Diego Garcia is an uninhabited island in the Indian Ocean, part of the Chagos Archipelago, home to one of the most important US military overseas bases, from which e.g. B-52 bombing missions were launched against Afghanistan and Iraq. Diego Garcia is not an US possession though, but is leased from the United Kingdom, starting from 1971. The US needed a secure base in the Indian Ocean, both to counter Soviet moves as well as to establish a secure intelligence post there.
At the time when the US first started showing interest into establishing a base in the Indian Ocean in the early 1960ties, the Chagos Archipelago was part of the British colony of Mauritius, which was on the brink of independence. The UK offered Mauritius their freedom, as well as 3 million UK pounds if they gave up their claim to the Chagos islands. Having done so, the UK then incorperated them as well as some other islands into the British Indian Ocean Territory, or BIOT. This was then quietly, without debate in Parliament, leased out to the Americans for fifty years, in order for them to built their base. In return, the US offered a $11 million subsidiy on the Polaris nuclear missile system the UK was then buying from them.
So far, so what. Letting your ally establish a military base on your territory is hardly sordid, now is it? In this case, it is. Because at the time the US started building its base there, it wasn’t uninhabited. Nor where the other islands of the Chagos Archipelago. Before the US started building, the island group was home to the Ilois, which had been there for at least two hundred years.
So what happened to them, that they don’t live there anymore ? They got forcibly removed to Mauritius, forbidden to return to their homes and indeed kept away from it by force, all without any form of compensation, because the US wanted their base to be “secure”. All of which was blatantly illegal, both under international law and under British law, as established by the judgement in a lawsuit against the British Foreign Office undertaken by several of the Archipelago’s inhabitants:
“Section 4 of the Ordinance effectively exiles the Ilois from the territory where they are belongers and forbids their return. But the ‘peace, order, and good government’ of any territory means nothing, surely, save by reference to the territory’s population. They are to be governed: not removed. … I cannot see how the wholesale removal of a people from the land where they belong can be said to conduce to the territory’s peace, order and good government. … In short, there is no principled basis upon which section 4 of the Ordinance can be justified as having been empowered by section 11 of the BIOT Order. And it has no other conceivable source of lawful authority.”
Now originally, the US wanted to establish a base on a different island elsewhere in the Indian Ocean, the island of Aldabra, north of Madagascar. But this was home to a rare species of giant turtle and if a base where to be established there it would undergo much opposition from ecologists and nature lovers. Whereas nobody would bat an eyelid if a few hundred or so islanders would be robbed from their homes, as long as it could be plausibly denied that they were permanent residents.
Which is exactly what Britain did, starting from 1965 onwards. They consistently talked about the people living in the Chagos Archipelago as if they were only migrant workers for the copra plantations, and were “reall” Mauritanians. The British Foreign Office knew perfectly well this was untrue, but it was a convenient figleaf to justify the expulsion of the Ilois people. For the next thirty years, this would continue to be the official line of the UK government, until the island people finally won recognition through their court case against the Foreign Office. Not that this meant their troubles were over; the US still refuses to let them back into their homes.
I came across this case while reading Body of Secrets, a history of the US National Security Agency, written by James Bamford, which intrigued me enough to do some more online research about it. It just one example of why I don’t trust either the UK or US very much when it comes to the War on Terror and the invasion of Iraq, regardless of whether I trust Bush or Blair personally. Both are far too willing to chose realpolitik over humanitarian concerns and plain decency.
Body of Secrets, James Bamford, ISBN: 0-09-942774-5 (UK edition), pages 163-166
The Chagos Islands: A sordid tale, BBC News online, 3 November 2000.
Thirty years of lies, deceit and trickery that robbed a people of their island home, Ewen MacAskill and Rob Evans, The Guardian, November 4 2000
Diego Garcia: The ‘criminal question’ doctrine, Charles Judson Harwood Jr.