No Place Called Home: Diego Garcia

by Mark Curtis
Guardian, 10 October 2003

There are people and there are unpeople. Afghan and Iraqi victims of Blair’s wars count among the latter – lives which are expendable in the pursuit of Western power. Yet there is a group of unpeople who have been even more forgotten and their desperate plight was yesterday knocked for six, not by “smart” British bombs but by smart government lawyers.

Beginning in 1968, the Chagossians were flung off their homeland islands in the Indian Ocean to make way for a US military base. Some were tricked into leaving on the promise of a free voyage; others physically removed. The Chagos islands – formally known as the British Indian Ocean Territory – includes Diego Garcia, from which US bombers have attacked Iraq and Afghanistan and where Al Qaida suspects are being held in circumstances even more secret than in Cuba.

The islanders have long campaigned for compensation and the right to return, outside of significant international attention. But the Blair government set itself against the Chagossians and its sustained legal campaign has just been rewarded with a High Court ruling that the Chagossians’ claim has “no reasonable grounds”.

Until a few months ago, visitors to the Foreign Office website were told that there were “no indigenous inhabitants” on the islands.

When Britain depopulated the islands, most of the Chagossians ended up living in the poverty-stricken slums of the Mauritian capital, Port Louis. Some died of starvation in the early years of exile and many, without livelihoods or hope, committed suicide. Many in the Chagossian community, now numbering around 8,000, continue a life in poverty.

The giant lie at the heart of British policy was that the Chagossians were never permanent inhabitants of the islands but simply “contract labourers”. Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart wrote to Wilson in a secret 1969 note that “we could continue to refer to the inhabitants generally as essentially migrant contract labourers and their families” and that it would be helpful “if we can present any move as a change of employment for contract workers…rather than as a population resettlement”. This set the policy and seven successive British governments maintained the fiction.

Until a few months ago, visitors to the Foreign Office website were told that there were “no indigenous inhabitants” on the islands. Then the wording suddenly changed and now acknowledges that there was a “settled population” – 35 years since the beginning of the depopulation, the truth has quietly been admitted.
Yet this has not stopped the Blair government fighting the Chagossians in court and in other, more back-handed ways. In a landmark victory in November 2000, the high court ruled that “the wholesale removal” of the islanders was an “abject legal failure” and that they could return to the small outlying islands in the group but not the largest island, Diego Garcia.

This was a nightmare for British and US planners, and Whitehall immediately seemed intent on defying it. The islanders cannot simply return, since some infrastructure investment is needed on what are remote islands with few resources. The government dragged out the process of studying island resettlement, and then concluded that resettlement was infeasible anyway. A Foreign Office memo to a parliamentary enquiry stated that resettlement of the outlying islands would be “impractical and inconsistent with the existing defence facilities”. It added that “our position on the future of the territory will be determined by our strategic and other interests and our treaty commitments to the USA”. The memo said nothing about the government’s obligations to the rights of the islanders.

The US disclosed that it was seeking Britain’s permission to expand the base to “develop the island as a forward operating location for expeditionary air force operations”

A study conducted for the Chagossians refutes the idea that resettlement is “impractical” and says the government’s argument is “erroneous in every assertion”. It concludes that there are adequate water, fish and other supplies on the islands to make resettlement feasible, even with low levels of investment. Yet the government, it appears, has never pressed the EU to aid a resettlement programme, unlike the Pitcairn Islands, whose four dozen inhabitants have secured E 2 million.

The government has succeeded in staving off its worse nightmare – the Chagossians’ return to Diego Garcia itself. This means that access to will continue to be “controlled strictly and will be by permit only”. Thus London will continue to require the deported inhabitants to have a special permit to visit their homeland. And US and British navies will continue to patrol the waters surrounding Diego Garcia to ensure that no-one gets near.

Big Brother will be delighted; one can only speculate about the congratulatory telegrams now being sent from Washington. The US was opposed to resettlement even in the outlying islands, and has put huge pressure on London to prevent this. A confidential State Department letter to the Foreign Office said that resettlement “would significantly downgrade the strategic importance of a vital military asset unique in the region”.

The US disclosed that it was seeking Britain’s permission to expand the base to “develop the island as a forward operating location for expeditionary air force operations – one of only four such locations worldwide”. In the light of the US administration’s plans for the Middle East, it is not only the Chagossians who should be concerned about Diego Garcia’s future.

Britain’s treatment of the Chagossians is a national disgrace and one of the great scandals of our time. Their struggle will continue, through the US courts and through continuing to press their case internationally. The Blair government could easily have redressed some of the past wrongs done to them but instead put the “special relationship” first. We might honour the Chagossians if only by laughing whenever the Blair government professes its support for human rights.