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Diego Garcia

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Chagos: Perfidious Albion Again

2 April 2010

Chagos: Perfidious Albion Again

By Gwynne Dyer

I make this comparison only on the clear understanding that I am not referring to any specific mother-in-law of mine, past or present. That said, I must admit that the British government’s creation of the world’s largest marine reserve around the Chagos Islands incites in me the same conflict of emotions that I would feel if I saw my mother-in-law drive off a cliff in my new car.

On one hand, the creation of a 545,000-sq-km (210,000-sq-mile) protection zone around the world’s largest living coral structure, the Great Chagos Bank, is a good thing. It is one of the world’s richest ecosystems, with 220 coral species, half the total for the entire Indian Ocean, and more than 1,000 species of reef fish.

On the other hand, the British government’s motives are deeply suspect. It has spent the last decade erecting legal obstacles to the return of the original inhabitants of the islands, the “Chagossians”, whom it expelled from their homes forty years ago in order to provide the United States with a secure base in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

The British Foreign Office insists that the two issues are entirely separate: they’re just trying to save the fish. But the technical term for those who believe what the Foreign Office says is “fools”. Since the Chagossians’ appeal to the European Court of Human Rights will be decided in the next couple of months and they are likely to win it, the F.O. would obviously be digging another line of defence against the return of the Chagossians at this point.

The 2,500 people of the Chagos Islands were evicted from their homes in 1967-71 so that the US Air Force could have a strategic base on the main island, Diego Garcia, that was unencumbered by any inconvenient natives. Most of the inhabitants were dumped without resources 1,900 km (1,200 mi) away in Mauritius, which maintains a claim on the Chagos Islands, and left to rot.

In exile, some of the Chagossians got an education, understood what had been done to them, and started demanding to be allowed back. In 2000 a British court declared that the expulsion had been unlawful and ordered the British government to let the islanders go home. But then 9/11 came along and made Diego Garcia an important US base again.

The United States still didn’t want the original inhabitants back for “security reasons”, and the British Foreign Office always tries to keep the Americans happy. (It still believes in something called the “special relationship,” although people look mystified when you mention it in Washington.) So the British government issued an “order in council” in 2004 to block the islanders’ return on security grounds.

The Chagossians went back to court, and three High Court judges ruled in 2006 that the order in council was illegitimate. The government appealed the ruling, but in 2007 the Court of Appeal found the British government guilty of “abuse of power” and ordered it to let the islanders go home.

So the government appealed again, and in 2008 the House of Lords Appeal Committee decided that it had the right to ignore the islanders’ wishes. There were wider interests to be considered than those of the islanders, it said: the government was entitled to take into account the interest of its ally, the United States – which brings us to the heart of the matter.

The Foreign Office has fought for a decade to deny the islanders their rights because the United States doesn’t want any natives cluttering up the archipelago. But it cannot control the European Court of Human Rights, so how can it go on doing what Washington wants when that court tells it to let the Chagossians go home?

They are always two steps ahead at the Foreign Office. Make the whole Chagos archipelago a “protected marine area” (PMA), and you can postpone the return of the Chagossians forever by bringing up an endless series of environmental objections to their return. You’ll even get credit for being “green” at the same time.

They deny it, naturally. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband reassured everybody that the creation of the reserve “is, of course, without prejudice to the outcome of the current, pending proceedings before the European Court of Human Rights.”

William Marsden, chairman of the Chagos Conservation Trust, was positively lyrical about the PMA. “Today’s decision by the British government is inspirational,” he said. “It will protect a treasure trove of tropical, marine wildlife for posterity and create a safe haven for breeding fish stocks for the benefit of people in the region.”

So it will, but it will also enable the British government to keep the Americans happy and the Chagossians in exile for a long time to come. The PMA was announced in London last week by the Chagos Environment Network, which includes organisations like the Chagos Conservation Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Zoological Society and the Pew Environmental Group

The Chagos Conservation Trust has taken the lead in this initiative. Its chairman, William Marsden, is the former Director Americas and Overseas Territories at the Foreign Office. Its founder, Commander John Topp, was previously the “British Representative,” the senior British officer at what is really a US military base on Diego Garcia.

Mind you, it’s probably just coincidence.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 12. (“The Chagossians…matter”; and “They…rights”)

Perfidious Albion and the Chagos Islanders

24 October 2008

Perfidious Albion and the Chagos Islanders

By Gwynnne Dyer

For arrogance, hypocrisy and sheer nastiness, few organisations in the world rival the British Foreign Office. Exhibit A in the case against it, for the past decade, has been its marathon legal struggle to deny the former inhabitants of the Chagos Islands their rights. Last week, it cheated them again.

The Chagos Islands, a group of seven atolls in the middle of the Indian Ocean, were settled in the late 18th century by slaves who were brought there by the French to work in copra plantations. Britain took the islands from France in 1814, but little changed for the descendants of the original African and South Indian settlers, by now a blended, French-speaking population, until 1967 — when Britain suddenly expelled them. All of them. The islands now have no permanent population.

The islands have many thousands of temporary residents, though, all of them working for the US armed forces except for a few British service personnel. The Chagossians were deported from their homeland to make room for a giant base from which the US Air Force could dominate the entire Indian Ocean, and part of the deal was that there should be no local inhabitants to complicate matters.

Most of the Chagossians were simply dumped in Mauritius, where they lived in poverty and squalor, but some eventually made their way to England. As they got some education, they started demanding to be sent home, but the British government stonewalled. So the long struggle in the British courts began — and it ended in the House of Lords last week with a triumph for injustice, cynicism and realpolitik.

Nobody in Britain now defends what was done to the Chagossians, not even Foreign Secretary David Milliband. “It is appropriate on this day,” he said, “that I should repeat the government’s regret at the way the resettlement of the Chagossians was carried out in the 1960s and 1970s and at the hardship that followed for some of them. We do not seek to justify those actions and do not seek to excuse the conduct of an earlier generation.” Unfortunately, he does not seek to make restitution for it, either.

On the contrary, the Foreign Office has waged a bitter struggle through the British courts to deny the Chagossians the right to go home. It lost the first round when the British High Court ruled in 2000 that they could return to the islands although not to the specific atoll, Diego Garcia, on which the Americans had their air base, and that ruling might have been allowed to stand if 9/11 hadn’t happened.

It did happen, however, and the subsequent mania about security made the British and American authorities determined to keep the islands uninhabited. So in 2004 the British government issued “Orders in Council” — essentially an exercise of the royal prerogative that sets aside court judgements — renewing the ban on anybody returning to the Chagos islands.

The Chagossians went back to court, and in 2007 seven judges of the Court of Appeal unanimously ruled that the use of Orders in Council was invalid. This meant that the islanders could rely on the 2000 High Court judgement and demand to be returned to their homeland, so the Foreign Office appealed once again, this time to the highest court of all. And last week the House of Lords Appeal Committee decided, by a three-to-two majority, that the government did indeed have the right to ignore the islanders’ wishes.

Lord Hoffman, who wrote the majority opinion, said that there were wider interests to be considered than those of the islanders, and that “Her Majesty in Council is therefore entitled to legislate for a colony in the interests of the United Kingdom.” He also said that the government was entitled to take into account the interest of its ally, the United States – which brings us to the heart of the matter.

The US-UK agreement that created the Diego Garcia base in 1966 gave each party a veto on who is allowed on the islands, and it is the United States which has been exercising its veto behind the scenes throughout this whole ugly episode. Indeed, one of the dissenting judges, Lord Bingham, referred to “highly imaginative letters written by American officials” that had been placed before the court, although he personally doubted that Osama bin Laden was planning any attacks in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

The French used to refer to Britain as “Perfidious Albion,” and the British Foreign Office is indeed steeped in perfidy. But latterly it has also learned servility, and it is the latter attribute that is driving its current behaviour. Diego Garcia is an American base, and it is really the US State Department that is denying the Chagossians the right to go home.

The Chagossians can appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, but no American administration would pay any attention to its rulings. They can wait for the US-UK agreement to expire in 2016 (but it is renewable for another twenty years). So what can they do?

The best hope for the Chagossians is a braver British foreign secretary than David Milliband, because the United States is hiding behind Britain in this affair. Washington would never use its veto against the Chagossians openly, and it probably wouldn’t punish Britain severely for defying it either. All it would take is some guts in London.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 9 and 12. (“Most…realpolitik”; “Lord…matter”; and “The Chagossians…do”)

Home to Chagos at Last?

24 May 2007

 Home to Chagos at Last?

By Gwynne Dyer

One should never underestimate the cunning and treachery of the British government. Even the French, no slouches in this domain themselves, quite rightly refer to “perfidious Albion.” But the British courts are another matter, and for once it looks like the government has lost. The Chagos Islanders (“Ilois,” as they call themselves) are finally going home after forty years of enforced exile. Unless the British government appeals the court ruling yet again, of course.

“We must surely be very tough about this,” wrote Sir Paul Gore-Booth, a senior official at the Foreign Office, as the plan to expel the 2,000 Chagos Islanders from their homes was taking shape in 1966. “The object of the exercise is to get some rocks which will remain ours…There will be no indigenous population except seagulls.”

It was in the depths of the Cold War, and the United States wanted an air and naval base in the Indian Ocean. Britain, ever the loyal sidekick, offered Diego Garcia, the largest of the 65 coral atolls that make up the Chagos archipelago. It separated the isolated islands from auritius, which was about to gain independence, and declared them the British Indian Ocean Territory. But the United States didn’t want a “population problem” at its new base, so the Foreign Office got to work on removing the population.

The islanders had little contact with the outside world and they trusted the British, so it was easy. First, to avoid international criticism, the Foreign Office invented the “fiction” (it used exactly that word in its own internal discussions) that the Chagos Islands had no permanent inhabitants, only contract labourers from somewhere else. Then Britain bought up the copra plantations that were the mainstay of the islands’ economy and shut them down, withdrew the medical services, and stopped the supply ships.

Chagossians were encouraged to visit Mauritius or other Indian Ocean islands (many people had relatives elsewhere) and then not allowed back. As American troops moved in, they were drawn into the campaign to intimidate the islanders into leaving:. At one point, US soldiers rounded up their dogs and gassed them.

In the end, those islanders who still stubbornly clung to their homes were simply loaded onto ships without most of their possessions (one bag per person), and dumped on the waterfront of Port Louis in Mauritius, where most of them have subsisted in abject poverty ever since. It was a shameful act of treachery — and in 2000 a British court declared that the expulsion had been unlawful and ordered the British government to let the islanders go home.

The judge in the case, Mr Justice Gibbs, stressed that the callous cruelty with which the Chagossians had been treated was not simply due to different standards of behaviour in a bygone past. “The impression on right-thinking people upon reading (the Foreign Office correspondence) would have been similar then as now.” After that crushing legal rebuke to the government, the Chagossians probably would have gone home in due course — except for 9/11.

Suddenly, Diego Garcia stopped being a military backwater and became a key base for US aircraft bombing Afghanistan, bombing Iraq, or just flying prisoners untraceably around the planet. In the post-2001 mania for “security,” the US and British governments started insisting that it would not be safe to have the original inhabitants return even to islands a hundred kilometres (miles) from Diego Garcia. If the islands were inhabited, people might launch raids on Diego Garcia from them or observe the movements of American warplanes.

Utter nonsense, of course, and the British Foreign Secretary, the late Robin Cook, felt so sorry for the Chagossians that he arranged to grant them British citizenship. But once Cook had resigned in protest against the plan to invade Iraq, the Blair government moved swiftly, issuing an “order in council” in 2004 to block the islanders’ return on security grounds. Back to the courts, and in 2006 three High Court judges ruled that the decree was illegitimate.

The British government, which gave the United States a veto on who is allowed on the islands in the 1966 agreement setting up the base, was trapped between its commitments to its senior ally and its duty to obey British law, so it appealed the ruling. Last Wednesday (23 May), the Court of Appeal found the British government guilty of “abuse of power” and ordered it to let the islanders go home.

If Tony Blair were still running the show, he would doubtless try to appeal the court ruling to the House of Lords rather than defy his friends in the Bush administration, but he will be gone in July and Gordon Brown, his successor, may find this a suitably modest way to demonstrate his relative independence from the White House. Half the people who were expelled from paradise forty years ago have died waiting, but the descendants and their surviving friends may finally be going home.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 4. (“The islanders…ships”)

Perfidious Albion

11 July 2004

Perfidious Albion and Diego Garcia

By Gwynne Dyer

“In accordance with current regulations, no type of attire with degrading or obscene comments may be worn on or brought to Diego Garcia. This includes pictures, phrases or slogans depicting drug paraphernalia, anti-war slogans….” It’s not clear from the website whether the British customs officials who check American troops arriving on the Indian Ocean island regard T-shirts with anti-war slogans as just degrading or downright obscene, but they definitely don’t want them on the island. They don’t want the inhabitants back, either.

Britain’s capacity for mean and underhanded behaviour towards its former colonial subjects has never been in doubt, but last week saw an especially ugly example. Four years ago, the High Court in London ruled that the former inhabitants of Diego Garcia and the other Chagos Islands, removed from their homeland between 1967 and 1973 to make way for a huge US air base, had been evicted illegally. It looked like an old injustice was finally on the way to being rectified — but that depended on the British government obeying its own courts. Fat chance.

Last month, the British government changed the law to overrule the High Court decision and deny the Chagotians the right to go home after over three decades of exile. It would cost too much, explained the Foreign Office minister, Bill Rammell, and besides several thousand Chagotians returning to the islands would endanger their delicate ecology. (Whereas the Stealth and B-52 bombers on Diego Garcia and the 1,500 American military personnel and 2,000 mostly Filipino civilians who maintain them are as environmentally sound as the 15,000-foot runways they fly from.)

The story didn’t end there, because the government of Mauritius, which has a legal claim to the Chagos Islands that even Britain acknowledges, announced that it might take the British government to the International Court of Justice to get justice for the exiled islanders. Since a colonial-era British law prevents Commonwealth members from suing the British government, this would require Mauritius to leave the Commonwealth, which it certainly did not wish to do. But, said Prime Minister Paul Berenger, it would do it if necessary: “We will do it broken-heartedly, but we will do it.”

Nothing daunted, the British Foreign Office changed the rules again. On 7 July, Mr Rammell announced that “these changes…prevent any Commonwealth country from circumventing the present limitations by withdrawing from the Commonwealth and then instituting proceedings against the United Kingdom in respect of an existing dispute.” No wonder the French used to call Britain ‘perfidious Albion.’ They are probably using somewhat stronger language in Mauritius this week.

It would be too simplistic to think that British Foreign Office simply betrays and cheats the poor and the powerless without a second thought. It does do that, of course — ask all the people in British colonies who suddenly discovered that being born British subjects no longer gave them the right to live in Britain — but it also has a well developed instinct for toadying to the powerful. It took both reflexes acting in concert to deliver the people of the Chagos archipelago into exile.

The US government asked Britain to lease the Chagos archipelago to it for an airbase in the early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War but it didn’t want the inconvenience of the 1,500 inhabitants, so could they please be removed? London, ever eager to please Washington, agreed to the deal in return for a price cut on the Polaris missiles it was buying from the US. It then separated the Chagos Islands from Mauritius, which was due to gain its independence soon, and set them up as the British Indian Ocean Territory.

Then it got rid of the Chagotians. Some were tricked into leaving for medical treatment or on other false pretenses and then forbidden to return; the last hold-outs were evicted by force and simply dumped on the docks of Mauritius. Years later Britain grudgingly gave them a paltry amount of cash as compensation: the equivalent in today’s money of about $15,000 per person for the loss of their homes and a lifetime of exile. Most never really settled in elsewhere, and live in poverty today.

The breakthrough came four years ago, when the High Court in London ruled that they had a right of return. Initially, the British Foreign Office accepted the ruling, and announced a study of the feasibility of resettling the exiles not on Diego Garcia, among the bombers and the nuclear weapons, but on some of the other islands.

As recently as February, Bill Rammell told parliament he was talking to the US authorities about chartering a ship to take Chagotians back on a visit — and then, presumably, the US government said no. So the British government saluted, did a smart about-face, and said no too, changing the law twice in two months to make it stick.

When Paul Berenger flew to London last week, Prime Minister Tony Blair and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw could not even find the time to see him. Don McKinnon, secretary-general of the Commonwealth, did see him, and was clearly incensed. After meeting Berenger, the usually mild-mannered New Zealander said: “People do not like being lifted up and taken away from their homes. It is not the kind of thing you could get away with today.” But the British government IS getting away with it today.

Britain may not be powerful any more, but it still knows how to be perfidious.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 11. (“It would…exile”;and “When…today”)