The Chagos Archipelago, in the north of the Indian Ocean, is of strategic importance because of its position between Africa, the Middle East and Asia. An area of great beauty and abundance, the archipelago has however known one of the most sombre episodes in the region’s history, with a people caught up in an injustice that destroyed their whole way of life.
Sand, sea and coconut trees – the Archipelago is made up of more than 60 separate islands and remained untouched until the middle of the 18th century when the islands were colonised by the French, who created coconut plantations there. Today this ocean paradise has returned to its natural state. Except for a few ruins on some of the islands – an abandoned and dilapidated church and a dwelling on Boddam Island and a plaque commemorating the visit of Chagossians in 2006 – it would be easy to believe that no-one had ever landed on the sandy foreshores where birds and coconut crabs reign supreme. And yet…
Several generations of slaves and their descendants have been born there, brought over to help in the production of coconut oil. Generation followed generation, building up and developing a way of life, a culture and traditions specific to the Chagos, as contact with the outside world was limited – to such an extent in fact that during the First World War, by when the archipelago was under British rule, it only received mail twice a year. It all led to a rather ironical situation, where Chagossians received and provisioned a German ship with supplies without realising that they were dealing with an enemy vessel.
In the 1960s, as Mauritius began to move towards independence, the United States identified an exceptional opportunity. They had no base in the Indian Ocean and the Chagos seemed strategically ideally situated to house a military base, an assessment confirmed by the country’s successive engagement in conflicts in Vietnam, Afghanistan and then Iraq. After lengthy negociations with Great Britain and Mauritian political leaders, the Chagos were detached from Mauritius in return for the payment of compensation and with the idea that the islands would be handed back once they were no longer needed for defence purposes.
What followed was a particularly painful period in the history of the Indian Ocean. Two thousand Chagossians, whom the British did not classify as permanent residents, were expelled from the Archipelago to Seychelles and Mauritius. They thus found themselves moved to islands whose culture and economy were different to their own, and without housing, work or money. In the face of such injustice, the Chagossians tried to get their voices heard, organising demonstrations, marches and hunger strikes. It led in 1975 to the first case being lodged against this forced deportation. One of the islanders, Michel Vencatessen, brought his case to the High Court in London a year later. Without success.
For a long time, this drama failed to attract any international attention and it wasn’t until the start of this century that things began to change. The Chagossians and their descendants had far from abandoned their struggle or their desire to return to their native lands. Ironically, the Americans have nicknamed their base on Diego Garcia as the Footprint of Freedom. The islanders have staged one action after another, experiencing many ups and downs along the way. Olivier Bancoult, leader of the Chagos Refugee Group and himself a Chagossian, has been in the forefront of the fight. “No-one can be prevented from entering his own country. We do not understand why other people can live there and not us,” he explains. Fundamental rights under international law and in Magna Carta support these sentiments. Backed by the ANC and Nelson Mandela, and assisted for several years by Amal Clooney, a British-Lebanese human rights expert, he managed to alert the highest international judicial authorities to this human drama. Effectively, the International Criminal Court declared in 2002 that a deportation or transfer of a population is a crime against humanity. Unfortunately for the case, that judgement was not retroactive.
In 2010, when the British government decided to create the world’s largest maritime conservation zone in its British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) – hampering the Chagossians right to return – the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled such action illegal. This led to fresh negotiations between Mauritius and the British government, negotiations which are still ongoing.
In 2017, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution requesting the International Court of Justice to render an advisory opinion on the legal consequences arising from the separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius before the Indian Ocean island nation’s independence in the 1960s. The decision was adopted by a recorded vote of 94 in favour to 15 against, with 65 abstentions. This session, which was held in The Hague from 3 to 6 September, was of in some ways different as it was the Mauritian government itself this time that led the fight. Supported by the majority of the countries present, with the exception of countries like Australia, the United States and Israel, the Mauritian government managed to promote its stance, emphasising that the prime consideration should be a country’s complete decolonisation.
Why, after so many judgements in favour of the Chagossians, does the issue still drag on? Lawyer Robin Mardemootoo, who has been giving bro bono support to the Chagos Refugee Group since 1997, explains: “In conformity with international law, Great Britain and the United States need to agree to be sued for the decision to be binding and they have refused to be sued.” For Olivier Bancoult, this session should take matters forward and open the way to possible solutions. “The American base is located on Diego Garcia but the atolls of Peros Banhos and Salomon are some distance from there.”
It would not therefore be unreasonable to conceive of a return to these atolls by the Chagossians and to propose, for example, leasing Diego Garcia to the Americans. In anticipation of a verdict that could take months to be reached, the Chagossians’ fight on…
The Chagossians’ struggle remains a burning issue and has attracted widespread support from, amongst others, socially-engaged artists. While Ton Vié sang about his uprooting from his native land in his Peros Vert, other artists joined in, including the group Cassiya with their song, Diego, and more recently Zulu with a song of the same name.
The struggle is not confined to musicians but now also includes the work of the photographer Audrey Albert, herself of Chagossian descent. Immersed in her grandparents’ culture from a young age, she has carried out extensive research for her Matter Out of Place project, which has been shown in three exhibitions (in Manchester and Arles), and which has worked on to give a voice to her ancestors and explore and understand their roots. As she explains, her favourite themes are “the displacement of an individual, mixed cultures and the search for identity.” It is a battle in which she engages with strength and sensitivity.