Sunday 14 August 2022

Laced With Human Empathy

The liberation of the Chagos Islands would undo a terrible wrong perpetrated by two previous Labour Governments, and specifically by two supposed “Lost Leaders”, Denis Healey and David Miliband. But what, exactly, would Mauritius do for the Chagossian people? That is not a rhetorical question. Still, Tim Adams reviews The Last Colony by Philippe Sands: 

The human rights lawyer Philippe Sands first encountered Liseby Elysé at the great hall of the international court of justice in The Hague in September 2018. Elysé, a diminutive figure, dressed in mourning black, clutching her handbag, was then 65 and the story of her life is also the story of this book.

Elysé had been called to the court by Sands to represent the people of the Chagos Islands, the Indian Ocean archipelago from which, in 1973, the entire population was forcibly removed by the British colonial administration in order that a US military base could be established on one of the islands, Diego Garcia.

Elysé spoke to the 14 international judges of the court about that history for just under four minutes. No one present would forget her statement. First, she recalled, the British shut down the islands’ plantations and cut off food supplies to the remembered paradise of her childhood. The hundreds of Chagossian families were told that they had no option but to leave by ship by 27 April 1973 or slowly starve.

“We were like animals in that slave ship,” she remembered of her 20-year-old self. “People were dying of sadness.” Elysé was four months pregnant. Her child was subsequently stillborn. From that day onwards, Elysé and all the people on the ship had been unable to return to the place where their families had lived for generations.

Many of those families were watching a live stream of her testimony in a community centre in Mauritius, where most had settled. Those with the longest memories were in tears when their representative told the court: “My heart is suffering and my heart still belongs to the island where I was born.” 

Sands, who was leading the Chagossians’ repatriation case against the British government – and the ongoing claims of Mauritius that the islands are part of their nation – uses Elysé’s personal history to explore the wider tragedy and scandal of the place now officially known as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).

His case highlights the post-colonial hypocrisy that continues to use UN human rights conventions as a basis for sovereign self-determination of the people of the Falkland Islands, or Gibraltar, but which for decades has wholly disregarded the application of those conventions in the case of the Chagossians. 

Sands’s book began as a series of lectures delivered to The Hague Academy of International Law, and as a narrative it betrays those discursive origins. While examining the displacement of the island people, many of whom have died in exile, Sands also sketches out the history of the international court of justice in The Hague, and its incremental role in dismantling colonial structures around the world, the inching forward of freedoms.

Sands makes a steely and forensic case, laced with human empathy, against successive British foreign ministers. He does this in the context of his own journey of discovery about postwar human rights that led him, for example, to be a critical voice in the investigations of the unsafe legal basis for the invasion of Iraq. The origin of those convictions, as he sets them out, lay in the brutal knowledge that two of his great-grandmothers, both widows, had been deported from Vienna to die in Theresienstadt and Treblinka during the Holocaust.

His history of British exceptionalism in these matters goes back to the 1945 Yalta conference, in which the new world order – and the parameters of the cold war – were established. Churchill’s words to Roosevelt and Stalin ring down the decades to our present moment: “I will have no suggestion that the British empire is to be put in the dock and examined by everybody to see if it is up to their standard,” the prime minister said. “Never. Never. Never… Every scrap of territory over which the British flag flies is immune.” 

If the history of British foreign affairs in the subsequent 75 years could be written as the reluctant erosion of that infamous delusion, then the case of the Chagos Islanders is one of its last chapters. Sands makes a steely and forensic case, laced with human empathy, against successive British foreign ministers, including Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt and Liz Truss, who have done everything in their power to try to make the Chagossians’ case go away, to refuse to accept that the last knockings of empire be subject to international justice.

In 2019, as a result of the hearings involving Elysé’s testimony, the judges at The Hague stated that the UK is under “…an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible, and that all member states must cooperate with the United Nations to complete the decolonisation of Mauritius”. 

At the same time that Brexiter government ministers were standing up in parliament to suggest that international law could be broken in certain circumstances and Tories boasted about plans to tear up human rights, the UN general assembly voted by an overwhelming majority in favour of setting a six-month deadline for the UK to withdraw from the Chagos Archipelago. The ruling hardly made the news.

Sands’s book, which comes with typically pointed and scabrous illustration by The Guardian’s Martin Rowson, is an important and welcome corrective to that indifference. On Valentine’s Day this year, a delegation including the Mauritian ambassador to the UN raised the Mauritian flag on the Chagossian atoll of Peros Banhos in a move regarded as a formal challenge to British sovereignty.

Sands was in the group that landed on Peros Banhos; so was Liseby Elysé, along with five other islanders, the first exiles to set foot on the beaches of their homeland for half a century. On the island they came across a tarnished metal plaque signed by the “BIOT commissioner’s representative” engraved with the age-old landowner’s and colonialist’s mantra, that “trespassers will be prosecuted”. As Sands’s book makes clear, and despite Britain’s shameful intractability, there is now not a judge in all the world to uphold that threat.


  1. This story should be known by everyone in Britain.