The Chagos Archipelago is a group of seven atolls comprising more than 60 individual tropical islands in the Indian Ocean about 500 kilometres south of the Maldives archipelago. It is also home to one of the most shameful and enduring episodes in UK and US history.
In 2007 British historian and journalist Andy Worthington wrote:
The shameful tale of Diego Garcia began in 1961, when it was marked out by the US military as a crucial geopolitical base. Ignoring the fact that 2,000 people already lived there, and that the island — a British colony since the fall of Napoleon — had been settled in the late 18th century by French coconut planters, who shipped in African- and Indian-born laborers from Mauritius, establishing what John Pilger called “a gentle Creole nation with thriving villages, a school, a hospital, a church, a prison, a railway, docks, a copra plantation,” the Labo[u]r government of Harold Wilson conspired with the administrations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon to “sweep” and “sanitize” the islands (the words come from American documents that were later declassified).
Although many islanders traced their ancestry back five generations, a British Foreign Office official wrote in 1966 that the government’s aim was “to convert all the existing residents … into short-term, temporary residents,” so that they could be exiled to Mauritius. Having removed the “Tarzans or Men Fridays,” as another British memo described the inhabitants, the British effectively ceded control of the islands to the Americans, who established a base on Diego Garcia, which, over the years, has become known as “Camp Justice,” complete with “over 2,000 troops, anchorage for 30 warships, a nuclear dump, a satellite spy station, shopping malls, bars and a golf course.” So thoroughly were the islands cleared, and so stealthy the procedure, that in the 1970s the British Ministry of Defence had the effrontery to insist, “There is nothing in our files about a population and an evacuation.”
On being deported, Chagossians arrived in Mauritius and The Seychelles to find promises of support and compensation were not kept with many just abandoned on the dock. Many were forced into debt and extreme poverty, whilst rampant inflation severely reduced the compensation’s real value. The little money they eventually received often just paid down debts. Compensation distributed in the 1980s to a limited number of Chagossians was only paid on condition Chagossians signed away any rights to their homeland. Chagossians report this condition was never explained. When compensation did arrive, Chagossians received much less than reported figures, with middlemen skimming off considerable amounts. Many Chagossians have received little or no compensaton to this day. [Sources]
In order to ‘encourage’ inhabitants to leave the island, a number of measures were taken. The UK Chagos Support Association has published eyewitness testimony:
We were then ordered to bring our dogs to the calorifer (a big building). Once there, our dogs, in total around 1,500, were stacked and forced in the calorifer. All doors and windows of the calorifer were then closed, locking the dogs in the building. We then saw 2 jeeps (land rovers) approach the building and back up in such a way as to bring their exhaust pipes as close as possible to a door; the British and American officers managed to connect the exhaust pipes of the vehicles to inside the building; they then left the vehicles’ engines running and went away. By that time, we had realised that our dogs were being killed and that the calorifer had been converted into a gas chamber. Most of us who had brought our dogs there waited to see what would happen; we tried to convince the officers to let them out, in vain. Pretty soon, we heard the dogs starting to cry, then scream painfully. It was one of the hardest scenes ever. The American and British officers failed to realise that people of African origin ie: the Chagossians, could naturally have pets and fall in love with them. We too considered our pets as members of our family; as much as would be hard today for a white family to suffer its dog being gas chambered, it was equally hard for us there. Our children cried so much in pain and sorrow and we all cried. This is still fresh in our minds.
We were then forced to board the ships for Peros Banhos and Saloman Islands. Even though Peros Banhos and Saloman islands were part of the Chagos, we still felt that we were being uprooted from our homeland and in fact we were. Life in Peros Banhos and Saloman was different to life in Diego Garcia and we were emotionally very attached to our Diego Garcia. Most of us come from there.
The ships were scheduled to set sail after sunset. This was very unusual. In fact, this had never happened before. Ships always departed during the day. Once on board, we learnt from one of the crew members that the American and British officers had asked the Captain to leave when it was dark to reduce the chance of uproar and fury on the ship when we saw the ship leaving the lagoon and getting further and further from our land. This is very important to us because it shows that the Americans and British knew that our forced removal would be extremely hard on us and painful, so hard and painful that it could prompt us to cause havoc on board.
We and our well being were worth less than the animals’. These were not even animals which could be consumed or which had a commercial value: They were retired old horses which simply belonged to the plantation’s managers, who had arranged with the American and British authorities (and who had agreed) to have the horses carried delicately.
A Globe and Mail article notes:
Small groups of Chagossians have been allowed three brief visits to the islands. A video of their 2006 visit shows a British officer watching impassively as the islanders sobbed and kissed the ground.
[Note: Detailed information on the plight of the Chagossians and the status of their legal battle can be found here]
Fast forward four decades and the value of Diego Garcia to the US and its allies has become clearer, despite a long campaign of obfuscation and denial by the UK authorities.
It has been used as part of the CIA’s ‘extraordinary rendition’ program:
The British government’s problems with missing files deepened dramatically when the Foreign Office claimed documents on the UK’s role in the CIA’s global abduction operation had been destroyed accidentally when they became soaked with water.
In a statement that human rights groups said “smacked of a cover-up”, the department maintained that records of post-9/11 flights in and out of Diego Garcia, the British territory in the Indian Ocean, were “incomplete due to water damage”.
First the British government denied renditions ever took place through Diego Garcia, a British territory in the Indian Ocean. Then in 2008 it finally admitted the truth:
For a long time, ministers claimed that anyone who thought the UK was involved in renditions was a conspiracy theorist. Here’s foreign secretary Jack Straw in 2005: “Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States, and also let me say, we believe that Secretary Rice is lying, there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition full stop.”
Three years later, the then foreign secretary, David Miliband, was forced to confess that this was spectacularly untrue, admitting to parliament that two CIA “rendition” flights carrying detainees had in fact made use of the British territory of Diego Garcia – an atoll in the Indian Ocean – in 2002.
The above instance alone should be a harsh object lesson for anyone – corporate media journalists in particular – who reflexively accept or uncritically report government statements on any issue, especially on issues of priority or strategic importance to administrations. It should also demonstrate that allegations that even top-level government officials dismiss as ‘conspiracy theories’ can be true.
Further demonstration of UK government mendacity came courtesy of WikiLeaks:
[Mauritius Prime Minister] Navinchandra Ramgoolam spoke out after the Labour government’s decision to establish a marine reserve around Diego Garcia and surrounding islands was exposed earlier this month as the latest ruse to prevent the islanders from ever returning to their homeland.
A US diplomatic cable dated May 2009, disclosed by WikiLeaks, revealed that a Foreign Office official had told the Americans that a decision to set up a “marine protected area” would “effectively end the islanders’ resettlement claims”. The official, identified as Colin Roberts, is quoted as saying that “according to the HMG’s [Her Majesty’s government’s] current thinking on the reserve, there would be ‘no human footprints’ or ‘Man Fridays'” on the British Indian Ocean Territory uninhabited islands.”
A US state department official commented: “Establishing a marine reserve might, indeed, as the FCO’s Roberts stated, be the most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands’ former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling in the BIOT.”
Nearly a year later, in April this year , David Miliband, then foreign secretary, described the marine reserve as a “major step forward for protecting the oceans”. He added that the reserve “will not change the UK’s commitment to cede the territory to Mauritius when it is no longer needed for defence purposes”.
“I feel strongly about a policy of deceit,” Ramgoolam said , adding that he had already suspected Britain had a “hidden agenda”.
Asked if he believed Miliband had acted in good faith, he said: “Certainly not. Nick Clegg said before the general election that Britain had a “moral responsibility to allow these people to at last return home”. William Hague, now foreign secretary, said that if elected he would “work to ensure a fair settlement of this long-standing dispute”.
Also only recently revealed, part of the deal to lease the territory to the US included a $14 million discount on the purchase of Polaris nuclear missiles.
Diego Garcia is a vital strategic base for long-range bombing missions and is also utilized for reconnaissance and refuelling. It was used as a launch pad for bombing missions in the 1991 Gulf War as well as in 2001 against Afghanistan and 2003 against Iraq. It now accommodates thousands of military and civilian personnel, most of them British or American.
The Chagossians brought their struggle to the Supreme Court on 22nd June 2015 and a verdict is expected early this year. Furthermore, the leasing deal between the UK and the US expires in December. These two critical events mean that the Chagos issue will soon feature prominently in even mainstream news broadcasts.
Given the geopolitical importance and volatility of the Middle East, it is highly unlikely that the US will be easily willing to give up such a valuable strategic location or allow the return of the original inhabitants and their descendants. Indeed, a taste of the uncompromising US stance on the issue was provided in an undated response to a 2012 petition on the White House official website:
Thank you for your petition regarding the former inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago. The U.S. recognizes the British Indian Ocean Territories, including the Chagos Archipelago, as the sovereign territory of the United Kingdom. The United States appreciates the difficulties intrinsic to the issues raised by the Chagossian community.
In the decades following the resettlement of Chagossians in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the United Kingdom has taken numerous steps to compensate former inhabitants for the hardships they endured, including cash payments and eligibility for British citizenship. The opportunity to become a British citizen has been accepted by approximately 1,000 individuals now living in the United Kingdom. Today, the United States understands that the United Kingdom remains actively engaged with the Chagossian community. Senior officials from the United Kingdom continue to meet with Chagossian leaders; community trips to the Chagos Archipelago are organized and paid for by the United Kingdom; and the United Kingdom provides support for community projects within the United Kingdom and Mauritius, to include a resource center in Mauritius. The United States supports these efforts and the United Kingdom’s continued engagement with the Chagossian Community.
Thank you for taking the time to raise this important issue with us.
The UK’s indifference to international law and human rights – most recently demonstrated in its reckless dismissal of a UN group ruling that Julian Assange is being arbitrarily detained and illegally denied his freedom – is well documented, albeit behind a carefully maintained veneer of respectability. Maintaining this veneer is a key task of gatekeeper journalists who must at all times ensure that officials on ‘our side’ are seen to be extending democratic principles and human rights and are accorded gravitas appropriate to such a noble endeavour. There are times, however – as in this instance – when the truth gets out and the people of the world can see the true face of the UK and its closest ally.
There is a prevailing view, kept carefully intact within the pages of corporate media, that while nations like the US and UK may cut corners from time to time, they nevertheless do what they do because they have our best interests at heart and are keeping us safe from enemies overt and unseen. The Chagos issue is an illustrative example of an inverted reality: that in fact the US and UK – as with all imperial powers throughout history – do exactly what they want in order to satisfy their strategic requirements, paying no mind to international law, to mass killing or displacement of peoples; even the destruction of entire nations. Indeed, international law is simply an annoying inconvenience, something to be worked around in order to minimise resistance to their illegal activities. The opening of the marine reserve while claiming it was done for environmental reasons is a particularly cynical example of this dynamic.
It is for this reason that so much effort is expended in the pursuit of whistleblowers and publishing organizations like WikiLeaks and their staff: these are the people who remove the curtain, exposing epic crimes and cruelty and putting carefully staged reputations at risk. For those who commit such transgressions, persecution, smears and harsh punishments are essential in order to make an example of them and discourage like-minded citizens from following their example.
As even a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the Chagossians is unlikely to move the UK government to act against the geopolitical imperatives of the US, the only remaining viable option for these gravely wronged people is significant public pressure on elected officials in the hope that at the very least some measure of redress or compromise that the Chagossians can accept is provided; ideally a return to their home and adequate compensation for the terrible injustices perpetrated upon them.
Written by Simon Wood
[Author’s note: Readers can help the Chagossians even in small ways that will take almost no time at all by following this link. I urge you to share this article around and do what you can to help]
[Further research: Watch John Pilger’s 2004 documentary, Stealing a Nation]
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