R v Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, ex p Bancoult (No.2)

Louis Olivier Bancoult outside the UK Supreme Court

For many years, the sovereignty of the Chagos Islands have been in dispute. You may have come across the case of Bancoult (No.2) in your studies of constitutional and administrative law. You’ll find it in relation to prerogative power and judicial review. When I first encountered this case, I’m ashamed to admit that it simply went up on that long list of other cases which we need to learn to pass the exam. However, beneath its unassuming case name, there is a more unnerving story to be uncovered.

Along with the recent protests supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, there have been repeated calls for increased awareness of the Britain’s colonial history. Now, more than ever, it is important for everyone to become more educated about Britain’s colonial past.

Whilst this is a legal blog, I firmly believe that it is a responsibility for us all to have an understand the society that we operate in. I won’t be writing about the law today. Instead, I want to use the circumstances of this case to bring to light what I believe is an important historical event which should not be forgotten.

What happened to the Chagos Islands?

I was recently reminded of Bancoult (No.2)and decided to read further into the underlying facts behind the case. I’ve realised that Bancoult (No.2) is not simply a case demonstrating a specific point for a constitutional law exam. Behind this case lies a disturbing side to Britain’s colonial history with its consequences still apparent today.

The Chagos Islands are a group of islands located in the Indian Ocean. Although this is a long way from the UK, it is still directly relevant to those in the UK.

The Chagos Islands were a part of the French colony of Mauritius which was taken over by the British Empire in 1814. Following this, companies brought slaves over from Madagascar and Mozambique to work on the coconut plantations. This continued for many years until the abolition of the slave trade. Following this, many descendants of the earlier slaves remained there and built up communities on the islands.

150 years later, between 1963 and 1965, the US was looking for a suitable location for a naval base from which they could operate. At this time, Britain owed a $14 million debt to the US for research & development fees in relation to the Polaris missile programme.

Britain realised that they could reduce their debt if they offered up the Chagos Archipelago as a site for the US. The island of Diego Garcia was the largest island in the Chagos Archipelago and was selected as a potential area for development of an US base.

Purchase of the Chagos Islands for £3m

In 1965, the UK bought the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius for £3 million. This became known as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). In 1968, Mauritius gained independence from the British Empire.

Because the Chagos Islands were no longer part of Mauritius, the UK retained control over them. This was with the long term goal of closing the plantations and leasing the island of Diego Garcia to the US.

Eviction of Chagossians

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, 1,500 – 2,000 Chagossians were forcibly removed from the island and forced to relocate. This was to make way for the US to build their naval base on the island. The evicted Chagossians relocated to other islands such as Mauritius and the Seychelles. Many of these Chagossians ended up living in poverty having been deported without compensation, or resettlement assistance,

Since then, then the Chagossians have never been allowed to return. Civilians nor journalists are allowed to visit the island.

The Chagos Islands today

Following the eviction of Chagossians, the development of the US naval base went ahead. It is occupied mainly by British and American soldiers and those who work in connection with the military activities there.

US military base on Diego Garcia
United States Air Force photograph by: SrA Rebeca M. Luquin.

If you search for the Chagos Archipelago on Google, you can see exactly how the US and UK have taken over the islands by looking at their ethnic make-up.

Google search card for the Chagos Archipelago

Since the eviction of the Chagossians, there have been several court rulings regarding the sovereignty of the Chagos Islands. The International Court of Justice has ruled that the UK was obliged to end its administration over the islands. However, because the rulings of the ICJ are only advisory, the UK does not need follow the ruling. Today, the islands remain under the control of the UK and the US military base.

Chagossians and their children obtained the right to British passports in 2002, but many still endure poor living conditions in the UK, with little support.

Louis Olivier Bancoult was one of those evicted from the islands when he was aged 4. Bancoult sought to challenge the prohibition on Chagossians returning to inhabit the island. Bancoult (No.2) bears his name. It is often referred to when learning about judicial review and prerogative power.

What we can learn from this

Despite the ruling against his appeal, the issues surrounding the Chagos Islands demonstrates one of the darker sides of British colonialism. Few, if not any children will have learnt or heard about this at school.

Yet it has left a scar on a generation of people living today. Together with the events of the Windrush Scandal, it is clear that an better awareness of colonial history is needed. It is unacceptable that the current history curriculum puts very little emphasis on British colonial history.

I’d encourage you to go out and find out more about colonial history and discuss it with others. Educating ourselves and learning from history can be some of the most important steps which can lead to lasting change.

Find out more

Please visit sources below if you’d like to learn more about the Chagos Islands:

Visit the UK Chagos Support Association website to find out more about the history of Chagos and the Chagossians’ stories.

Listen to Olivier Louis Bancoult speak about his experiences:

Johnny Harris (producer of Vox Borders) has recently made a brilliant video explaining the history of the Chagos islands.

The Guardian has published several articles about the ongoing dispute over the sovereignty of the Chagos Islands. These date back to November 2000 and you can find them here.


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