted access to the islands.

‘The government’s new arguments, that it would be too expensive to provide support to the islanders if they returned, and that the islands are in danger of sinking – not that that prevents the US having a very expensive base there – is irrelevant to the islanders’ essential right to return’, stated MRG’s Head of International Advocacy, Clive Baldwin. ‘The issue of their right to return is a separate question from what compensation and support they are entitled to from the UK government. It is the Chagossians’ choice as to whether to return or not, even if they are informed that they would get no assistance or that their islands are in danger of sinking. Having largely acknowledged the injustices of the past in 2000, the UK is now denying basic rights to a community who have suffered what can only be called ‘ethnic cleansing by stealth’, he added.

MRG suggests that the government’s extraordinary attempt to circumvent the law of the land by invoking an ‘order in council’ to change a constitution in order to overturn a high court decision creates an extremely dangerous precedent. The Diego Garcia case demonstrates a government in effect refusing to comply with a court decision of which it disapproves, instead changing a constitution to ensure that a British territory can expel all of its inhabitants and prevent their return. However, MRG points out that similar actions by governments to change laws when faced with adverse decisions have been held to be a basic violation of the rule of law by international human rights bodies such as the European Court of Human Rights.

Minority Rights Group International believes that the actions of the British government have returned to the practice of British governments since the 1960s, which are in clear breach of basic provisions on international human rights law , including the right of every community to exist, live in its home, and practice its religion and culture. The new UK action is also a violation of the request 2002 from the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee. MRG therefore calls upon the British government to implement the 2000 court judgement immediately, and further that the British and United States governments make immediate arrangements to allow for the return of the Ilois to all the Chagos islands, including Diego Garcia if they so wish.

Notes for editors

Download MRG’s 1985 report ‘Diego Garcia: A contrast to the Falklands‘.

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