Chagos Islanders Lose Battle To Return

Published on
by
The Guardian/UK

Chagos Islanders Lose Battle To Return

Law lords rule 3-2 that islanders evicted in the 1970s cannot go back

by
Duncan Campbell and Matthew Weaver

Chagos islander Olivier Bancoult, who has led the campaign for islanders' return. (Photograph: Graeme Robertson)

LONDON - Chagos islanders evicted by the British government in the 1970s
today lost their long-running battle to return to the Indian Ocean
archipelago.

The islanders had previously won the right to return to all islands except Diego Garcia, the main island, where there is a US military base.

The 3-2 ruling today by the law lords overturns the islanders' victory and is the final stage of a legal battle that started 10 years ago.

Lord Hoffmann ruled the government was entitled to legislate for a colony in the security interests of the United Kingdom.

The US state department had argued that the islands might be useful to terrorists.

Lord
Hoffmann said: "Some of these scenarios might be regarded as fanciful
speculations, but in the current state of uncertainty the government is
entitled to take the concerns of its ally into account."

He
rejected the argument by the Chagossians' lawyers that the government
did not have the power to remove their right of abode in what is now
known as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). "The law gives it
and the law may take it away," he said.

Lord Rodger and Lord Carswell agreed. Lord Bingham and Lord Mance dissented.

Olivier
Bancoult, the evicted islander who put his name to the legal bid when
it started in 1998, said after the ruling: "We are deeply disappointed
but of course we fight on. We are consulting our legal team to see what
we can do."

Bancoult urged ministers to read the statements of
the dissenting judges. "They should put an end to the shameless
victimisation of Chagossians and adopt a lawful policy of facilitating
our return to our homeland."

Britain took the Chagos islands from
France in the Napoleonic wars. In 1971 the British government used an
immigration ordinance to remove the inhabitants compulsorily so Diego
Garcia could be used as a US base.

Both the divisional court and
the court of appeal had previously ruled that the Chagossians could
return to the outer islands. The Foreign Office appealed against those
judgments to the law lords.

The foreign secretary, David Miliband, welcomed today's judgment as a vindication of the government's decision to appeal.

"We
do not seek to excuse the conduct of an earlier generation. Our appeal
to the House of Lords was not about what happened in the 1960s and
1970s. It was about decisions taken in the international context of
2004.

"This required us to take into account issues of defence
[and] security of the archipelago and the fact that an independent
study had come down heavily against the feasibility of lasting
resettlement of the outer islands of BIOT."

In his dissenting
judgment, Lord Bingham declared as void and unlawful a 2004 order to
declare, without the authority of parliament, that no person had the
right of abode in the Chagos islands.

The power to legislate
without going to parliament was "an anachronistic survival", he said.
"The duty of protection cannot ordinarily be discharged by removing and
excluding the citizen from his homeland."

Lord Mance said factors
relied on as justifying the order were based on a "remote and unlikely
risk" of large-scale resettlement of the outer Chagos islands.

Richard
Gifford, who represented the Chagossians, said: "It has been the
misfortune of the Chagos islanders that their passionate desire to
return to their homeland has been caught up in the power politics of
foreign policy for the past 40 years.

"Sadly, their struggle to
regain their paradise lost has been dismissed on legal grounds, but the
political possibilities remain open for parliament the British public
and the international community to continue to support."

The law
lords were told during the hearing in July that Diego Garcia was
regarded by the US since the 9/11 terrorist attacks as a "defence
facility of the highest importance ... a linchpin for the UK's allies".

The Foreign Office argued that allowing the Chagossians to return would be a "precarious and costly" operation, and the United States had said that it would also present an unacceptable risk to its base.

While
there were "undeniably unattractive aspects" to what had happened to
the islanders in the 1970s, that was no longer what the case was about,
Jonathan Crow QC, for the foreign secretary, told the lords. "The
Chagossians do not own any territory," Crow said. "They have no
property rights on the islands at all. What is being asserted is a
right of mass trespass."

Ten years ago the Chagossians began legal action for the right to return, and in 2000 the divisional court ruled their eviction illegal .
The foreign secretary at the time, Robin Cook, agreed they should be
allowed to return to all the islands except Diego Garcia. But after the
September 11 attacks in 2001, the US said Diego Garcia had become an
important base for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In 2004, the
UK government issued orders in council that negated the court's ruling,
but two years later the high court ruled in favour of the Chagossians.
In May last year the government lost again at appeal. In November the
lords granted the government leave to appeal but ordered it to pay all
legal costs, regardless of the decision.

A recent study found the
small number of islanders likely to want to return to the archipelago
permanently would be able to make a sustainable living.

The
study, backed by the Let Them Return campaign and written by John
Howell, a former director of the Overseas Development Institute,
suggested there were "no physical, economic or environmental reasons"
to prevent resettlement on the islands of Peros Banhos and Salomon.

Howell
suggested about 150 families - fewer than 1,000 people and about a
quarter of those entitled to go back - would want to return.
Eco-tourism and fish exports could provide jobs and income. The total
cost to the UK of resettlement would be about £25m, the report said.

 

 

 

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