Chagos Islanders vow to fight on

Thousands of destitute Indian Ocean islanders claiming compensation for being evicted from their homes by the UK Government more than 30 years ago lost their claims for compensation in the High Court last week following a three-year legal battle.

The case concerned the forced removal by the Government of around 2,000 islanders from the group of islands in the Indian Ocean between 1967 and 1973. Mr Justice Ouseley acknowledged that some of the islanders had been “treated shamefully by successive UK governments” when the UK evicted them to make way for a US military base on Diego Garcia at the height of the Cold War. However, his judgment after a 37-day hearing was also highly critical of their legal action, in which a number of the Chagossian witnesses gave “deliberately false evidence on a number of issues”.

The islanders, together with descendents who now number in the region of 5,000, were born in the islands and claimed compensation, the restoration of their property rights and the right to return to their homeland. They argued that the UK Government and the Commissioner of the British Indian Ocean Territory refused to recognise that there were any permanent inhabitants on the islands and failed to consult them about their wishes. Their lawyers contended that the Government did not follow due process of law and argued that the exiling of the islanders to Mauritius and the Seychelles was unlawful and in breach of the UN Charter and of the Magna Carta.

The Chagos Islanders had already won a legal victory against the Government. In 1971, the ‘Immigration Ordinance’ was made by the British Indian Ocean Territories, which prevented the return of the islanders. In November 2000, the High Court ruled that the order was unlawful, describing the operation as “an abject legal failure”.

Despite that, Judge Ouseley found that there were no grounds for bringing the claim. “Justice does not require an obviously unmeritorious case to be allowed to proceed,” he said in a 750-page judgment. “Ill treatment does not require a hopeless case to be allowed to continue. Indeed, to raise false hopes would not be fair. There’s every good reason to avoid the waste of public money and court resources which the continuation of hopeless claims or contentions would otherwise create.”

The islanders’ solicitor, Richard Gifford of Sheridans Solicitors in London, said his clients were in “a state of shock”, but would “certainly continue their struggle”. The claimants have been given four months to prepare arguments for permission to appeal.

See: Chagos Islanders v Attorney-General and British Indian Ocean Territory Commissioner