The Chagos Archipelago is a group of islands in the Indian Ocean. If you draw a line from Sri Lanka, at the southern tip of India, across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar, they fall roughly at the midpoint. They were once, along with nearby (in the scale of oceans) Mauritius part of the British Empire. In 1968 the islands of Mauritius won independence. Chagos, however, did not, having three years earlier been declared a separate territory.
One arm of the British government paid £3 million to another to purchase the islands, thereafter called the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). Soon after, work began developing the largest island – Diego Garcia – into a military base. The base was then leased to the USA, officially for free to our Cold War allies, but secretly in return for a discount of £5 million on the Polaris nuclear missiles that the British government were in the process of purchasing from the Americans.
Reading this, one would assume the islands were uninhabited. Not so. The native population were ‘dealt with’ in a manner only one degree better than genocide on the scale of ‘dealing with inconvenient native populations’. This week the British government refused to let those native Chagossians and their living descendants return to their homeland. Those British citizens. Denied their basic human right to live free from arbitrary exile.
Citizens Without Rights
Foreign and Colonial Office heads wrote about their plans in 1966;
“The object of the exercise is to get some rocks which will remain ours; there will be no indigenous population except seagulls . . . Unfortunately, along with the Birds go some few Tarzans or Men Fridays . . . who are hopefully being wished on Mauritius.”
These ‘Tarzans’ were at first denied boarding on the ship home if they visited neighbouring countries. Then their pet dogs, over a thousand, were shot, poisoned and gassed. Finally the remaining population were forcibly deported to Mauritius and the Seychelles. They ended up in the worst slums in Port Louis.
As details of the crime against humanity inevitably came to light in the following decades, the British government allocated compensation. First an insulting £650,000 was given to Mauritius in 1972. That money wasn’t distributed until five years later. As the islanders took the British government to court, a further £4 million was issued, and again the Mauritian government took years to sluggishly disburse it.
Under the Blair government, in 2000 the High Court ruled that the Chagossians should be allowed to return home. Foreign Secretary Robin Cook indicated that the government would comply with the ruling, but didn’t take any steps to enact it. Prompted by this frustration of the law, the Chagossians launched another court case in 2004, only to have the government throw royal prerogative at them and flatly deny that they are ‘a people’. If you’re not a people, you have no right to a homeland.
The case continued to bounce between High Court and the House of Lords. A UN tribunal concluded that Britain acted illegally. In June 2016 the Supreme Court ruling 3-2 in favour of the government. However, that case was marred by government withholding of evidence, notably a 2015 KPMG feasibility study that found no obstacle to resettlement. The majority opinion conceded that owing to this, “it is open to any Chagossian now or in the future to challenge the . . . 2004 Orders in the light of all the information now available” (paragraph 72).
Not a People
This brings us to Wednesday last week, November 16th. The government, attempting to avoid Parliamentary oversight and the potential for bad publicity, cowardly published a written statement stating that the Chagossians may not return. The next day, Conservative MP Andrew Rossindell brought an urgent question before Parliament and the government were forced to stand up in The House and defend the indefensible.
In the 500 word written statement the government twice use the phrase “the Chagossian people” and four times “Chagossians”. Yet when questioned in Parliament, Deputy Foreign Secretary Sir Alan Duncan replied that “the Chagossians were not and are not a ‘people’ for the purposes of international law and hence self-determination.”
This is a continuation of the government’s strategy towards the Chagos islanders. At least in 1970 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had the courage to admit fully, as they wrangled applications of immigration law, that “The purpose of the Immigration Ordinance is to maintain the fiction that the inhabitants of the Chagos are not a permanent or semi-permanent population”. Such claims are just that, a fiction for political ends. They don’t pass any test of jurisprudence, and must not be accepted uncontested.
The Deputy Foreign Secretary ended the debate by reaffirming that the government recognises the Chagos Islands as a distinct territory, over which they are sovereign. Yet the population who once lived within this exact geographical and political area, going back countless generations, are apparently “not a people”. In the 1960s the government had to enact a programme that specifically targeted these people because of where they lived in order to exile them. That action defines them as ‘a people’. The proof that the Chagossians are a people with a homeland is in the despicable action, the crime against humanity, that was perpetrated against them fifty years ago.
The Chagossians have the right to return, so what other excuses do the government present for disallowing it? In the written statement, they cited “feasibility, defence and security interests, and cost to the British taxpayer”. As Andrew Rosindell MP noted, “the United States was not opposed to resettlement and that any security concerns would be easily manageable”, and even the Deputy Foreign Secretary admitted that Chagossians could work on the military base. Ignoring that smoke screen, what of the feasibility and cost?
Regarding the former, the government commissioned KMPG report published in 2015 did not flag any legal or environmental impediments to resettlement. As for the latter, KPMG costed the return of 500 Chagossians at £94.2 million, and 1,500 at £370 million. The second figure includes the construction of a new international airport and port that could be avoided by sharing the use of the existing military facilities, bringing the cost down to £160 million. The Deputy Foreign Secretary posted the costs as being “between £55 million for a mere 50 people and something like £256 million for 1,500”
These are absolutely trivial amounts. Considering that Secretary Priti Patel wants to see overseas aid and investment tied more directly British interests, it could likely come from DfID’s £11.8 billion budget in 2016/17. In fact, DfID did just that and built a £285 million airport on another colonial outpost – St Helena. Unfortunately, upon completion earlier this year, it turns out it’s completely useless, unless the government commit “an open chequebook” to fix its problems with high crosswinds.
Even if DfID money couldn’t be used, just compare this cost to similar projects. The UK military spend £61 million and growing each year to defend the Falkland Islands, and in 2015 announced that an additional £280 million will be spent to improve defences there. Even the Queen will be getting £369 million to refurbish Buckingham Palace. How galling for the former residents of the Chagos islands that this news was announced on the same day their claim was deemed too expensive. The value placed on different lives.
When it comes to the responsibilities of the British government today, they are abundantly clear. These British citizens have been mistreated for half a century. As Alistair Carmichael MP said in the debate on Thursday, “If that is where the people belong and that is where they want to be, then they have an inalienable right to be there”.
Allowing or disallowing them is not a decision the government has the moral or legal right to make. The financial costs cannot be considered an impediment. They have a duty to support the islanders in every way possible so that, finally, they might enjoy the full human life they deserve.