The ethnic cleansing of the Chagos Islands

A story involving occupation, war, torture and even Jersey that goes right to the heart of British and US imperialism

Diego Garcia: Chagos Archipelago

The Chagos Islands, a beautiful archipelago of seven atolls in the Indian Ocean, comprise of more than 60 individual tropical islands of sun swept beaches and palm trees. Yet, for nearly 50 years the local Chagossian people, known as the Illois, have been denied the right of return. Their story is one of expulsion, lies, betrayal and severe poverty.

UK Foreign Office file: “Unfortunately along with the birds go some few Tarzans or Man Fridays whose origins are obscure”

Their plight began in 1965 when the Chagos Islands were “purchased” for £3 million by the UK government from its former British colony of Mauritius, creating a new British Indian Overseas Territory (BIOT). The next year in 1966 the US and UK governments came to an agreement that would allow the United States to build its first military base in the region on the largest of the Chagos Islands, Diego Garcia. This was on the basis that it would be the responsibility of the British to remove the local “Tarzans”, as one Foreign Office communication stated at the time.

The contract for the base would be for fifty years, with the further option of another twenty. As part of the agreement, but not revealed at the time, was that the UK would receive an £11 million discount on the Polaris nuclear weapons system. Weapons of Mass Destruction directly traded for human rights, the fate of the Chagossian people was set.

By 1968 the British began to expel the population of two thousand British citizens that had lived there for generations, a crime representing one of the clearest examples of ethnic cleansing in modern history. To achieve this, deplorable methods were used by the British. The local populations copra farming plantations — dried coconut flesh and coconut oil — that produced much of their wealth, were shut down.

According to the Chagossians, they were threatened with being shot or bombed if they didn't leave. Some were tricked by the offer of a free voyage form the Island while others, having left for a vacation or medical purposes, found they were no longer allowed to return. After attempts to shoot and poison their pets, more than a 1,000 were finally lured into a sealed shed and gassed.

Those who refused to leave had their diets restricted and their medical supplies cut, and by late 1968 it appears food ships had simply stopped sailing to the islands all together. Despite not being approved by Parliament or a UK court, and with the British public totally unaware, by 1973 all islanders had been removed from the BIOT of Diego Garcia and its outer islands of Salomen and Peros Banhos.

Forced to the Island of Mauritius they arrived homeless and destitute. The British government offered little in the way of compensation and provided no workable resettlement scheme. Some died of starvation or disease while many others, seeing little hope in their situation, committed suicide. Further compensation was later offered on the provision that they sign an agreement to never again return to their homeland, a cynical bribe.

Today, around 8,000 Chagossians live in Mauritius, most of them in abject poverty. Their island home of Diego Garcia would go on to play a major role in the ‘war on terror’ that would see the rise and threat of terrorism spread across the globe.

For the Chagossians a life of poverty in Mauritius

Full-spectrum superiority

Recognising the strategic significance of the resource rich Middle East, the US under President John F. Kennedy’s administration began to expand naval forces in the Indian Ocean in the early 1960s. As a nuclear base, Diego Garcia represented a major part of US Naval strategy during the Cold War era, by exploiting remote island locations the US was able to ensure greater control over regions of the globe.

By the early 1980s, with President Jimmy Carter as US Commander in Chief and the Soviets invading Afghanistan, President Carter warned of the loss of a region “containing more than two-thirds of the world’s exportable oil”. The perceived threat to strategic resources resulted in a huge expansion of US bases under what became known as the ‘Carter Doctrine’.

From then on the US began to take a much more “hands on” approach to the Middle East with Diego Garcia playing an integral part to US strategic interests. Hundreds of millions were spent on the island, representing one of the quickest expansions of a US military base since the Vietnam war. “Camp Justice” as the Americans labelled it, now included an airbase, anchorage for 30 warships, a satellite spy station, numerous amenities as well as a nuclear dump.

In 1991, with George H W Bush as President, the island was used to bomb Iraq in the first Gulf War. A decade later, Diego Garcia was once again being used as a launchpad under his son, George W Bush, for bombing missions in Afghanistan in 2001 and again later during the 2003 Iraq War, with B-1 bombers, B-2 “stealth” bombers, and B-52 long-range nuclear capable bombers now being stationed there. However, more information was to come to light about the British island and its dark role in the “war on terror”.

Although details have not been forthcoming, with both US and UK officials staunchly denying questions or disclosure about the territory, it is understood that the island was being used as a ‘black site’ by the CIA as part of their ‘extraordinary rendition’ programme — the process of abducting terrorist suspects and extra-judicially transferring them to another jurisdiction to be interrogated or tortured.

After the US and UK consistently denied any rendition suspects had been to Diego Garcia, the British government, after evidence came to light, admitted two rendition flights had passed through Diego Garcia, both only stopping to apparently refuel. However, Lawrence Wilkerson, a senior Bush administration figure, and Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, raised doubts about this assertion in a 2015 Vice interview stating that the island was a “transit site where people were temporarily housed, let us say, and interrogated from time to time” further detailing that:

you might have a case where you simply go in and use a facility at Diego Garcia for a month, or two weeks, or whatever, and you do your nefarious activities there.”

The US ambition for “full-spectrum superiority” over global regions and resources has continued on regardless of who is sitting in the Oval Office at the White House. The UK government continues to assert that the Chagos Islands are used solely for the purpose of defence. But it’s clear the situation is quite the opposite, being used repeatedly as a launchpad to attack foreign countries that have only exacerbated and increased the threat of terrorism both abroad and at home.

There are also still serious questions yet to be answered by the UK; how complicit they were in the US’ extraordinary rendition programme; whether British citizens themselves have passed through the island; why they defend British citizens rights in the Falklands but continue to deny them to the Chagossians.

B-1 Bombers on Diego Garcia

The Sure connection

Local Jersey phone and network provider Sure, which declares on the Jersey website that it’s “committed to being a responsible corporate citizen across the islands in which we operate”, expanded and merged this year with operations in the South Atlantic, including Diego Garcia. This meant that for the first time operations in the Isle of Man, Channel Islands and Diego Garcia are now managed as one group, with its headquarters based in the Channel Island of Guernsey.

As part of the merger Sure now has operational responsibility for companies within seven territories — each with a niche service and infrastructure requirements. Sure has stated that the regions of Isle of Man, Guernsey, Jersey, the Falkland Islands, Ascension Island, St Helena and Diego Garcia will enable “greater operating synergies and facilitate the sharing of knowledge, skills and expertise.”

Most of those “niche” services for Diego Garcia, the only inhabited Chagos Island, will be provided to some of the 1,700 US military personnel — as well as small contingent of British military — and 1,500–2,500 civilian contractors, mostly low wage Filipino workers, that are based on the island at any one time. No doubt next Liberation Day some of the Jersey public, elected officials and media will be sending messages of occupation, freedom and liberation using the Sure network, unaware that the same company profits off an exploited people whose homeland has remained militarily occupied for decades.

“Serving the communities where Sure operates is at the heart of the company’s approach and Sure is committed to behaving in an ethical and socially responsible manner.” Sure Diego Garcia website

The Illois fight on

Every step of the way the UK government has tried to cover up or deny its criminal actions against the Chagos islanders. This has included portraying them as merely a “floating population” or as contract workers, rather than as local inhabitants who have lived there for five generations. In the 1970s the Ministry of Defence brazenly stated “There is nothing in our files about a population and an evacuation”.

This statement was shown to be in line with secret planning documents, revealed during a court case, that showed Whitehall officials’ strategy was “to present to the outside world a scenario in which there were no permanent inhabitants on the archipelago”. Even as of last year their existence was denied on the UK Foreign Office website with the country profile for the British Indian Ocean Territory stating that there are “no indigenous inhabitants”.

Despite this, in November 2000 there was a breakthrough when UK High Court judges ruled the Chagossians should be allowed to return to their islands, except for Diego Garcia. However, even this paltry concession was overruled by the government in 2004. Applying the archaic royal prerogative the government was effectively able to nullify the decision.

In 2007 that decision was then overturned by the High Court, who rejected the government’s argument that the royal prerogative is immune from scrutiny. But hopes for the Chagossians were once again dashed when the following year the government won an appeal on the decision with the House of Lords voting three to two for the Chagossians to continue to remain as exiles.

It was clear that the UK wasn’t going to afford them their basic human rights. Left with little option they took their case to the United Nations. In June last month the vote was passed by 94 countries to 15, with the General Assembly voting to send the matter to the International Court of Justice. The Hague would now examine the legal status of the Chagos Islands. A major, if symbolic, win for the underdog.

Also, in a potential sign of Britain’s waning power post-Brexit, other EU countries abstained on the vote. Despite the Chagossians being left with little choice but to take this action, the British Foreign Office still argued after the loss that it was an “inappropriate use of the ICJ mechanism” and that it was a “matter for the UK and Mauritius to resolve”. The ICJ’s decision on the matter is not legally binding but the UK has still stated it will “robustly defend” its position.

The treatment of the Chagossian people by the British has been a most shameful crime, one that continues on today. Since the late 1960s the UK government has refused to afford them their basic human rights. Any moral argument put forward for foreign wars based on humanitarian reasons simply fall apart when the UK continues to fight to deny their own citizens the “right of return” to their homeland.

The story of the Illois pulls back the curtain to reveal how the power of Western states operate when confronted by what it considers to be “Unpeople”. The British media has mostly been silent, if not outright inline with establishment thought on the Chagos Islands, failing to even question the assertion that they are used for defence purposes. Until the UK government is held to account for its actions and follows International Law it can only be considered a rogue state, guilty of the worst crimes it regularly accuse its enemies of.

Jersey’s position is generally to follow the UK in regards to human rights, a grey area that tends to be avoided if possible and one that rarely gets questioned by politicians or the local media. All indications point towards human rights never being brought up by Jersey Ministers when dealing or trading with regimes that egregiously abuse them. A recent response to a Jersey freedom of information request on human rights states with no sense of irony that:

“We support British foreign policy in giving priority to the protection and promotion of human rights and the belief that private channels offer the best chance of delivering meaningful change on issues that are often viewed as sensitive by the governments concerned.”

For the Chagossian people any meaningful change to their situation still remains elusive, as does our indignation. Their fight against this great injustice goes on.

“One of John Pilger’s most remarkable documentaries, bringing a little-known story to a wide audience, is Stealing a Nation, about how British governments ruthlessly expelled the population of the Chagos Islands, a crown colony in the Indian Ocean, in the late 1960s and early 70s to make way for an American military base on Diego Garcia, the largest island.”

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