Note: This article appears in the "Speaking Out" column of the June issue of the Foreign Service Journal, "The magazine for foreign affairs professionals" published by the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA). I have wanted to write it ever since visiting Diego Garcia in 1989.
In the last decades of the previous century, two isolated archipelagos continued to fly the Union Jack thousands of miles from the mother country, outposts for a handful of British citizens. Located near strategic territory, these repositories for precious resources remained prized possessions even as the sun was setting on the rest of the empire.
In one of the archipelagos, the Falkland Islands, Britain went to war to eject enemy forces that claimed the territory. In the other, the Chagos Islands, it welcomed friendly foreign troops, but exiled the islands’ inhabitants.
One can take the analogy between Diego Garcia (the principal island in the chain) and the Falklands too far, of course. The foreign troops in the latter location only became the enemy in 1982, when a dictatorship sent them to grab the Malvinas, as Argentina still calls the Falklands. And in the case of Diego Garcia, the United Kingdom was a full partner in making its territory available to the forces of its closest ally, the United States.
But the analogy, which has been made in the British press and courts, contains one very disturbing kernel of truth. In the Falklands, the inhabitants are white, with implicit rights to protection as British citizens -- while the inhabitants of the Chagos Islands, descendants of African slaves, were black, and weren’t even told that they were British citizens when they were summarily removed from the islands. And why were they evicted? Because the United States wanted all the islands depopulated.
A Lie Comes to Life
We think of Diego Garcia – if we think of this remote mid-Indian Ocean outpost at all – as a reassuring sandy aircraft carrier of an archipelago, ready to launch planes on missions to the Middle East or to Southwest Asia. That role was conceived in the 1960s, when London agreed to lease Diego Garcia to Washington. And if both parties are amenable to a renewal of the lease prior to 2016, Diego Garcia might well continue to serve its strategic role for the rest of the 21st century.
But the original agreement was based on a lie that wrecked the lives of the families who had been living on the islands for generations: that the islands were uninhabited. To make this fiction a reality, the inhabitants of Diego Garcia and the other Chagos Islands – known as Chagossians or Ilois – within the British Indian Ocean Territory had to go.
British writer Mark Curtis devotes a chapter (“The Depopulation of the Chagos Islands, 1965-1973”) to this shameful episode in his aptly titled book, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World (Vintage, 2003). Citing declassified documents in the U.S. National Archives – in which words like “sanitize,” “swept,” “sterile” and, yes, “cleansed” crop up regularly -- among other sources, he details how the Chagossians were rounded up and exiled to islands over a thousand miles away. By 1973, the islands had indeed become “uninhabited,” except for U.S. Navy Seabee construction crews.
Over the years, a number of American officials -- from Foreign Service officers in Mauritius to Pentagon planners to members of Congress -- have been aware of this injustice, but have largely chosen to let Her Majesty’s Government deal with the legal challenges by this group of people who live on society’s margins in Mauritius and Seychelles. Journalist David Ottaway’s reporting in the Washington Post did prompt the late Senator Ted Kennedy to conduct hearings in 1975. But virtually nothing has been done since then to raise awareness in the U.S. of the Chagossians’ plight.
“Maintaining the fiction” of the supposedly uninhabited islands was the title of a Foreign Office memo to Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s government in the late 1960s. Ever since, governments from all the major political parties on both sides of the Atlantic have upheld it.
As recently as April, the Times of London detailed how expert recommendations in 2002 supporting Chagossian resettlement on outer islands were dropped from British government reports. Meanwhile, in the Indian Ocean, the Ilois led lives of desperate poverty on the outskirts of Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius.
For another heartrending account of how the British and American governments cleansed the Chagos Islands of their population, see John Pilger’s Freedom Next Time: Resisting the Empire (Nation Books, 2007). Pilger, a prolific Australian documentary filmmaker, covered similar territory in his 2004 movie, “Stealing a Nation.” He speaks of the “vandalized lives” of the islanders, whose extreme “sadness” has been cited as a leading cause of death after their exile to distant Mauritius.
“The Footprint of Freedom” -- referring to the atoll’s approximate shape -- is what the U.S. Navy has dubbed its support facility at Diego Garcia. The Navy people have even included an “Island History” on their Web site, with vintage black-and-white photos of the islanders who were expelled in “Operation Stampede” to make room for the base. While there is no mention of their fate on the base Web site, an 1980s-vintage “Welcome Aboard” publication shows a photo, circa 1967, captioned “The end of an era, plantation workers…” – backhanded recognition of a civilian presence prior to the NSF.
For his 2007 book, Pilger tracked down the late British Foreign Minister Robin Cook, who admits that “the episode was one of the most sordid and morally indefensible I have ever known.” And in 1972, during the expulsions, then-U.S. Ambassador to Mauritius William Brewer wrote to Washington: “It is absurd to state that Diego Garcia has no fixed population. There is no question that the island has been inhabited since the 18th century.”
Why the insistence on removing this small population? Had the American and British governments wanted to secure the Diego facilities and its outlying islands years ago, what better way than to enlist the islanders as workers and security guards? One Foreign Office functionary asked at the time, “I don’t see why the Americans shouldn’t allow some to stay. Could they not be useful?”
White Space and “Mini-Slaves”
I have an old diplomatic passport stamped “BIOT” (British Indian Ocean Territory; i.e., Diego Garcia) when I traveled there in 1989 from the U.S. embassy in Mauritius, where I served from 1987 to 1990. The trip was related to that country’s longstanding arrangement with the British authorities and the U.S. Navy to employ hundreds of civilian workers for maintenance and housekeeping chores on the base. No one from the Chagos refugee community, which from time to time delivered protest letters to Embassy Port Louis, was recruited for work on Diego Garcia. Mauritians, yes, and Filipinos, too. But no Chagossians, who might deem themselves “going home.”
Mark Gillem, a professor of architecture and U.S. Air Force reserve officer, reports in America Town: Building the Outposts of Empire (University of Minnesota Press, 2007), a study of overseas U.S. military bases, that American planners have traditionally sought unoccupied “white space” around their perimeter maps. In the case of Diego Garcia, this quest has been carried to absurd lengths: even islands more than a hundred miles away from Diego Garcia were cleared of human habitation.
Despite successive rulings by British courts citing the Magna Carta and its proscription of “exile from the realm,” in October 2008 the Law Lords narrowly upheld the government’s exile of these forgotten “mini-slaves” -- as the mixed-race descendants of African slaves, Indian indentured workers, and French and English planters mordantly call themselves.
As John Pilger explains, both London and Washington have long played “ping pong” over responsibility, where “maintaining the fiction” has entailed pointing to respective concerns over British sovereignty and American security requirements. Writing the minority opinion in the Law Lords’ judgment, Lord Bingham cited “highly imaginative letters written by American officials,” which brandished fears of terrorism as a reason to continue the exclusion of the islanders from their homes.
Serious people understand that a critically important naval and air facility in the middle of the Indian Ocean might create legitimate security concerns, but a glimpse at the elderly community leaders of the Chagossians should allay any fears about their being anything other than a harmless, displaced people. And if U.S. and U.K. officials are so worried about incursions by unauthorized personnel, why – as Simon Winchester describes in The Sun Never Sets: Travels to the Remaining Outposts of the British Empire (Prentice Hall, 1985) – do they tolerate the regular presence of “yachties” from the international leisure sailing crowd?
The Quest for Justice
What’s next? The Chagossians and their supporters speak of an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, possibly this summer. In London and Washington, officials who cannot countenance the notion of a “native” presence on the islands no doubt will take comfort in this actuarial fact: by the time the current lease comes up for renewal in 2016, many of the surviving exiled Chagossians will be in their eighties. HMG and the U.S. government have stalled for this long; what’s another few years?Meanwhile, from out of left field, comes another threat in the form of an ambitious plan to turn the Chagos/BIOT waters into the world’s largest marine nature sanctuary. In April, [then] British Foreign Secretary David Miliband announced the creation of a 250,000 square mile sanctuary, which presumably would also protect the status of the only current human residents of the islands – those at the U.S. Naval Facility – while putting yet another obstacle in the path of the Chagossians’ return home.
As important as protecting the coconut crab and the “masked booby” (a seabird) might be, it should not be allowed to prejudice the case for that endangered two-legged species, the Chagossians. In the words of the UK’s Chagos Islands All Party Parliamentary Group, which sees a role for repatriated islanders in protecting the environment, “conservation and human rights must go hand in hand.”The Obama campaign put “human security” and human rights at the forefront of its change agenda, and since January 2009 the administration has shown concern for other downtrodden peoples, from Haiti to Tibet. The plight of the Chagos Islanders also cries out for justice, especially from the country that insisted on their removal.
On a continent that increasingly equates U.S. interests in Africa with the existence of the U.S. Africa Command, a humanitarian gesture to repatriate the Chagossians would go a long way to showing that the U.S. military can coexist with civilians -- in this case Anglo-Africans, British citizens all.
All it would take would be an American admission that a few hundred former copra workers and their dependents on islands 100 miles away from Diego Garcia would not jeopardize the security of the West. One word from Washington would let the British government off the hook, and would put an end to its excruciatingly long, legal rear-guard action.
As Olivier Bancoult, the leader of the Chagos community-in-exile said to The Guardian after the disappointing October 2008 verdict: “How can we be expected to live outside our birthplace when there are other people living there now?”
Don’t expect the octogenarians -- or their children and grandchildren -- to give up. These “Palestinians of the Indian Ocean” as they’ve been called (though their sole weapons have been the law and appeals to conscience) are not quitters.
In the United States and Great Britain, we might ask ourselves if this sorry saga is worthy of the world’s two oldest democracies. And if this were unfolding today – if we had to do it over again – would we dare treat the Chagossians as they were treated in the 1960s and 1970s? I would hope not. So I also hope that justice can finally be done, as befits the birthplaces of the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights. ■