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Camp Injustice

By Richard Hindes


 

As the bombs rained down on Baghdad in March and April 2003 I’m sure many of us were glued to our TV sets, unable to pull away from the unfolding horror. If you were among the entranced you may vaguely recall the occasional mention of the US military base, known as ‘Camp Justice’, on Diego Garcia from which many of the bombers had flown to deliver their deadly cargo. References to the base were fleeting at best, a brevity which contradicts the significance of the base’s history to anybody seeking to understand and perhaps even challenge British imperialism.

 

Diego Garcia is the largest island in the Chagos Archipelago, a chain of coral islands in the Indian Ocean. Although the islands were known to Arab seafarers, they were “discovered” by the Portuguese, who gave Diego Garcia its current name, in the Sixteenth Century, although they didn’t settle. The island was settled by French colonists, who brought with them slaves to work the land, in 1776. The colony was established on condition that they also set-up a leper colony there.

 

British colonists took control of the islands in the aftermath of the Napoleonic war, freeing the slaves who took control of the plantations and established their own economy. The freed slaves lived peacefully on the islands, occasionally travelling to Mauritius to trade and developed their own distinctive culture and Creole language. This state of affairs continued until the 1960s when their way of life was brought to an abrupt halt by the actions of the British government.

 

The US had decided that they wanted a military base in the Indian Ocean. There first choice had been the Aldabra Atoll. Although this was uninhabited, the then British Prime Minister was concerned that the presence of a rare breed of turtle on the island might lead to controversy were the US to set up a base there. Instead, Diego Garcia was offered, even though it was inhabited.

 

Britain ensured that it maintained control of the Chagos Archipelago by ensuring that it was incorporated into the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) when Mauritius became independent. Carving Mauritius up in this way was a violation of UN Declaration 1514 which stated the inalienable right of colonial peoples to independence and Resolution 2066 of 1965, which Britain never signed, which required the UK to “take no action which would dismember the territory of Mauritius and violate [its] territorial integrity”. (Incidentally the BIOT originally also included Aldabra, Farquar and Desroches which have subsequently been reclaimed by the Seychelles.)

 

Although Diego Garcia is ostensibly British and hosts a token British military presence, the island was secretly leased to the Americans for 50 years in 1966. This was done in exchange for a discount on the purchase of millions of pounds of Polaris missiles by the UK. This meant that the payment could be concealed and allowed the deal to go through without being discussed by the US Congress, the British Parliament or the UN.

 

The US didn’t only want the island itself, they also wanted it and the archipelago “swept and sanitised” which meant the removal of the population, who by then numbered around 2,000. This was achieved in various ways, none of them particularly admirable. Some Chagossians found themselves unable to return to the archipelago after a routine visit to Mauritius, others were threatened with bombing if they failed to leave. The more stubborn were simply loaded onto ships and taken to a prison on the Seychelles. In one particularly deplorable incident around 1,000 of the islanders dogs were gassed using the exhaust fumes from military vehicles in order to encourage the Chagossians to leave.

 

Most of the population ended up in Mauritius where they found themselves condemned to a life of poverty, destitution and racial discrimination. Most were given nothing by the British government, although a handful who held a sit-in on the ship which had brought them to the island were rewarded with small payments from the High Commission. Mauritius was already racked by overcrowding and high unemployment and unsurprisingly the newcomers were not exactly made to feel welcome. As a result of their plight rates of alcoholism, drug use and even suicide were chronic. Many of the islanders died, whether at their own hand or from malnutrition.

 

Not content to simply accept the injustice done to them, many Chagossians have struggled to have their rights recognized. In 1973 the British government provided the Mauritian government with £3650,000 to aid the exiles. It was originally intended that some of this would be used to resettle them on farmland, but there were extensive disagreements and the Chagossians were desperate for the money. Ultimately the resettlement plan was abandoned and the money was disbursed. Although some were able to obtain better housing, many had been forced to borrow money and had to use their share to pay back the debt, meaning they were little better of, if at all. In 1982 the Chagossians were finally allotted more money by the British government. The sum of £4 million was provided as a “full and final settlement”, but to obtain this the exiles had to give up their right to return to their homes. In May 2002 they were granted British passports although some have suggested that this is a “poisoned chalice” intended to weaken claims for further compensation and for the right of return.

 

Alongside the expulsion itself, there were extensive Foreign Office machinations to keep the sordid affair secret. Key to this is to what historian Mark Curtis has described as “[t]he giant lie at the heart of British policy... that the Chagossians were never permanent inhabitants of the islands but simply ‘contract labourers.’” In a secret note to Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1969, Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart noted that it would be helpful “if we can present any move as a change of employment for contract workers rather than as a population resettlement.” This was a fiction maintained by successive governments until recently. In fact, as the government now admits, there was in fact a settled population and many of the Chagossians were fifth-generation islanders. Lawyer for the islanders Richard Gifford argues, based on his examination of various Foreign Office documents relating to the expulsion, that all the mandarins behind this cover-up were concerned about was that they might be caught and that, as far as they were concerned, the effect on the people who they had exiled was essentially irrelevant.

 

The full extent of this cover-up didn’t come to light until Chagossians brought a case over their expulsion to the High Court. The Court ruled in 2000 in a landmark decision, that the expulsion of the Chagossians was unlawful. The order that had expelled them should, the court held, be changed immediately, allowing those born on the island and their children to return and resettle. However the British government insisted that its treaty obligations with the US must be fulfilled, meaning the right of return did not extend to Diego Garcia itself.

 

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office commissioned a feasibility study into resettlement which reported in June 2002. They have sought to use this as evidence that resettlement of the island is infeasible. However Harvard resettlement expert Jonathan Jenness described the study's conclusions as “erroneous in every assertion” and also criticised the lack of data, lack of objectivity, and a complete failure to consult with the Chagossians themselves. Key to the government’s case was that the report demonstrated that the consequences of climate change made resettlement impossible. Tam Dayell MP noted, however, that the report judged that these consequences couldn’t be quantified at the present time leading him to conclude that the governments inferences vis-à-vis the practical ramification of climate change on resettlement had “crept in from somewhere else.”

 

The presence of the largest US military base outside the continental United States, which the US government are currently seeking to extend permission for until 2016 would seem to discredit suggestions that the archipelago is about to disappear beneath the waves. This conclusion has only been reinforced in light of the Indian Ocean Tsunami which devastated so many islands in the area, but left Diego Garcia essentially untouched as a result of fortuitous ocean topography.

 

Following the publication of the report, there were no major developments around the issue for two years until June 10 2004. This was ‘Super Thursday’ and saw European, local and GLA elections. It was also the day selected to have the Queen sign two Orders in Council (the British Indian Ocean Territory (Legislation) Order 2004 and the British Indian Ocean Territory (Constitution) Order 2004) which would prevent the Chagossians from setting foot on the islands where they were born. Orders in Council are executive powers and become law once signed by the Monarch, requiring no consultation or debate. John Pilger has remarked that dictatorships operate in a similar fashion, albeit without the “quaint ritual”.

 

Given the method selected to achieve this aim and the date on which the government chose to do it, it seems difficult to avoid the conclusion that this was another government attempt to “bury bad news”. The use of Orders in Council has attracted considerable controversy. Jeremy Corbyn, a committed advocate of the rights of the Chagossians instigated a Parliamentary debate on the issue, which saw the government’s position attacked by members of all three main parties and the Scottish National Party (SNP).

 

Apparently angered by the British government’s decision, Mauritius has hinted that it may try to take the UK to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at the Hague in order to reassert its sovereignty over the islands. To do so would require Mauritius to leave the Commonwealth, which Mauritian PM Paul Berenger has said he is prepared to do. Britain sought to prevent Mauritius from taking the case to the ICJ and when Berenger came to the UK last July both Jack Straw and Tony Blair were “unable” to meet him. The UK’s handling of the issue drew criticism from Commonwealth General-Secretary Don McKinnon. Indeed The Times reported that he “all but accused Britain of behaving like an old-fashioned colonial power”.

 

British treatment of Berenger compares poorly with the performance of George W. Bush who met with the Mauritian PM (as did Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice) when he visited the US recently. Berenger described the president as “receptive” to the views of the Mauritian government and noted that he “took a positive attitude to this whole issue”. What we are to make of our government being out done by George Bush in the diplomacy stakes is not entirely clear.

 

Having been granted British passports in 2002 a number of Chagossians have travelled to the UK hoping to find work and accommodation. They were hardly greeted with opened arms, but local councils were forced by the courts to provide support for them and there are now small communities in Surrey and Sussex. The government has refused throughout to provide financial aid to the affected councils.

 

The plight of the Chagossians has continued for almost forty-years now, yet remains scandalously unknown, even within the ranks of the British anti-war and anti-imperialist movements. John Pilger’s recent documentary on the issue shown on ITV in October last year has gone some way towards rectifying this state of affairs, but the primary task for anyone concerned to help the Chagossians and rectify the injustice which has been done to them, remains awareness raising.

 

The UK Chagos Support Association is the pre-eminent organisation campaigning on the issue in the UK and is supported by Jeremy Corbyn and Tam Dayell among others. In Mauritius the issue has been picked up by the government who regard the archipelago as Mauritian territory, although leader of the Chagossians Olivier Bancoult has stated publicly that he is unconcerned by Mauritius’ sovereignty claims, apparently because they have expressed only a minimal interest in the plight of the islanders.

 

Mauritian socialist group Lalit (‘struggle’) are also active on the matter and are planning a peace flotilla to visit the islands in order to express their demands, but also as a way of generating publicity. As ever, however, the most consistent campaigners have been the victims, many of them now elderly who hold regular protests and recently even threatened to begin a hunger strike outside the British High Commission.

 

The story of the Chagos Archipelago should provide ample evidence to disabuse any rational person of the fundamental decency of the British Government. The relatively small population involved may have counted against the Chagossians, but hardly seems relevant. The murder of Kenneth Bigley by Islamic extremists in Iraq was universally viewed with horror and disgust, with good reason, anyone suggesting that this was unimportant or even acceptable simply because he was merely one person would be dismissed out of hand. The same logic applies here. The archipelago’s central role as a staging post US imperialism (planes involved in any attack on Iran are likely to fly out of Diego Garcia) can only underline the importance of the issue.

 

This should be a national scandal. It’s up to us to make sure that it becomes one.

 

 

Richard Hindes is a student and activist particularly involved in the anti-war movement.

He maintains a blog ( http://disillusionedkid.blogspot.com ) and can be contacted as disillusioned_kid_AT_yahoo.co.uk 

 

May 2005

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