The recent legal battle between the British state and the Chagos islanders highlights some fundamental problems in pursuing a foreign policy predicated on strategic goals rather than ethical ones. By a narrow vote of three to two, the UK Supreme Court has denied the Chagos islanders the right to return home.
This is naturally a disappointing verdict. After having been dispossessed of their lands in the 1970s, the islanders themselves have eked out an uncertain existence in myriad locales, always hoping for the opportunity to return to the archipelago they hail from.
This case, however, exemplifies one of the more infamous episodes in the history of relations between Britain and the United States of America. In the 1960s, the Chagos archipelago, situated in the south of the Indian ocean, had supported a multitude of villages accommodating some two thousand inhabitants. Originally hailing from what is now Mozambique and Madagascar, the population had been settled on the islands by the French. Following the defeat of the Emperor Napoleon in 1815, the islands fell under British control, with the population being augmented by new arrivals from India. What followed was an arguably comfortable, albeit spartan existence within a territory that, perhaps thankfully, was far away from the cut and thrust of European power politics.
Yet this situation was not to last. By the 1960s the cold war between the NATO countries and the Warsaw Pact was showing signs of heating up, with both the US and Britain discerning the Chagos islands as being of military value, particularly in relation to their strategic location in the Indian ocean. The result was renewed interest by the United States, most emphatically with regard to the feasibility of constructing military facilities for the US Navy and Air Force.
The UK, then and now, proved eager to accommodate their superpower ally, in large part due to the promise of a substantial reduction in British debt and a discount on the purchase of Polaris nuclear missiles. The large island of Diego Garcia was thus leased for a fifty year period from 1966 onwards. Territory in exchange for weapons. An enticing deal. Only one problem came to mind; the presence and objections of the island’s inhabitants.
The British authorities gave the situation some thought. In exchange for the aforementioned weapons deal between the two powerful allies, the Chagos islands would be depopulated, thus clearing the way for US aspirations for establishing a sizeable military presence.
Being ever pragmatic as well as ruthless, the UK authorities adopted a mixed-method approach. Utilising force and intimidation in equal measure, the British attempted to coerce the inhabitants into leaving via the deprivation of food supplies, spreading rumours of impending bombardment, intentionally circling their homes with helicopters and, in a bizarre display of callousness, massacring their pet dogs.
“Many Chargossians leaving the islands to visit family in Mauritius or elsewhere were often not allowed to return home”, recounts Stefan Donnelly, himself Chair of the UK Chagos Support Committee. “This often led to families being separated for years. Later, food supplies were restricted to force people to leave. Pet dogs were rounded up and gassed publicly in an old shed. Chagossians have said they feared they could be next if they didn’t leave.”
The British soon resorted to more direct methods, deploying armed personnel to physically apprehend the population and drive them onto a waiting cargo ship. Domesticated animals left behind were killed. Homes were dismantled. After a brief and uncomfortable voyage, the islanders found themselves deposited in the Seychelles, where police officers and incarceration awaited them. After enjoying a brief stay in a multitude of cramped cells, the islanders were moved on to Mauritius. Bereft of both home and means, many of them settled in poverty-stricken slums, eking out an existence as best they could and hoping for a chance to return home. That chance has never materialised.
“Life in Mauritius was very hard,” argues Stefan. “Promised compensation either did not arrive or arrived years late, by which time a great number of Chagossians had fallen into debt and severe poverty. Rates of depression and drug addiction were high. Many died.”
In the meantime the Americans made themselves busy. Evidently pleased with their new acquisition, the US military constructed sizeable assets on Diego Garcia, ultimately paving way for the creation the naval and air facilities that endure to this day. This investment paid off, with the base proving itself useful as a launching pad for operations from the 2003 invasion of Iraq to the bombing of Afghanistan. In time, the base became notorious for facilitating so-called “rendition flights” and torture; an issue apparently of minimal importance for drunken US sailors partaking in shore leave.
When it came to the original inhabitants, however, the British government attempted to justify its actions by entertaining the notion that the islands had never had any genuine inhabitants to begin with. Where signs of habitation were self-evident, the authorities created the fiction that the only human presence on the island were temporary labourers, themselves establishing no permanent settlements and having no cultural or personal ties to the islands. This fiction persisted for some time, with the Chagossians being largely confined to the slums of Mauritius, their voices suitably unheard in either the corridors of power or by the general public.
As of the early 2000s, however, a number of the islanders were able to settle in the UK, bringing their grievances directly to the attention of the courts. What with a gradual declassifying of documents, the Chagossians become more evident in the public eye, with the judiciary decrying their plight and judging their original expulsion from their home as unlawful.
“The declassified documents show that the British knew Chagossians had lived on the islands for many generations, but to avoid international scrutiny they decided to pretend they were “migrant labourers” from Mauritius,” claimed Stefan. “That allowed them to simply dump the Chagossians elsewhere, with promised compensation either never arriving or only appearing years later”.
The British government, however, argued that any return to the islands would have to be carefully considered in accordance with their agreement with the US. The end result was a flat denial of any right to return, now or in the future. In 2006, however, yet another legal challenge proved successful, with the British government again being suitably chastised by the High Court and the islanders being granted the right to pack up and return to their original homes.
Unwilling to accept defeat, however, the government brought its case before the House of Lords, with the latter ruling in their favour to not allow the Chagossians to set foot on the archipelago. A subsequent challenge through the European Court of Human Rights also proved surprisingly untenable, with the islanders having their case rejected altogether on the grounds that they had already received appropriate compensation.
The most recent court battle this summer is thus a continuation of a legal, political and indeed moral conflict going back decades. Whereas again the Chagossians have been disappointed by the verdict, their struggle to return home has gained further attention in the public eye, something that will no doubt prove useful when it comes to correcting an act of monumental injustice. Whereas the Chagos archipelago now hosts extensive US military facilities and thousands of American personnel, the original inhabitants remain on the right side of history. Their struggle, successful or not, will remain a timeless example of defiance in the face of dispossession, expulsion and enduring hardship.