On 25 February, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) rejected the UK’s claim over the sovereignty of the Chagos Islands. The court found that the UK’s separation of the islands from Mauritius during the 1960s was “unlawful detachment” and a “wrongful act”. The UK must now return the islands to Mauritius “as rapidly as possible”.
Though advisory, the judgement brings the Chagos Islanders a significant step closer to returning home.
Britain’s not-so-noble empire
The British empire, so the myth goes, ended well over half a century ago. Clement Attlee, for example, claimed in 1960 that there was “only one empire where… the ruling people has voluntarily surrendered” its power, giving people their “freedom”.
But for the Chagos Islanders, nothing could be further from the truth. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as journalist John Pilger reported:
the British Government of Harold Wilson expelled the entire population of the Chagos Islands, a British crown colony in the Indian Ocean, to make way for an American military base on Diego Garcia, the largest island. In high secrecy, the Americans offered a discounted Polaris nuclear submarine as payment for use of the islands.
Their interests, however, collide with those of the US military. As The Canary reported in 2018:
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According to a confidential US State Department letter to the UK Foreign Office, allowing the Chagos Islanders to return “would significantly downgrade the strategic importance of a vital military asset unique in the region”. US bombers, for instance, used Diego Garcia to attack Iraq and Afghanistan. The airbase also functioned as a CIA black-site, upon which US secret services detained “high-value suspects” with the “full cooperation” of the UK government. The US, moreover, plans to expand the base.
Diego Garcia, known as “Camp Justice” by the US, is therefore a site of converging imperialist tragedies.
They have suffered for so long and fought so valiantly for their human right to live where they were born and grew up.
The UK government has not only dispossessed the Chagos Islanders of their homeland, though. In 2018, the UK Home Office threatened “to deport grandchildren of evicted Chagossians” within the context of PM Theresa May’s ‘hostile environment‘ policy.
The ICJ’s latest judgement suggests that Corbyn is on the right side of history – again.
A step towards justice
While the Chagos Islanders’ battle is far from over, the ICJ’s judgement presents a significant step towards justice. And the UK’s likely refusal to observe its decision will only bring further shame to an already appalling chapter in British history.
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