Shockingly the Law Lords reversed an earlier judgement that the deported population of the Chagos Islands could return to their homeland. Between 1967 and 1971 they were illegally removed by the British government so that the island of Diego Garcia could be handed over to the US as a major airbase. Most islanders went to Mauritius, but some came to the UK. Whilst some don’t want to return others are keen to do so, and have been finding a long campaign to be allowed back. In 200o the then Foreign Secretary accepted the result of a court case saying they could return, but in the fallout of 9/11 US security paranoia led to pressure being placed on the UK to change their policy and contest the Chagossians right of return. The islanders continued to take their fight through the courts and the UK government has consistently opposed them, despite admitting that the way they were initially treated was wrong. The government fought their case on the basis that resettlement would be a security risk to the US airbase and the cost of resettlement would be too costly. Both these arguements are profoundly flawed. The islanders are not demanding to be allowed to reoccupy Diego Garcia (DG), just the outer islands. It is hard to see how they can form any kind of security risk; if the US are unable to contain any potential threats from 150 impoverished Chagossian thinly spread across a isolated islands some over 100 miles from DG, then one wonders how they expect to be able to fight global terrorism. They don’t seem too worried about locating their Guantanamo Bay prison home to many hardened terrorists (hem hem) on Cuba, on an island controlled by a Communist administration with a history of ‘difficult’ relations with the US. The cost of resettlement needn’t be an obstacle either. A report has shown that there this would be a feasible process. The former main crop of the island was copra, and there are many abandoned palm plantations scattered across the islands which could be used to produce palm oil, whilst there are good fisheries offshore. Combined with a carefully developed eco-tourism industry (the area is rich in wildlife) it could easily be economically viable for the small population. (see here for the Chagos Conservation Trust’s critical but constructive comment on the Howell Report).
The Chagossians will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights but it is difficult to feel optimistic. What is so depressing is that even through the UK government admit that the original removal of the population was manifestly unjust they refuse to do the decent thing and let the islanders return, and instead defer ironically to the security demands of the so-called war on terror. All in all, a shameful and squalid affair back in 1967 and a shameful and squalid affair today.