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”)