‘Diego Garcia—what’s all that about?’

By Dr Sean Carey

I’m always amazed by the number of otherwise politically literate people in the UK and US who have little or no idea about the whereabouts of Diego Garcia, the fate that befell the people who once lived there, or know anything about the marathon legal process involved in trying to get some of the Islanders back to their homeland. “Diego Garcia,” they are inclined to say if the topic crops up in conversation, “what’s all that about?”

What they ought to know is that the removal of around 2000 people from their homeland in the Chagos Islands, which lies about halfway between Africa and Indonesia, by the British authorities between 1968 and 1973 so that the US could use Diego Garcia, the largest and southernmost island as a military base, is without doubt one of the most shameful episodes in recent colonial history.

One of the first programmes to alert the UK public was Britain’s Other Islanders, part of Granada Television’s World in Action series, which was broadcast in 1982. It contrasted the fate of the black Chagos Islanders with the white settlers in the Falkland Islands. The difference could not have been starker: one group were forcibly removed from their homeland and dumped at the quayside either in Mauritius or the Seychelles, while the other was the beneficiary of extensive British military intervention after their island was invaded and occupied by Argentine forces on 2 April 1982.

It’s fair to say that the Chagossian issue has only achieved greater international media attention since 2000 after a series of spectacular victories in the British courts by Olivier Bancoult, leader of the Chagos Refugees Group based in Port Louis. The general view about the unlawful abuse of power by the British government in preventing the Islanders returning to their homeland was powerfully summarized by Lord Justice Sedley in the Court of Appeal in 2007. He said:

“Few things are more important to a social group than its sense of belonging, not only to each other but to a place. What has sustained peoples in exile, from Babylon onwards, has been the possibility of one day returning home… The barring of that door, however remote or inaccessible it may be for the present, is an act requiring overwhelming justification.”

Of course, there is no overwhelming justification for keeping the Chagossians in exile. However, the UK government challenged the judgement and the Chagossians lost a further appeal by a narrow 3-2 majority in the House of Lords, the highest court in the UK, in 2008. The case is now before the European Court of Human Rights, and a verdict is expected in June or July.

Not surprisingly, the Chagossians have been the subject of considerable legal commentary as the case raises issues of global significance. Perhaps the best summary is provided by Peter H Sand, a former legal adviser for the United Nations Environment Programme and currently a lecturer in environmental law at the University of Munich, in his 2009 book United States and Britain in Diego Garcia.

Cultural and social anthropologists have also studied the Islanders in Mauritius, the Seychelles and the UK. They include Edinburgh University’s Laura Jeffery, author of Chagos Islanders in Mauritius and the UK and American University’s David Vine, author of Island of Shame. Their audiences have been relatively small, however. Indeed, Vine recently wrote an article for the Huffington Post, contrasting the hugely successful new media campaign highlighting the atrocities committed by Ugandan rebel Joseph Kony, with the much harder attempt to find 25,000 signatures for the We the People website that would oblige the Obama administration to explain its policy towards the Chagossian exiles.

That said, the petition has gained a considerable amount of media attention in Mauritius and at the time of writing has around 7000 signatures. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Chagossians do not have access to the Internet, and are unable to sign up. Partly for this reason, on Monday Le Mauricien invited a number of people to contribute to the debate on Chagos in order to generate more publicity for the campaign. One of them was Oslo-based social anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen, who has conducted extensive fieldwork in Mauritius for more than two decades. He rightly pointed out that the occupation of the Chagos archipelago is illegal under international law (UN Resolutions 1514 and 2066). He added:

“The displaced Chagossians or Ilois have suffered enough. Economically and socially deprived in Mauritius since the day of their arrival – many were even deported against their knowledge, believing that they were only going on a visit – Chagossians have tirelessly, but so far unsuccessfully, campaigned for a return. Successive governments of Mauritius have also firmly demanded the return of the archipelago to Mauritius, which would enable repatriation. It is time to act, and nobody who looks at the issue from a neutral perspective can be in doubt as to where justice lies.”

That’s the message that needs to get across to a global public.

Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow in the School of Social Sciences, and Visiting Lecturer in the Business School, University of Roehampton

* Published in print edition on 30 March 2012

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