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”)