Saturday, December 18, 2004

Stealing a nation

If you missed this Pilger documentary last night, then track it down it watch it. It is the appalling tale of how the Chagos Islanders were forcibly deported from their own country by the British, imprisoned like criminals, then dumped penniless on the docks in Mauritius so that Britain could give their home to the US to build a military base. Nowdays, we'd call this "ethnic clensing" and prosecute those responsible; back then, the British government didn't even pause to think before doing this to its own subjects.

Thirty years later, the Chagosians are still living in the same slum they ended up in. Many have committed suicide or died of "sadness". And they are still fighting for justice - a case in the High Court in London ordered the British government to allow their return. The government's response was first to stall, and then to issue an Order In Council (a decree from the Queen, acting on the command of Cabinet) nullifying any claim they had to their homes. Legally, they have gotten away with it. Morally, it is a shameful act which should hang like an albatross around the neck of the UK until it makes amends.

(The ability to issue an Order In Council without prior statutory authorisation, BTW, is one of the chief reasons New Zealand should become a republic. An OIC can do anything, and due to the process, is effectively done in secret, with no scope for public input. This is incompatible with the democratic principle that laws should be made openly and subjected to public scrutiny.)

The interviews with government figures were interesting. The spokesman for the foreign office talked incessantly about the cost to the British taxpayer of supporting the Chagosians if they returned home; there was simply no conception of an obligation towards the people they had so cruelly disposessed. The Americans, OTOH, simply couldn't understand why anybody would give a shit about the eviction of some wogs thirty years ago, or grasp the concept that justice might apply in small cases as well as large ones. Underneath all this is the logic of the Milian dialogue: "the strong do what they can; the weak suffer what they must".

That idea is an excellent reason to work to constrain powerful nations. If hegemony permits this sort of behaviour, then we shouldn't have hegemons. I know, it's easier said than done, but it is something to aim for.