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Review: The Last Colony by Philippe Sands

16 October 2023

By Jeremy Dewar

Between 1969 and 1973, Britain deported 1,500 islanders from their homes on the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean. Many of them were descendants of African slaves, brought to the islands to work on coconut plantations, first by the Portuguese, then by the French. Twice removed from their homes, on both occasions they were cruelly treated as non-humans by European powers.

Philippe Sands has written an immensely readable book about their plight and fight for the right to return. Openly partisan – Sands acted as international lawyer for Mauritius in 2010-19 – his account exposes perfidious Albion’s lies to the United Nations, its determination to cling onto its colonial legacy, the true nature of the Commonwealth, British government’s cynical use of the environmental crisis and its refusal to abide by the rule of law.

Sands’ story starts in the 1940s. Winston Churchill had agreed to decolonisation in principle by signing the Atlantic Charter with Roosevelt and Stalin in 1941, but thought it should only apply to Germany. But in 1945 the universal right to self-determination was written into Chapter XI of the founding Charter of the United Nations. A year later, at the Nuremburg trials, ‘forcible deportation’ was declared a ‘crime against humanity’. But Britain had no intention of applying these principles to Africa.

Africans of course thought differently. A decade of liberation struggles broke out in Ghana, Algeria, Kenya and many other colonies. Only in 1960 did the General Assembly of the UN pass resolution 1514, the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. This included the statement that ‘any attempt at the partial or total disruption of territorial integrity’ by the colonial power before liberation was illegal. The Irish chair of the UN was clearly delighted, given the tragedy of partition there; Britain was not.

Mauritius had been ceded from France to Britain after the fall of Napoleon. That included possession of the Chagos islands, 1,000 miles away. But while negotiating Mauritius’ independence, Britain entered into secret talks with the US about the use of Diego Garcia, the biggest island in the archipelago, to use as a military and air base in the Cold War.

Labour prime minister Harold Wilson felt the need to do the US a favour after his failure to win Labour to the idea of British military participation for the US war in Vietnam. He readily agreed to remove the indigenous population – not only from Diego Garcia, as the US requested, but all the Chagos islands. Offering Mauritius £3 million in compensation, Wilson aimed to ‘frighten them with hope’. A brand new African colony, the British Indian Ocean Territories, was formed in 1965 at the height of the continent’s liberation struggle. They told the international community a brazen lie – that there were no inhabitants on these islands

Nevertheless, in the following two years the UN passed three resolutions demanding Britain hand over sovereignty. The UK ignored them all. Instead it started the deportations in 1967, first of those islanders who were working in Mauritius that the islands were ‘closed’. Then in 1969 Diego Garcia was ‘emptied’. Finally in 1973 the rest were told to leave at four hours notice, allowing them only one piece of luggage and ‘no pets’.

As Sands demonstrates, the exiled Chagossians have never given up their desire to return to their homeland. Forced into a refugee camp in Port Louis, in Mauritius, and a small community centred in Crawley, Sussex, they brought a series of largely unsuccessful cases before the British courts. But they kept their culture and customs alive.

Meanwhile Wikileaks revealed yet another huge lie. Diego Garcia was not only used for ‘routine’ naval operations and training. Bombers and fighter jets were launched from its runways to bomb Iraq in 2003. The island base was also used for ‘extraordinary renditions’ during the ‘war on terror’ in the years following, where suspects were ‘interrogated from time to time’, i.e. tortured.

Labour Foreign Secretaries Jack Straw and David Miliband felt the need to do something to silence the growing clamour for complete decolonisation. First in 2006 they insultingly offered ‘heritage visits’ and more compensation to the islanders. The visits backfired as the Chagossians discovered that their homes and even graveyards had been totally abandoned to the wild. They spent their allotted four hours ashore cleaning up the colonial power’s mess.

In a final act of defiance Miliband devised a cunning plan. In 2010 he proposed to create a Marine Protected Area (MPA) covering half a million square kilometres around the islands, heralded at the time by environmental NGOs as ‘a historic victory for global conservation’. Privately US and British diplomats told each other (again revealed by Assange’s Wikileaks) that this would ‘put paid to resettlement claims’ forever.

But the final solution backfired. Mauritius was fired into action. They knew that they would be unable to take the UK to the international court in The Hague, because Britain had excused itself from any judgements resulting from cases brought against it by Commonwealth member states. Mauritius considered leaving the Commonwealth but Britain, getting wind of this, amended its obligations to international law by extending its veto to include any former Commonwealth nations.

But even this imperialist ruse failed to stop Mauritius and the Chagossians’ fight for justice. First in 2015 the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea found that Miliband’s MPA ‘violated the law of decolonisation’. The islands rightfully belonged to Mauritius. Then in 2019, using the General Council’s right to pose ‘advisory questions’ at the Hague, they received near unanimous consent that Chagos was ‘inseparable’ from Mauritius, decolonisation was ‘not completed’, the population was ‘forcibly removed’ and Britain must take ‘immediate measures’ to vacate the islands.

This book is a must-read for anyone who is at all taken in by Britain and America’s claims to be world forces for democracy, who abide by international law and denounce the taking of other peoples’ land. The conclusion to this saga is that socialists and democrats throughout the world, but especially in Britain, must fight to expose the crimes against humanity committed in ‘our’ name and solidarise with all those fighting colonialism – from Chagos to Ireland and beyond.

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