In the end, then, it was no surprise that the exiled Chagos Islanders’ right to return to their former homes was turned down by the Law Lords in London.
In the 1960s, Diego Garcia, the centerpiece of the Chagos Islands (which are part of the British Overseas Territories) was leased to the United States for use as a strategically important airbase.
The deal had two crucial components: one was a sizeable discount on Polaris, Britain’s nuclear missile programme, and the other was the removal from the islands (to a life of poverty in Mauritius and the Seychelles) of the 2,000 inconvenient British subjects (the “residents”), who traced their ancestry back nearly 200 years to African- and Indian-born labourers from Mauritius, shipped in by French coconut planters in the years before Napoleon’s fall and the transfer of the islands’ sovereignty to the UK.
To be honest, the Chagossians never stood a chance, even though their long legal struggle had secured significant victories. In 2000, when the High Court ruled that the islanders’ expulsion had been illegal, foreign secretary Robin Cook made it clear that he supported their case, but was overruled by Prime Minister Tony Blair, who blocked their return by “orders in council,” an ancient royal prerogative that conveniently bypassed parliament.
In 2006, three judges, declaring that Blair’s actions were illegitimate, upheld the islanders’ right to return, ordering the government to pay their legal costs and attempting to withhold support for an appeal to the House of Lords, and in May 2007 the court of appeal upheld that decision, ruling that the British government’s removal of the men, who, as the Guardian explained, were “tricked out of their homes, encouraged to leave on temporary trips, and not allowed back,” was an “abuse of power.”
Nevertheless, the importance of Diego Garcia to the US government in the years since the 9/11 attacks has ensured that Tony Blair’s relentless support of the Bush administration would trump Robin Cook’s almost forgotten attempts to secure an “ethical” foreign policy for the UK. In the persistent warmongering of the last seven years, Diego Garcia’s strategic importance to the US has been more pronounced than ever.
The first ground troops in the Afghan invasion set off from Diego Garcia, countless bombers have used the base as they have embarked on the missions that have killed so many civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, perhaps most importantly, other planes have arrived bearing precious cargo: allegedly important prisoners in the “War on Terror.” Some, like the Australian David Hicks and Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban’s ambassador to Pakistan, were interrogated, in the early days of the “War on Terror,” in the bowels of ships moored off the coast of Diego Garcia, and others, it appears, were held in a secret prison on Diego Garcia itself, as I reported in an article this summer.
Set against such an important component in the “War on Terror,” therefore, it was clear that the demands of the Chagossians were never going to succeed. However, what made the verdict particularly galling, beyond the spinelessness of the Lords, was a statement by the current foreign secretary David Miliband — who has yet to explain in a satisfactory manner if the British government actually knew anything about a secret prison on Diego Garcia — in which he noted “the government’s regret at the way the resettlement of the Chagossians was carried out in the 1960s and 1970s and at the hardship that followed for some of them.”
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed, and see here for my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, published in March 2009.
As published on Liberal Conspiracy.
I fear that the same fate is going to happen to the Tamils in Sri Lanka as an attempt to occupy the famous “Trincomalee” harbour.
Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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