Barrister Philippe Sands talks to Fanny Charles about the story of the Chagos islands
Nearly 60 years ago, 2,000 inhabitants of a remote archipelago in the Indian Ocean were forcibly deported from the only home they knew. The lawyer who has fought for years for their right to return is coming to the Shute Literary Festival to talk about his new book, which tells their story.
Barrister Philippe Sands will be one of the principal speakers at this year’s festival, at its new venue, the Marine Theatre at Lyme Regis, on Tuesday 11th October,
The Last Colony tells the shocking post-war history of the Chagos islands, focusing particularly on the story of one woman, who was just 20 years old, newly married and pregnant when she was deported. Mr Sands has been involved in the lengthy legal efforts to return the islands to Mauritius, to which they belong, and to enable the islanders to go home.
But how did a British lawyer, famous, among many things, for his role in questioning the legality of the Iraq War, become involved in the future of these islands that most people have never heard of, and whose location they could not pinpoint?
It came out of the blue—literally—says the distinguished international human rights and environmental lawyer. In 2010 he was on a skiing holiday in France, sitting on a chair-lift when his phone rang. It was his chambers and he knew it must be important. His first concern was not to drop his phone into the snow below!
The call from Matrix Chambers, which he co-founded, was to inform him that the Prime Minister of Mauritius wanted him to act as counsel in an international case to recover the Chagos islands.
The story is thrillingly told in The Last Colony, published this month. The reviews, even from the more conservative newspapers, have been very positive. There is ‘no nuance’ in this story, says Philippe Sands, with the British government refusing to accept the World Court ruling that the islanders should be allowed to go back. Britain’s position is untenable, he says. ‘What moral authority does Britain have to point the finger at other countries?’
More recently, the case has moved forward, and he now has ‘a little hope’ that it may be sorted out. The situation is an ongoing tragedy for the islanders and a stain on Britain’s reputation but he believes that, during her time as Foreign Secretary, new Prime Minister Liz Truss was ‘on the point of making a proposal.’ Her desk is now very full—but he remains hopeful.
The story told in The Last Colony has its roots in the 1960s, when a secret decision was taken to offer the US a base at Diego Garcia, one of the islands of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, to create a new colony (the British Indian Ocean Territory) and to deport the entire local population. One of those inhabitants was 20 year-old Liseby Elyse, newly married and expecting her first child … one suitcase, no pets, expelled from the only home she had known.
For Philippe Sands, born into a Jewish family and with a mother who had been a refugee, that expression was ‘very painful’—in 1942 his two great-grandmothers were deported from Vienna, and allowed just ‘one suitcase.’
The government of Mauritius has fought for the return of Chagos for four decades, and since 2010 Philippe Sands has been closely involved in the case. In 2018 it reached the World Court in The Hague. He called Liseby Elyse as a witness. It was important, he says, to have a real person at the heart of the story (and the case). She can neither read nor write and speaks only Creole (one of the islands’ three languages, with English and French), but her witness statement was powerful. ‘She was so dignified,’ he says.
As Mauritius and the entire African continent challenged the legality of the British and American actions, 14 international judges faced a landmark decision: would they rule that Britain had illegally detached Chagos from Mauritius?
Philippe Sands read Law at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, achieved a first-class honours Masters of Law degree and spent a year as a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School. He was called to the Bar in 1985, was a founding member of Matrix Chambers in 2000 and was appointed Queen’s Counsel in 2003.
He had initially planned to study economics and credits ‘wonderful teachers’ with his move to law and his interest in international law. His particular involvement in environmental law followed work on legal cases after Chernobyl. He co-wrote the first book on environmental law.
‘Life is accidental,’ he says. ‘There was no plan when I was 19.’ His advice to young people is to ‘follow your instincts.’
It was another accident—one of location—that helped him to find his writing style. His neighbour in Hampstead was the late John Le Carre (David Cornwell), who famously hated lawyers. ‘My job for 20 years was to read the books and check the pages about the horrible lawyers!’
Through this relationship, the lawyer-author learned the importance of focusing on individuals to give a human aspect to his big legal and political subjects.
Among his many posts as both a lawyer and a leading writer on international human rights and environmental law, Philippe Sands is Professor of Public Understanding of Law at University College London, a visiting Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and co-founder of the Centre for International Environmental Law.
He believes strongly in freedom of speech and is President of English PEN and is a long-serving member of the board of the Hay Festival of Arts and Literature. PEN is a worldwide association of writers, founded in London in 1921 to promote friendship and intellectual cooperation among writers. The organisation fights for freedom of expression and is a powerful voice for writers who are harassed, imprisoned, threatened and even killed for their views. (Most recently he spoke out against the violent attack on Salman Rushdie).
He loves literary festivals, meeting local people and seeing different parts of the country. It’s all about keeping communities connected, he says. He particularly enjoys the smaller ones, like Shute: ‘I do believe that small is beautiful and less is more.’
Philippe Sands’ talk. The Last Colony: A Tale of Race, Exile and Justice from Chagos to The Hague, starts at 7pm on 11th October and is the final event of the 2022 Shute Literary Festival, at the Marine Theatre, Lyme Regis.