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Crunch time for Philippe’s island case

16 May, 2019 — By John Gulliver

Chagos Islands protest in Trafalgar Square last July. Photo: David Holt, Creative Commons

FOR 10 years lawyer Philippe Sands fought a seemingly unwinnable war in the vaulted halls of the International Court of Justice in The Hague against the British state – a case he describes as a highlight in his career.

At stake was the fate of the Chagos Islands and several thousand islanders whose families Britain had forced from the African archipelago, more than 50 years ago, to make way for a US military base.

Then earlier this year the court’s stunning decision to strike down Britain’s claim over the islands, trashing each of its legal arguments in a stern opinion by the 15-judge panel on which the only dissenter was American. Philippe Sands, who lives in Hampstead, and his Chagossians must have beamed.

Britain said it would ignore The Hague. Unprecedented – that is a move that makes Britain “a rogue” state outside the law warned Philippe Sands when I talked to him this week over the phone.

Next week the issue will come to a head when the UN’s General Assembly vote on The Hague’s decision.

Theresa May is believed to be trying to cobble a majority in support of Britain’s position but it looks as doomed as Brexit.

If it loses – which looks likely – Britain could be ostracised from UN organisations until it complies.

“Britain’s control of the islands is straightforward colonialism,” Philippe Sands told me. “There is no moral distinction between keeping them and the 19th-century colonies.”

The dispute flared in 1965 when Britain belatedly gave Mauritius independence but held on to the islands.

Philippe Sands: ‘It’s straightforward colonialism’

Backroom dealings in which the Mauritians were illegally leaned on were endorsed by Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Philippe Sands pointed out.

Even as Mauritius complained, British troops pushed the 1,500 islanders onto transport ships forcing them to leave behind anything they couldn’t pack in a suitcase.

Many of the Chagossians ended up in Crawley and are still fighting for British passports. I would see them on May Day as they protested annually in Clerkenwell Green, Islington.

Then a decade ago a phone call to Sands came from a retired Mauritian politician. They wanted a British lawyer who wasn’t afraid to take on the state – was he up to it?

“I had just published my book in which I concluded the Iraq war was completely illegal, so I think they took that into account,” he explained, speaking from a tiny French village where he is finishing his latest book based on his recent BBC radio series about Nazis in post-war Europe, called the Ratline.

Winning back the islands was “one of two or three career highlights” along with the arrest of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet at Hampstead Magistrates’ Court and control of whaling in the Antarctic.

“The Chagossians have waited for 50 years for some kind of justice. I sat in court with Madame [Liseby] Elyse, who was forced from the island. She is an amazing and courageous lady who just wants to go home.

“She sat next to me and we were holding hands under the seat. It was really emotional for me.”

The case got to The Hague because Britain lost the diplomatic support of other EU countries, which he attributed to Brexit. And he expects most of the EU to vote against Britain again in the General Assembly next Wednesday.

“It is quite likely that Mauritius will get the islands back,” he said. “Diego Garcia will stay a US base – Mauritius has said there are many other islands the Chagossians can return to.”

He thought that Britain’s “determination is really about holding on to a territory it thinks gives it some leverage. It’s ego and vanity.”

Britain though has generally been a “force for good in international law” which is what he tells his students at London University in Bloomsbury.

“The diminution of Britain is not a joyous thing. Who’s going to fill the gap?”


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