Law lords fail to right wrong done to Chagos

 

OPINION:Evicted by the British to make way for a US military base, 2,000 islanders have lost their quest for justice, writes Peadar King

WHILE I cannot be quite certain, I can imagine Aurelie Talate in her Mauritian home reaching for her cigarettes and almost lethargically lighting one after another and drawing heavily on each as she quietly but resolutely contemplates Wednesday's split decision by Britain's law lords that will probably seal her long longed-for wish to return to the home of her birth.

Talate is an extraordinarily brave woman. I first met her almost a year ago when her hopes of return to the land of her birth from which she was forcefully and illegally evacuated over 30 years ago were still very much alive. Burdened by a lifelong addiction to nicotine - she started when she was 14 - and a kind of pervasive sadness, neither of which she carries lightly, her frail frame belies a steely determination.

Her stark story involves political and military intrigue, geo-political manoeuvrings and fundamental violation of human rights that stretch across three continents and over four decades.

This is not just her story, but that of a whole people displaced by bureaucratic and political apparatchiks unable or unwilling to imagine the shocking consequences of their actions.

Just south of the equator in the middle of the Indian Ocean lie the Chagos Islands. Diego Garcia is the largest of the 65-island archipelago and the birthplace of Talate.

These islands have been at the centre of global power struggles for centuries. Wellington's victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815 marked the end of French influence and the beginning of British colonial rule that continues to this day.

In 1966, as Mauritius was about to assert its independence from Britain, then Labour prime minister Harold Wilson sold the island of Diego Garcia, the biggest and most populated of the Chagos Islands, to the United States for a 50-year lease with an option to extend.

In return, the US government provided Britain with Polaris nuclear missiles below the market value - missiles that are still in place today.

Both governments connived in the fiction that the islands were uninhabited, except for what one British official at the time said were a few Tarzans or Men Fridays, and some contract labourers.

The reality was that 2,000 people had for generations lived there, all of whom were forcibly removed to accommodate a US military base from which the first Gulf war and the war on Afghanistan were launched.

To accommodate the construction of the US military base, Talate and her six children were among the 2,000 people dumped in squalid slums on Mauritius. Her memories of life on Diego Garcia are perhaps understandably tinged with nostalgia.

Centenarian Felicie Mandarin, now blind, was over 60 years of age when she was forced out. She remembers a time of plenty, food, water, work and rest. Still defiant after all these years, she too wanted to go home.

Aurelie was pregnant when she was evicted in 1973 and was gripped by what the islanders call "the sadness" - a grief that found expression in dejection, disorientation and even in suicide. Two of her children died soon after arriving in Mauritius.

But soon, that pervasive sadness gave way to defiance and the islanders began to organise. The 1980s were marked by hunger strikes and Talate went without food for 18 days. Then they took their campaign to the courts, and soon senior legal figures in Mauritius began to speak out. Gross intimidation and gross inhumanity was how former chief justice Rajsoomer Lallah characterised what happened to the Chagos Islanders.

The islanders took the British government to court in London. Sensationally, the court found that the government had acted illegally. Then, led by prime minister Tony Blair, the government appealed and, in a stinging rebuke of government policies, the courts again found in favour of the islanders.

In a last throw of the legal dice, the government appealed to the House of Lords, and 40 years of resistance was determined by five law lords. Two - Lords Bingham and Mance - voted in favour of the islanders' right of return but, critically, three - Lords Hoffmann, Carswell and Rodger - voted against.

Thereby hangs the fate of a people. Three-two.

And then, from the Chagos islanders' perspective, the galling self-serving rhetoric of a third generation of Labour politicians. This time it's David Miliband, British foreign secretary. There were the now-mandatory expressions of regret, but they can never disguise the palpable sense of relief that underpinned his public utterances, not to mention his disassociation from the messiness of the past.

"Our appeal to the House of Lords was not about what happened in the 1960s and 1970s," he claimed. Rather, the government's decision was rooted in the "defence/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".

Magnanimously, it would appear that Miliband wanted to protect the people against themselves. Such Orwellian justifications do nothing to diminish the bitter disappointment of the people of the Chagos, who have struggled so valiantly over the last 40 years.

Now, Talate is left to contemplate her future. Maybe there are worse things than a lifelong addiction to cigarettes. Maybe it is not so much tobacco as the fickleness of politicians and the rulings of unelected elites that should carry government health warnings.

• Peadar King's documentary, The Chagos Islands are Closed, was broadcast this year