(London) - In 2022, Charles III became king not just of the United Kingdom, but of 14 other states, and Head of the Commonwealth. He now heads a monarchy that is starting to face questions about its role in British imperial atrocities, such as slavery, and, as he has said, concerning which it is time to "acknowledge the wrongs that have shaped our past."
There is an ongoing, colonial crime that he could acknowledge, help rectify and apologise for today. That crime is the forced displacement of the entire Chagossian people from their homeland in the Indian Ocean by the UK and US governments in the 1960s and 70s. This colonial crime continues to this day as the UK government still prevents the Chagossians from returning home.
It is a crime in which the monarchy has played a significant role. Queen Elizabeth II issued, on behalf of the UK government, the Orders that have forced the Chagossians to remain in exile and that remain in force. A British court said in 2019 that the orders “extinguished” the legal rights of the Chagossians in UK law, including their right to return.
The Chagossians are an Indigenous people, the descendants of enslaved people and indentured labourers, who lived, under British colonial rule, on the Chagos islands in the Indian Ocean until the 1960s. The US government decided it wanted the largest island, Diego Garcia, to build a military base, and wanted it without people. After secret US-UK deals, the UK kept control of Chagos as its last colony in Africa, even as Mauritius, which had administered Chagos, obtained independence.
Over a period of years, the UK and US forced the entire population of all the islands to leave, through deception, force, and threats including rounding up and killing people’s dogs. Senior UK officials wrote about the Chagossians in blatantly racist and disparaging terms, such as calling them ‘Man Fridays’, treating them as a people who didn’t matter. The Chagossians were left to live in abject poverty in Mauritius and Seychelles; some have since moved to the UK.
Chagossians described to Human Rights Watch, in our recent report, the misery of their forced exile, which left them without adequate food or homes for years. Many Chagossians have died without ever being able to return to their homeland. We found that the abuses against the Chagossians amount to crimes against humanity – forced displacement, the prevention of their return home, and persecution on the grounds of race and ethnicity.
The UK monarchy has been involved in this colonial crime, especially through the use of “Orders-in-Council,” an arcane method in which the monarchy issues an order, with legal effect, on behalf of the government through the Privy Council, the centuries-old body of advisers to the monarch. Issuing Orders-in-Council through the monarch has been a convenient way for the government to bypass parliament.
The UK has used such Orders against the Chagossians. The orders were used in 2004, after Chagossians had won a stunning legal victory against the UK government, quashing earlier orders used to keep them in exile. Robin Cook, the UK foreign minister at the time of the court ruling, acknowledged the wrongs done to the Chagossians and for a brief moment it appeared they would be able to return home. Although the US had built its military base on part of Diego Garcia, the rest of that island and the other islands were empty.
But the UK and US decided that they would block Chagossians return to any island, on dubious grounds of security and cost. Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government used Queen Elizabeth II and the Privy Council to do this. In 2004 Elizabeth II issued the orders, still in force today, that legally prevent Chagossians from returning to all the islands. Meanwhile US military and civilian personnel along with UK officials live on Diego Garcia and people can visit Chagos on luxury yachts. The arcane colonial orders continue to have a very real and negative impact on the lives of thousands of people.
And yet, the Chagossians never gave up their struggle. This June marks the 50th anniversary of the final deportation of the Chagossians. But also, extraordinarily, the UK and Mauritius governments have recently begun negotiations on the future of Chagos, although, so far, without meaningful consultation with the Chagossians themselves. Any settlement on the future of the islands needs to be focused on the rights of Chagossians, above all their right to reparations from the UK and US, including the right to return. Reparations for such abuses also mean a guarantee that such crimes could never again take place.
And this is where King Charles can play a key role. He could mark his coronation on May 6 by issuing a full and complete apology for the crimes against humanity committed against the Chagossians, and acknowledging the monarchy’s role. As many Chagossians have urged, he should call for them to receive full reparations, including the right to return to live in their homeland, after meaningful consultations with them. And he should guarantee that never again will the monarchy be used to take away fundamental rights from a people or be used in crimes against humanity, especially through the misuse of Orders-in-Council.
For Charles, who has spoken to the Commonwealth of his sorrow at the “suffering of so many” in history, such action would show how he can help right the wrongs of the monarchy’s past and present.