An aerial view of Diego Garcia, one of the Chagos Archipelago’s seven atolls. Photo: Wikimedia/Cobatfor An aerial view of Diego Garcia, one of the Chagos Archipelago’s seven atolls. Photo: Wikimedia/Cobatfor

The plight of these seven Indian Ocean atolls should be on everyone’s radar, argues Shabbir Lakha

Nobel Laureates, including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have called on fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner President Obama to support the right of resettlement for Chagossians during his last days as President. In an open letter published on 5 January 2017, the seven Nobel Laureates set out a five-point plan and make an impassioned plea to the soon departing President to overturn decades of injustice.

The ethnic cleansing of Chagos

The Chagos Archipelago is a group of many small islands in the heart of the Indian Ocean, which make up the British Indian Ocean Territory. This region which is not very well known by most people, and isn’t very big (amounting to 56 square km in total – smaller than the London Borough of Barnet) and is shrouded by a murky and tragic history.

Following the defeat of Napoleon, Great Britain took over Mauritius, Seychelles and the Chagos Islands and officially made them British colonies in the early 1800s. In 1903, Seychelles was made its own separate colony, while Chagos was attached to the Mauritius colony and was ruled from there. Although still under British rule, the Mauritian Labour Party won consecutive elections since the first general election in 1948 and the road to Independence was underway. However, in 1965, before Mauritius gained its independence in 1968, Britain purchased the Chagos Archipelago from the then Mauritian government for £3 million, making it the British Indian Ocean Territory.

The UK brokered a deal with the United States in 1966, agreeing to a 50 year lease of the Chagos Archipelago for their Armed Forces and with the intention of creating a US military base for support with the Vietnam War on Diego Garcia, the largest island in the archipelago. In order to fulfil this, the British executed a policy of depopulation and ethnic cleansing by deporting all 1,700 Chagossians and leaving them penniless in slums and refugee camps in Mauritius and Seychelles. Since 1973, the only inhabitants of the Chagos Islands are US and UK military personnel and contracted individuals. It is clear that even for externally contracted job posts, the UK have ensured that no Chagossians were able to take on these jobs.

“Unfortunately along with the birds go some few Tarzans or Man Fridays whose origins are obscure and who are being hopefully wished on to Mauritius” said one diplomatic cable in 1966, highlighting the racist attitudes of British Government Ministers at the time.

This policy was nothing short of a racist colonial expedition based on supporting the US in projecting its military aspirations for the Middle East and Asia. The return benefit for the UK is a discount in the cost of hiring the Trident nuclear missile system from the US.

The legacy of the British Empire is full of crimes but what makes the Chagos case particularly disturbing is that this took place during the decolonisation period and the government have blocked every avenue to provide justice for the displaced Chagossians.

The fight for resettlement

The Chagossian community in the UK have fought persistently in the courts to bring justice to their people and allow for their resettlement. In 2006, they were successful in the High Court of Justice where it was ruled that their expulsion was unlawful, but the British Government under the direction of David Miliband (then Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), appealed to the Court of Appeal (where it was upheld) and then to the House of Lords who overturned the ruling in 2008.

It has since been revealed that the British Government’s establishment of the world’s largest Marine Protected Area around the islands in 2010 was “the most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands’ former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling in the [British Indian Ocean Territory]” as said by Colin Roberts, then Director of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in a leaked cable.

The British Foreign Office were quick to assure their American counterparts, according to the leaked cables, that the Marine Protected Area’s logistics were to be negotiated together to ensure that it protects the interests of the US and its military base.

Evidence seen by the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence when conducting its investigation into CIA torture as part of the War on Terror showed that the military base on Diego Garcia had been used for rendition flights with the full cooperation of the UK. A Libyan dissident who was allegedly abducted and returned to Libya via Diego Garcia today won the right to sue former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, the Foreign Office and Home Office.

No political will

Despite a KPMG feasibility report on behalf of the UK Government confirming that resettlement by the Chagossians is entirely feasible and at a minimal cost, the UK Foreign Office decided against resettlement in November 2016. With the 50 year lease to the US military that started in 1966 coming into review, the decision was made to extend the agreement until 2036 after which the terms may be renegotiated. The Foreign Office “squandered a perfect opportunity to right this historical wrong” according to Tom Guha of the UK Chagos Support Association.

Jeremy Corbyn, a long standing supporter of the right to resettlement for Chagossians, made a point of bringing up their plight when he met President Obama last year.

In the open letter, Nobel Laureates point out that the Chagossians are not asking for the US military base to be closed and that “civilians live next to U.S. bases worldwide and military experts agree resettlement would pose no security risk on Diego Garcia.” Given the lack of political will shown by successive British and American governments over the last 5 decades in providing any kind of justice for the people of Chagos and Obama’s two days left in office, it seems the fight of the Chagossians for their basic human rights must still continue.

Shabbir Lakha

Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.