The British Empire cannot be treated as an evil on a par with the Nazis

Britain ignored successive expressions of concern over its conduct at the UN and, far worse, forcibly depopulated the whole archipelago, a step which exceeded the original American request. Between 1967 and 1973, all the inhabitants of Chagos were transported in squalid conditions and resettled in Mauritius. Their pet dogs had to be left behind (along with much else); they were gassed and incinerated. This happened even though deportation, declared a “crime against humanity” by the General Assembly of the UN in 1946, had been explicitly outlawed by the 1949 Geneva Convention of which Britain was an early signatory.

What follows in The Last Colony is the account of the slow but ultimately successful attempt by Mauritius, first in the UN and then at the International Court, to have Britain’s conduct declared illegal. They finally succeeded, against British resistance at every step, in 2019, when the court held that the original detachment of Chagos and continued British administration of the islands were unlawful. The May and Johnson governments have since ignored the court’s judgment, on the basis that it was only an advisory opinion, as well as a subsequent UN resolution. To this day, the Chagossians have not been permitted freely to return home.

Sands, who represented Mauritius at the International Court, elegantly mixes a more general history of the development of international law, on which he knows as much as anyone, with the particular subject of the book. In that sense we are in good hands. But some readers may find that there is a problem of tone. He loses no opportunity to emphasise British and American turpitude. He sees nothing odd in citing Lenin as an enemy of colonisation, or rejoicing over the fact that among his client’s allies at the UN were Putin’s Russia (keen to distinguish its seizure of Crimea) and China (likewise in relation to the South China Sea). Australia is sandbagged for siding with Britain at the court: Sands says that it “gave a fair impression of abused child syndrome”. This rather peculiar insult fairly conveys the book’s unvarying high-mindedness. Barristers often get carried away by a strong case. (Robin Cook was not “removed” over the invasion of Iraq, as Sands claims; he resigned.) 

And Sands is certainly on a roll, as he lists the successive causes of Britain’s loss of prestige at the UN: the invasion of Iraq (in which bombers flew from Diego Garcia); suspected British knowledge of US torture of suspected terrorists (including on Diego Garcia); the emergence of Lord Goldsmith’s havering legal advice; Brexit; and to bring matters up to date, Boris Johnson’s dishonest dealing with the UN as foreign secretary.

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