With these words Ed Miliband opened his conference speech, addressing Alan Henning’s murder and the rise of the Islamic State. Putting this particular context aside, the sentiment Miliband was expressing is worth remembering as the little-known plight of the Chagossian islanders nears it’s fiftieth year.
You’ll be forgiven if you’re not familiar with the Chagossians. The declining number of islanders and the relatively small media platform they have, often means they’re left on the sidelines of political debate.
However, their tragic history is well worth understanding.
The Chagos Archipelago is in the Indian Ocean; it includes the renowned atoll Diego Garcia (infamously linked to US rendition flights) and others that make up the British Indian Ocean Territory. This group of islands were populated by people (known collectively as the Chagossians or Chagos islanders) whose ancestors were originally brought to the area as slaves over one hundred and fifty years ago.
Throughout the 1960’s Harold Wilson’s government forcibly displaced the islanders – telling some they were going on holiday, only to bar them from ever returning home, and violently threatening others, even gassing their pet dogs as a ‘warning’, until they agreed to leave. These islands were then, and continue to be, used as US military bases.
Many, including more recently Labour MP and former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott, have condemned this brutal, unlawful expulsion and supported the Chagossians in their ongoing campaign to return home.
Yet, whenever the islanders seem to have cracked open a door to justice, they’re met with a brick wall.
In 2000 the High Court found the exile of the Chagossians unlawful and ordered that they return to 65 of the islands, excluding Diego Garcia, which remains a US stronghold. But the Labour government bulldozed this ruling with an Order in Council, which although ruled unlawful by the High Court and then the Court of Appeal, was held up by the Lords. Then, in 2010 Foreign Secretary David Miliband also ruled against the Chagossians’ return, declaring the islands a ‘marine protected area’.
When the Coalition came to power it initially seemed as if the Chagossians would finally get justice, albeit limited. William Hague, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable all showed signs that they were willing to right this historic wrong. Yet four years on, the Government are still dragging their feet.
A positive Labour intervention in the islanders’ case is long overdue. At the end of January, KPMG are going to produce a report that is likely to explain it is, despite contrary evidence, feasible for the Chagossians to return to their homes. Labour must use this as ammunition to pressure the Government into supporting the islanders’ return.
It would be easy to dismiss this as an unimportant issue, particularly in an election year. But calling for justice for the Chagossians is by no means by an electorally damaging issue (particularly as both senior Tories and Lib Dems have loosely backed the case).
What’s more, given past Labour government’s damning role in the Chagossians fate, it is only right the leadership should finally back resettlement.
Ultimately, however, this is bigger than election strategies or trying to right past wrongs; the islanders’ plight strikes directly to the heart of the internationalism Miliband has spoken of time and again. Enough court battles have been fought, enough words have been written and far too many years have passed in this tragic case that never should have been: it’s time Labour took action.