Six months ago, I wrote a piece for rabble.ca describing the appalling treatment of the people of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean by the British government.
The islands were purchased by the government of Britain in 1966 from Seychellois Chagos Agalega Company, with the initial intention of running them as a U.K. government-owned plantation enterprise. This proved less profitable than the establishment of Cold War strategic military bases, so the islanders were removed.
Last spring, amid the campaigning and bombast of the U.K. elections which booted out Labour and returned a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, a historic announcement was made about the establishment of a marine protection zone (MPZ) around the islands. It was controversial because it killed the hopes of the islanders of ever returning home. Many now live in poverty in Mauritius and Britain.
The islands are small pieces of land, the islanders are powerless and dispersed. They are not written about often.
When it comes to the Chagos Islands, successive British governments have engaged in ignoble conduct. When the British government produced a feasibility study which suggested the islands were inhabitable and were in fact sinking, it was swiftly followed by plans announced by the U.S. government to expand their base on Diego Garcia.
Then, on Dec. 3, the saga took a new turn.
Whistleblower website Wikileaks confirmed the worst of suspicions by releasing a document, as part of the U.S. diplomatic cables leak, that stated the marine reserve was established primarily to legally block attempts by the Chagossians to return to their homeland.
When they read the document, those at the heart of the situation became even more angry, thanks the tone of British bureaucrats.
In the leak, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office director of overseas territories, Colin Roberts, was reported to have used hugely offensive language when describing the Chagossian community as being comprised of “Man Fridays.” It was shocking that even in these days, Roberts, who was also commissioner for the British Indian Ocean Territories would use language that echoed a predecessor called Dennis Greenhill, who in 1966 described the indigenous islanders as being a “few Tarzans or Man Fridays.”
Equally offensively, Roberts went on to state:
“We do not regret the removal of the population.”
These comments by Roberts were recorded in the cable under a sub-section entitled “Je Ne Regrette Rien.”
This was directly in conflict with his boss at the time, U.K. foreign minister and Labour MP David Miliband, who remarked shortly after the House of Lords judgment in Oct. 2008 that: “…I should repeat the government’s regret at the way the resettlement of the Chagossians’ was carried out.”
Another damning admission by Roberts in the document was the comment that the “environmental lobby is far more powerful than the Chagossians’ advocates [in this case],” ensuring that the two sides would be at odds and presuming the islanders’ claims were less significant.
During Miliband’s consultation on the proposals, a submission was received from Greenpeace which strongly supported the plans to set up the MPZ. While stressing that they opposed the presence of a U.S. base, they were in complete support of the zone and felt that there was:
“…an overwhelming case that the British government should declare a full no-take marine reserve for the whole of the territorial waters.”
Ben Fogle, joint patron of the U.K. Chagos Support Association (UKCSA) who was supportive of the MPZ, wrote in a letter last week that he had been “duped” and was particularly angry during an open letter to the Guardian newspaper when he wrote:
“I now regret my support of the marine sanctuary and look forward to joining the islanders in their campaign to return home.”
The Chagos Islands officially became an MPZ at midnight on 1st Nov., just weeks before the Wikileaks releases, and much to the delight of environmentalists. The development infuriated Mauritius and led to a diplomatic spat where Princess Anne was snubbed during her visit to Mauritius by the Navin Ramgoolam, that country’s prime minister.
But why did the British take this route to begin with? To help the U.S. to a military base in the centre of the Indian Ocean, a place as strategic today as it was when the U.S.S.R existed? To shut down all claims from a people who would live alongside such a base?
According the The Guardian newspaper the answer is “yes.”
“In May 2009… Roberts… told the Americans Diego Garcia’s value in ‘assuring the security of the US and UK’ had been ‘much more than anyone foresaw’ in the 1960s, when the plan to set up the base was hatched.”
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour MP for Islington North and long time friend of the Chagossian cause, was furious following the revelations from the leaked documents. He said that “Colonialism is alive and well in the Foreign Office” and called it a “disgraceful abuse of the Chagos Islanders.”
Six months ago, I condemned the creation of the MPZ as being an attempt to “pre-empt the forthcoming judgment” from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), which has been expected in the latter part of this year and is now due to take place in early 2011.
At the time of writing this, Greenpeace has yet to formally respond to the submission that the world’s largest marine park was actually part of a wider ploy to deny the Chagossians their right to return home.
The leaked documents reinforce the idea that nothing the British government says in relation to the Chagos Islands can ever be taken at face value.
I am thankful for the Wikileaks revelations. My friends and I dread to consider what helplessness we would all have felt had this information come out in a few years’ time. As angry as Chagossian supporters are, there is a feeling of hope that perhaps it is still not too late for the sins since 1966 to be finally addressed and for an exiled indigenous community to be finally allowed a return home.
Clency Lebrasse is a U.K.-based freelance journalist, activist and second-generation naturalized Mauritian citizen living in Nottingham, England.
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