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”)