“Being in Chagos is an incredibly special experience,” says Rachel Jones, deputy team leader of the Aquarium at Zoological Society of London (ZSL) London Zoo, in a new YouTube posting extolling the “unique” environment of the warm, pristine waters of the Chagos Archipelago. “It’s literally like going back in time… It’s what reefs, I imagine, were like 50 or 60 years ago. She adds: “It’s very special being somewhere where you know you’re the only one there. There’s no one else around.”
How nice, you might think, that UK marine scientists can explore the corals and monitor shoals of fish in the “British Indian Ocean Territory”. But what Jones omits to mention is that 50 or 60 years ago there was a vibrant community of around 1700 islanders living in harmony with the environment. The only reason there isn’t now is that the entire population was sent into exile.
The shameful history of what happened was neatly summarised by Baroness Whitaker in the debate on the Queen’s Speech in the House of Lords last week. She said: “In 1965 our Government detached the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in order to form a separate British Indian Ocean Territory, in defiance of four UN resolutions. They reclassified the inhabitants as contract workers, made the largest, most southerly, island, Diego Garcia, available to the United States for use as a military base, and gradually removed the Chagossians from all the islands, eventually depositing them in Mauritius and the Seychelles during 1971 to 1973.”
Since then the islanders, the descendants of African slaves and Indian indentured labourers, have been fighting a marathon legal campaign to restore the right of return. After a series of spectacular victories in the lower courts, the Chagossians, led by Port Louis-based electrician Olivier Bancoult, were narrowly defeated by a 3-2 verdict in the House of Lords in 2008. There was a further setback last December when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the case was inadmissible, because many of the islanders exiled in Mauritius (though not those in the Seychelles) had accepted compensation from the UK in 1982.
Back in the Upper House, Lord Astor the Coalition Government’s spokesman replied with customary courtesy. “The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, asked why the Chagos islanders could not return. We regret what happened in the late 1960s and 1970s. The responsibility for decisions taken then has been acknowledged by successive Governments. However, the reasons for not allowing resettlement, namely feasibility and defence security, are clear and compelling.”
Lord Astor was clearly reading from an old brief because the Foreign & Commonwealth Office is now being forced to come to terms with overwhelming evidence that neither reason given is clear and compelling. Why? Well, first the base is around 140 miles from the outer islands in the Archipelago, such as Peros Banhos and Salomon, which could be resettled. It’s simply not credible to believe that a few hundred Chagossians would jeopardise US operations. Secondly, if Diego Garcia remains viable for some 3500 military personnel and ancillary workers then logic dictates that the other islands can also be made suitable.
Furthermore, pressure continues to mount both in the UK and internationally. Earlier this year in an article for The Mirror, former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott made his feelings clear. “I’m ashamed the UK governments allowed this to happen. It was wrong and we must make amends,” he wrote. (Since then Lord Prescott has joined the Chagos All Party Parliamentary Group; so too has former Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Lord Ashcroft.)
A few days ago, in an article for Libération, JMG Le Clezio also denounced the brutal removal of the islanders from their homeland as an “organised denial of human rights”. He claimed that the failure of the court in Strasbourg to take action was a “denial of justice” and a clear example of “moral cowardice”. The 2008 Nobel Prize winner for literature, who holds dual French and Mauritian nationality, suggests that it is part of the “indifference of the powerful” to those who are obliged to live on the margins.
It’s difficult to disagree – unless, of course, you work for the ZSL and other conservation groups which are content to ignore the misfortune and misery of those who were in Chagos long before they were.
Dr Sean Carey is research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Roehampton
* Published in print edition on 24 May 2013