Diego Garcia


“I’ll share the story with you, the story about the island. It is a “small story”. But it is one that will perhaps help you understand the deepness of the rage felt in so many places against the powers that be in your countries. A rage often wrongly projected on to “Americans” as a whole. A rage that sometimes makes it hard for people world-wide to pardon the ignorance amongst ordinary folk in the US and Britain about the role of their elected governments in “the rest of the world”.”
                                          Lindsey Collen, Mauritius, October 2001

“It has always struck me that many people on the British left know far more about US foreign policy horrors than those committed by this country…”
                                        Mark Curtis, May 2004

This is the second time I have written about Diego Garcia. This time as with the first when I informed my friends, (many of them left-wing activists), of my subject they responded by asking ‘Who’s that?’ or, less frequently, ‘Where’s that?’ Two years ago had I been asked if I knew of Diego Garcia I would have asked similar questions, perhaps thinking that “Diego” was an Argentine footballer or a Brazilian novelist.

Diego Garcia though is not a person at all but an island; part of the Chagos archipelago that lies at the heart of the Indian Ocean just south of the equator. Formerly part of the British colony of Mauritius the island, along with the rest of the archipelago, was severed from the mainland in 1965 to create the British Indian Ocean Territory (the BIOT). (1) Whilst negotiating Mauritian independence the British Labour government insisted that the UK be allowed to retain the Chagos islands. In return the Mauritian government received £3 million. The British made the deal without informing the Mauritians of their plans for the islands- they would lease them to the United States who intended to establish a military outpost on Garcia. In return the British would receive an £11.5 m discount from their purchase of the American Polaris nuclear missile system. (2)  In 1960 the British and the Americans signed a deal leasing the BIOT until 2016 with the option of extending the lease by a further 20 years. (3)

There was one snag however- the islands were already inhabited by around 2000 indigenous people- the Ilois. In its description of the islands the British foreign office website states that:

“they [the islands] were detached in 1965 from Mauritius and Seychelles and the settled inhabitants, some 1200 persons, were subsequently relocated to those two countries.” (4)

This is all it has to say on the subject. To state that the inhabitants were “relocated” is certainly factually correct. Much as it is factually correct to say that the indigenous inhabitants of Australia were “relocated” from the coastal areas of that country. Or to say that Italian Jews were “relocated” to Poland during WWII. It does not, to say the least, tell the whole story.

The deal with the American’s was conditional upon the removal of the natives. Interestingly Diego Garcia was not the American’s preferred location; they had initially favoured the island of Aldabra further to the West. However Aldabra is populated by a rare species of tortoise and the US feared that any attempt to disturb them might lead to an embarrassing confrontation with publicity savvy green activists. (5) They guessed, rightly as it turned out, that while the removal of endangered tortoises would raise protest, the removal of mere human beings would elicit rather less concern. Between 1965 and 1975 successive British government’s carried out the forced removal of the entire population of the islands. (6) Various methods were used to achieve the British government’s goal; initially islanders who had visited Mauritius to pick up supplies or to visit relatives were summarily barred from returning. Others were tricked into leaving by the UK authorities who offered free trips to the mainland, (whilst neglecting to inform the islanders that this would be a one way trip). In order to accelerate the process the British systematically destroyed the economy of the islands; closing down the copra plantations and in 1967 buying out the sole employer on the island. (7) In 1968 food shipments to the islands ceased.

In March 1971 the United States Navy finally arrived informing the natives that they had ‘no right to stay.’ The minority rights group reports that many islanders left fearing that they would be shot if they remained. Others were especially fearful due to rumours that “the Americans were going to explode gas bombs on the island.” (8) However the Navy’s arrival did not succeed in forcing out the entire population so in 1973 the British proceeded to expel the remaining inhabitants. They were loaded onto a UK vessel normally used for transporting copra exports and shipped to the mainland. Most of their belongings were left behind. When they arrived in Mauritius there was no-one to meet them. They were simply dumped on the quayside and left to their own devices:

“The British government did not even have the courtesy to arrange for its own subjects to be met. The Ilois walked bewildered off their ships and tramped through the slums of the capital Port Louis to try to find a relative or friend who would offer accommodation.” (9)

The Iloi’s adaptation to life in Mauritius was disastrous. Most found themselves living in extreme poverty and many of these British subjects died of starvation and disease during the 1970’s. In order to survive others turned to crime and prostitution. The Minority Rights Group cite some examples from a survey carried out by the Comite Ilois Organisation Fraternelle. The details are the human outcome of the policies designed and implemented by the urbane men and women of the British foreign office:

      “Eliane and Michele Mouta: mother and child committed suicide.
Leone Rangasamy: born in Peros, drowned herself because she was prevented                                
       from going back.
Tarenne Chiatoux: Committed suicide, no job, no roof.
Volfrin family: Daisy Volfrin: No food for three days, obtained Rs 3 (about 20p) and no more as Public Assistance. Died through poverty.
Josue and Maude Baptiste: poverty- no roof, no food, committed suicide.” (10)

British policy, during and after the removal process, was to “maintain the pretence that there were no permanent inhabitants.” With eerie echoes of the Zionist project in Palestine one Whitehall official remarked that this pretence was necessary because “to recognise that there are permanent inhabitants will imply that there is a population whose democratic rights will have to be safeguarded.” (11) The British government’s attitude towards the islanders was nicely demonstrated by foreign office diplomat Dennis Greenhill who remarked, with all the studied indifference of Britain’s educated elite, that: “along with the birds go some few Tarzans and Man Fridays whose origins are obscure” (12)

Initially used as a communications outpost, in October 1977 the United States established a naval base on the island. Navy Support Facility Diego Garcia, affectionately known as the “footprint of freedom” by the Americans, is one of the most significant US military installations in the world. The overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979 led to major concern amongst US policy planners over the apparent loss of control of the Middle East. As part of efforts to counter the threat to American interests Diego Garcia became the site of the most rapid military build up of any location since the Vietnam War. (13) The base was soon to be used as a staging post for operations in the Middle East – most notably in the repeated acts of aggression against Iraq, (Diego Garcia was the only US Navy base engaged in offensive aerial operations during the first Gulf War). The base was also utilised during the criminal attack on another essentially defenceless target: Afghanistan. According to globalsecurity.org aircraft based at the facility dropped more ordnance on the country than any other US air unit. (14)

It appears that the United States is now utilising the base for a secondary role in its “war on terror”. According to The Guardian and The Washington Post al-Qaeda suspects are being held for interrogation on the island.  In a letter to Tony Blair Human Rights Watch stated that:

“According to press reports in the United States, U.S. forces are holding and interrogating suspected al-Qaeda detainees at a U.S. operated facility on the island of Diego Garcia…U.S. interrogations of detainees reportedly include “stress and duress” interrogation techniques and other abusive practises that violate customary and conventional law prohibitions against torture and mistreatment.” (15)

Elsewhere in the letter Human Rights Watch reminded Tony Blair of his legal responsibilities:

“As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), your government should not turn a blind eye to the practices of U.S. personnel on Diego Garcia. The U.K. government’s duty to prevent, investigate and prosecute any cases of torture applies to all land subject to British jurisdiction.”

Unfortunately as recent events have amply demonstrated Mr Blair has little time for such legal niceties.

Since their forced removal the Ilois have been campaigning for their right to return to the islands, a campaign that has been blocked by successive British governments. In the year 2000 the campaigners achieved a partial victory in the British High Court, which ruled that the removal of the islanders was an “abject legal failure” and that the islanders should be allowed to return to the outlying islands, (though not to Diego Garcia itself). The British Government refused to implement the ruling: making no attempt to rebuild the infrastructure on the outlying islands, whilst falsely claiming that resettlement was not feasible. The Minority Rights Group remarked that “Since 2000, the UK has, in effect, prevented the return of any islanders to the islands, despite the United Nations requesting (in 2002) that the UK should ensure the islanders’ right of return, and consider compensation.” (16)

Whilst the poverty stricken islanders are denied the right to return home it appears that wealthy tourists will not be so denied. The Times reported this month that the Foreign Office will approve plans for a cruise ship to visit the Chagos islands:

“Twelve tourists, paying up to Pounds 4,500 each, will travel with Wexas Travel…to snorkel on coral reefs, clear blue seas and tropical marine waters, says the company, adding: “It is far from the world of mass tourism.” (17)

With the 2000 court ruling the Ilois people could have been forgiven for imagining that a partially just settlement of their claims might now be possible- the resettlement of the outlying islands with a scheduled return to Garcia at some definite point in the future perhaps. Instead the British Government has done everything possible to undermine the ruling, culminating last month in it being overturned by the foreign office via the colonial era power of “orders in council”. This allows for the overturning of the ruling without debate or the encumbrance of the usual legislative process. The order affirms that “as a principle of the constitution…no person has the right of abode in the territory or has unrestricted access to any part of it.” (18) Richard Gifford the islander’s lawyer exclaimed that:

“This is an absolute stab in the back. Not since the days of King John has anyone tried to expel British citizens from the realm by executive order.” (19)

Foreign Office minister Bill Rammel attempted to justify the move on the basis that resettlement was not feasible and would be too costly. Furthermore he argued that the islands were at risk from global warming, (20) (slightly curiously this apparently poses no problem for the current inhabitants of the islands- several thousand American servicemen as well as hundreds of Filipino construction workers). Furthermore Rammel argues that the return of the Ilois would likely threaten the ecological balance of the archipelago – presumably more so than the current inhabitants with their B-52’s and nuclear submarines.

Following the overturning of the 2000 ruling the MRG pointed out that such arguments are entirely irrelevant to the islander’s right of return:

“The issue of their right of return is a separate question from what compensation and support they are entitled to from the UK government. It is the chagossians’ choice as to whether to return or not, even if they are informed that they would get no assistance or that their islands are in danger of sinking. Having largely acknowledged the injustices of the past in 2000, the UK is now denying basic rights to a community who have suffered what can only be called ‘ethnic cleansing by stealth.” (21)

That Diego Garcia is a name largely unheard of by the British public is hardly surprising. The issue receives virtually no coverage, (on television- the main source of news for most people in the UK the island effectively does not exist). Print material on the topic is also extremely scarce – other than the writings of Mark Curtis and John Pilger there is virtually no available reading matter, other than occasional news reports- usually in the back pages.

Following the high court ruling in 2000 Curtis wrote:

“That the Chagossians and Diego Garcia are not household names in Britain is, to me, testimony to the servility to power of mainstream British political culture. One would expect this court case to be regarded as significant. Indeed, one might expect the tragedy of the islanders’ treatment by successive government’s to be rather well known; their plight has been desperate for nearly four decades. But not so: the small flurry of press articles around the court case has been followed by the same silence that largely prevailed for the previous decades.” (22)

What is the situation four years on from the high court ruling? Essentially the same: another flurry of articles followed by the familiar reversion to silence. Given the absence of media attention coupled with the total intransigence of the British and American governments over the issue it is questionable whether writing about Diego Garcia is likely to have any beneficial effect for the islanders themselves. The silence and lack of action on this issue has prevailed for so long now that it seems that raising the issue is more useful in disabusing the general population of notions of our “ethical foreign policy” rather than in advancing the cause of the Ilois.

Alex Doherty is a 22 year old undergrad at York University in England. He is an organiser for York Student action for Palestine and York Students against war. He writes regularly for the student press and can be contacted at alexjamesdoherty@yahoo.co.uk

Notes:

(1) The creation of the BIOT was in clear violation of the UN General Assembly resolution 2066 XX passed in December 1965 which called on the British to “take no action which would dismember the Territory of Mauritius and to violate its territorial integrity.”

(2) John Madely, Diego Garcia: A contrast to the Falklands, Minority Rights Group, London, 1985, p6

(3) Ibid, p3

(4) www.fco.gov.uk

(5) John Madely, Diego Garcia: A contrast to the Falklands, Minority Rights Group, London, 1985, p.4

(6) It should be recalled that whilst there was once a meaningful difference between Labour and the Conservatives regarding domestic issues, with regard to foreign affairs the UK has effectively pursued a bi-partisan foreign policy since the war, with differences largely confined to tactical areas.

(7) John Madely, Diego Garcia: A contrast to the Falklands, Minority Rights Group, London, 1985, p.

(8) Ibid p5

(9) Ibid

(10) Ibid p6

(11) Mark Curtis, Web of deceit, Vintage 2003, p421

(12) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/politics/1005064.stm

(13) http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/facility/diego-garcia.htm

(14) Ibid

(15) http://www.hrw.org/press/2002/12/uk1230ltr.htm

(16) http://www.minorityrights.org/news_detail.asp?ID=277

(17) The Times, 7 August 2004

(18)  The Guardian 17 June 2004

(19) Ibid

(20) The Guardian, 5 July 2004

(21) http://www.minorityrights.org/news_detail.asp?ID=277

(22) Mark Curtis, Web of deceit, Vintage 2003, p415

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