Reading the book by Philippe Sands reminds us of a sentence by the Swiss architectural historian Siegfried Giedion: The sun is also reflected in a coffee spoon. In Sands' case, it is Chagos, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, along which he unfolds the realpolitik of today's international law. He tells it in such an exciting, artistic and multifaceted way that one would like to recommend this book to anyone who is interested in human fates, world politics and history, but especially wants to understand this fragile branch of law. Because the inhabitants of this archipelago were a pawn of imperial power in the late days of colonialism, and the British crown thought it could get away with it. It would almost have succeeded if it were not for the sentences and institutions of international law.

There is a main protagonist in this story: Liseby Elysé, now an old lady, was born in 1953, in the summer of the coronation of Elizabeth II, on a small island of the Chagos archipelago. Decades later, in September 2018, she will enter the Great Hall of the Peace Palace in The Hague, walking past marble and gold leaf unfazed, and the judges will hear in Creole about the injustice that has happened to her and other people. Her voice will tremble, and in the end she can't hold back her tears, but she brings her story to an end, a collective destiny condensed in 3 minutes 47 seconds. Just being heard was a satisfaction for her. It was a long way to get there.

The Chagos Archipelago is located in the middle of the Indian Ocean, halfway between Madagascar and Sri Lanka. Discovered by the Portuguese in the mid-sixteenth century, the colonial sovereignty changed several times, first to the Netherlands, then to France. In 1814 it was finally ceded to the English as a result of the Napoleonic Wars and from then on was a "British Indian Ocean Territory", belonging to Mauritius. In the course of decolonization, it should actually have been released into independence together with Mauritius in 1965. But England had secretly spun another plan. The Americans desperately needed a military base in the Indian Ocean during the Cold War. The British Crown separated Chagos from the rest of Mauritius and leased Diego Garcia and other islands of this archipelago to the Americans in 1966 (in exchange for a discount on Polaris missiles).

The world of international law is conservative and cautious

But that's not all. From 1967 onwards, the British actually deported all residents, including Liseby Elysé, from their homeland in night and fog operations. The world public and the UN were told a lie: there were "no permanent residents", therefore the separation from Mauritius was legal, no one was violated in his human rights, international law was respected. Internally, there was talk of "Tarzans or Fridays, the origin of which is doubtful". Every line of this narrative is depressing, reflecting the reality of colonial rule in micro-stories and leading Sands to speak of "crimes against humanity" in the German subtitle of his book. This offence was introduced into international law in the Nuremberg Trials on the basis of Nazi injustice experiences, defined in detail in the legal basis of the International Criminal Court in 2002 and refers to a bundle of the most serious offences. Deportation – the forced expulsion of civilians – was always part of it.