Exiled islanders win 40-year battle to return home as judges accuse UK of abuse of power
An estimated 2,000 Chagossians were driven from their homes between 1967 and 1971 after Britain made a secret deal to lease the island of Diego Garcia to the US for use as an airbase. They were tricked out of their homes, encouraged to leave on temporary trips, and not allowed back.
Later, the islanders were subjected to intimidation. At one point US soldiers rounded up their dogs and gassed them. The departing Chagossians were loaded on to boats, allowed to take only one bag with them, and deposited in Mauritius, where most have lived in poverty ever since. The base has served as a refuelling stop and base for air raids in a succession of wars, most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Foreign Office said it was "disappointed" by the ruling, and said it would consider an appeal to the House of Lords. A spokeswoman said, the islanders "in theory" now had a right to go home.
Chagossians - who are descended from 18th century African and Indian labourers on French coconut plantations - are not seeking to resettle Diego Garcia itself, but other islands in the archipelago, which are from 60 to 100 miles away. US and British officials have argued that raids on the air base could be launched from those other islands, or they could be used to observe the movement of warplanes.
But yesterday's ruling meant that three British courts have decided, in effect, that security concerns cannot trump the right of the Chagos islanders to return home.
After a court declared the islanders' expulsion illegal in 2000, the government took the unusual step of blocking their return by "orders in council", a use of royal prerogative that bypassed parliament.
Last year's decision and yesterday's ruling deemed those decrees illegitimate. Lord Justice Sedley declared them to be "unlawfully made, because their content and the circumstances of their enactment constitute an abuse of power."
And why were the Americans there? It's a familiar answer: oil. It's always about oil.
In the 1960's, America's naval policy in the Indian Ocean had many ingredients. The foremost was to deter Russia from interrupting the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf countries to America and Europe. Politically, this entailed American support of Iran to counter Russian influence in Iraq. It entailed maintaining a naval presence in the Persian Gulf, and wherever possible, in the countries on the rim of the Indian Ocean, not only to secure the sea lines of communication which criss-crossed the Indian Ocean but also to inject military force from seaward when required. By 1968, the American Navy had effected the necessary adjustments in its global naval deployments.
A 2004 Guardian article was much more graphic in describing the fate of the island's inhabitants:
The story of Diego Garcia is shocking, almost incredible. A British colony lying midway between Africa and Asia in the Indian Ocean, the island is one of 64 unique coral islands that form the Chagos Archipelago, a phenomenon of natural beauty, and once of peace. Newsreaders refer to it in passing: "American B-52 and Stealth bombers last night took off from the uninhabited British island of Diego Garcia to bomb Iraq (or Afghanistan)." It is the word "uninhabited" that turns the key on the horror of what was done there. In the 1970s, the Ministry of Defence in London produced this epic lie: "There is nothing in our files about a population and an evacuation."
During the 1960s, in high secrecy, the Labour government of Harold Wilson conspired with two American administrations to "sweep" and "sanitise" the islands: the words used in American documents. Files found in the National Archives in Washington and the Public Record Office in London provide an astonishing narrative of official lying all too familiar to those who have chronicled the lies over Iraq.
At first, the islanders were tricked and intimidated into leaving; those who had gone to Mauritius for urgent medical treatment were prevented from returning. As the Americans began to arrive and build the base, Sir Bruce Greatbatch, the governor of the Seychelles, who had been put in charge of the "sanitising", ordered all the pet dogs on Diego Garcia to be killed. Almost 1,000 pets were rounded up and gassed, using the exhaust fumes from American military vehicles. "They put the dogs in a furnace where the people worked," says Lizette Tallatte, now in her 60s," ... and when their dogs were taken away in front of them, our children screamed and cried."
The islanders took this as a warning; and the remaining population were loaded on to ships, allowed to take only one suitcase. They left behind their homes and furniture, and their lives. On one journey in rough seas, the copra company's horses occupied the deck, while women and children were forced to sleep on a cargo of bird fertiliser. Arriving in the Seychelles, they were marched up the hill to a prison where they were held until they were transported to Mauritius. There, they were dumped on the docks.
In the first months of their exile, as they fought to survive, suicides and child deaths were common. Lizette lost two children. "The doctor said he cannot treat sadness," she recalls. Rita Bancoult, now 79, lost two daughters and a son; she told me that when her husband was told the family could never return home, he suffered a stroke and died. Unemployment, drugs and prostitution, all of which had been alien to their society, ravaged them. Only after more than a decade did they receive any compensation from the British government: less than £3,000 each, which did not cover their debts.
The behaviour of the Blair government is, in many respects, the worst. In 2000, the islanders won a historic victory in the high court, which ruled their expulsion illegal. Within hours of the judgment, the Foreign Office announced that it would not be possible for them to return to Diego Garcia because of a "treaty" with Washington - in truth, a deal concealed from parliament and the US Congress.
I remember seeing a documentary about the history of Diego Garcia a few years ago. Perhaps it was Pilger's 'Stealing a Nation', but I do recall being struck by the inhumanity of the situation - all in the name of the military industrial complex. I can only hope that the UK's Foreign Office will finally accept defeat in this long battle with the islanders and let them reclaim the home of their ancestors. So many empires...so many displaced and abused people.
Update: I found the documentary 'Stealing a Nation' online in its entirety here.