“Jean-Luc, we’re only moving six hundred people.” — Admiral Dougherty
“How many people does it take before it becomes wrong? Hmm? A thousand? Fifty thousand? A million? How many people does it take, Admiral!?” — Picard
Star Trek: Insurrection
I first came across the story of the Chagos Islanders in Tim Slessor’s book ‘Lying in State’, a story I read with a mixture of shame, sorrow and anger.
You’ll find a fair synopsis of the events leading to the forced relocation of the Chagossians in this report [from 2000] on the BBC News website – it omits a few basic details; for example, the partitioning off of the Chagos Islands from Mauritius before independence was illegal under international law, a fact known to civil servants in the Foreign Office at the time, hence the strenous efforts they went to to conceal their actions from the United Nations but otherwise sets the scene quite nicely.
At the point at which Slessor’s account ends there did seem room for hope for the future of the Chagossians – as the BBC report notes, the Foreign Office did not appeal the decision of the High Court that they had been illegally expelled from their homeland in 1971; a feasibility study into the possibility of a return to those islands not now occupied by the US Naval Base on Diego Garcia – a supposedly ‘austere facility’, although you can assess its austerity for yourself here and see how its developed into ‘Camp Justice’ [an ironic name in the circumstances] over the years here – had been carried out and if the representatives of the government that the UK Chagos Support Association were meeting with were dragging their heels rather, well the High Court had ruled and the law was, so they thought, on their side.
Or so they thought until June 10 2004 when, on the day that local and European elections took place and the news filled with stories of Labour defeats at the polls, a meeting of the Privy Council passed two orders in relation to the British Indian Ocean Territory – the territory illegally created in 1965 which encompasses the Chagos Islands – the The British Indian Ocean Territory (Constitution) Order 2004 and the The British Indian Ocean Territory (Immigration) Order 2004.
[Don’t bother looking for the text of these orders, neither has been published openly – the best you’ll find is two lines referring to them on the second page of the notice of orders approved by the Privy Council on that date.]
These orders, which were passed at the meeting in the most perfunctory fashion [Peter Hain, on behalf of the government, read their respective titles – not even the full text was read – and those present said ‘aye’] in government speak ‘restore the legal position to what it had been understood to be before the High Court decision of 3 November 2000’ – actions which were illegal in UK and international law at the time they were taken and which had been ruled illegal by the High Court at judicial review, suddenly became legal by executive order. No debate. No right of Appeal. The Chagossians right to go home to the land of their birth was removed at the stroke of a pen, in secret – no one informed the Chagossians of this order in advance – and in perpetuity.
If you’re curious as to the thinking behind these orders, this written Ministerial statement from Jack Straw to the Chairman of the Common Foreign Affairs Select Committee [reproduced below] should explain everything – you’ll note the line in Straw’s prefatory comments which states:
“This is a case where I had to exercise the right, which I reserved in the last paragraph of my letter, not to follow that procedure in certain circumstances, because the sensitivity of the issue meant that confidentiality was imperative until the measures were taken.”
Presumably the imperative Straw mentions is that of not allowing the Chagossians and their supporters to know what was being planned until it was too late, precluding legal proceeding to prevent these orders being made.
From this point forward my own comments and annotations are included in italics.
BRITISH INDIAN OCEAN TERRITORY
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Bill Rammell): I would like to inform the House of developments in relation to the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).
In 1965, prior to Mauritius achieving independence in 1968, and with the agreement of the Mauritius Council of Ministers, the islands of the Chagos Archipelago were detached [illegally] from Mauritius to form part of the British Indian Ocean Territory. The territory was created to provide for the defence needs of both Britain and the United States of America [The US were granted a 50 year lease on Diego Garcia under which they demanded, and were granted a 150 mile ‘exclusion zone’ around the island. There are two other inhabitable islands in the chain which the chaogossians could have been safely relocated to, both being more than 80 miles from Diego Garcia, were it not for this]. Subsequently, the plantations on which the population of the islands had depended for their livelihood were run down and closed; and the inhabitants—the Chagossians—were in due course relocated to Mauritius and Seychelles, from where they or their families originated. [The first that any Chagossians knew of this was when, after a visit to Mauritius for supplies, they were refused the right to embark for the return journey. As for their having originated on Mauritius and the Seychelles, what they Foreign Office deliberately concealed at the time of the relocation was that some of the islanders were, by then, third and fourth generation inhabitants of Diego Garcia. In UN terms that made them ‘belongers’ with a legal right, in international law, to live on the islands.] The vast majority of them automatically acquired Mauritian or Seychelles citizenship when those countries respectively achieved independence. In addition, the British Overseas Territories Act 2002 gave a large number of them British citizenship. This carries with it the right of abode in this country, which some of them have already taken up, and freedom of access to other EU countries. Following the relocation, Britain made £650,000 available for the express purpose of assisting resettlement. And in 1982 Britain made a further ex gratia payment of £4 million for the benefit of the Chagossian community in Mauritius. [There are now over 4,500 Chagossians living in exile, many of them elderly, which means Britain’s ex-gratia ‘settlement’ works out to just over £1,000 per person. In order to get their share of the £4 million payoff from 1982, the most illiterate Chagossians were asked to sign full-on legal documents in which they signed away, without realising it, their rights to ever return to the islands – yep, we pulled out all the legal stops on this one. This was to result, when matters came before a court, in a parade of elderly islanders standing in the witness box before a British court in full regalia, where they we condescendingly informed by the Crown’s barrister – via a translator in most cases – that they must have known what they we signing for when they signed the paperwork. One is only surprised that, as they did the McLibel case, the Crown’s barrister didn’t then resort to conversing in Latin just to make doubly sure that the Chagossian’s hadn’t got a clue what the fuck was going on.]
In November 2000 the High Court in the UK held in judicial review proceedings that a provision of the territory’s immigration law that had previously precluded the Chagossians from returning to the territory without a permit was invalid. In the circumstances which then obtained, it was decided not to appeal against that ruling, and the immigration law was amended to reflect it.
Following the [forced] departure of the Chagossians in the late 60s and early 70s, the economic conditions and infrastructure that had supported the community of plantation workers ceased to exist [Fuck me, you don’t say!]. While the judicial review proceedings were still pending, the Government therefore commissioned a feasibility study by independent experts to examine and report on the prospects for re-establishing a viable community in the outer islands of the territory. The latest report of the study was delivered after the November 2000 judgment and it was then placed in the Library of the House. It concluded that:
“. . . whilst it may be feasible to resettle the islands in the short-term, the costs of maintaining long-term inhabitation are likely to be prohibitive. Even in the short-term, natural events such as periodic flooding from storms and seismic activity are likely to make life difficult for a resettled population . . . Human interference within the atolls, however well managed, is likely to exacerbate stress on the marine and terrestrial environment and will accelerate the effects of global warming. Thus resettlement is likely to become less feasible over time.”
[So having deliberately fucked up what passed for their economy, a modest trade in copra which made enough to sustain the islanders quite happily, you’re now going to add global warming to your excuses for not allowing them go home. It’s also a little odd to find that the presence of a mere 4,500 islanders can be considered a threat to the environment so bad that it will actually accelerate global warming yet the big fuck off US Naval Base at Diego Garcia, which has a 2 mile long runway big enough to accomodate B2 bombers is of no environmental concern at all.
Guess what? The Chagos Islands even have their own tame band of officially sanctioned ‘treehuggers’ – the Chagos Conservation Trust which was set up in 1992 and registered as a charity in 1994 – you can read their entry on the register of charities here. Interestingly, when we come to look at this organisation’s trustees we find that one, a Mr Nigel Wenban-Smith, just happens to be a former British Commissioner of the Chagos Islands (resident in London) from 1982 to 1986, while the secretary of the Trust, and its main contact, is a Mr Simon Hughes, residing in a flat in Camberwell – you don’t suppose this could be THE Simon Hughes, it’s impossible to tell as the MP’s register of interests excludes unremunerated positions in the charity and voluntary sector. Yet another trustee is – wait for it – Paul Pearce-Kelly, curator of invertebrates (how appropriate) at the Zoological Society in London – that’s Regent’s Park Zoo if anyone’s unsure. So the Chagos Islands, lo and behold, has its own ‘conservation organisation’ that is absolutely fucking raddled with establishment interests – anyone smell a rat, here? Or would that upset the delicate ecology of the area]
Specifically with reference to climate change, the report advised that:
“. . . the main issue facing a resettled population on the low-lying islands will be flooding events, which are likely to increase in periodicity and intensity and will not only threaten infrastructure, but also the freshwater aquifers and agricultural production. Severe events may even threaten life.”
The report also highlighted the implications for resettlement on such low-lying islands of the predicted increase in global sea levels as a result of climate change.
In effect, therefore, anything other than short-term resettlement on a purely subsistence basis would be highly precarious and would involve expensive underwriting by the UK Government for an open-ended period-probably permanently. Accordingly, the Government consider that there would be no purpose in commissioning any further study into the feasibility of resettlement; and that it would be impossible for the Government to promote or even permit resettlement to take place. After long and careful consideration, we have therefore decided to legislate to prevent it.
[Given that there is an absolutely fucking huge US Naval Base in the area, is anyone else thinking here that this whole ‘global warming’ argument is just about the biggest pile of horse shit they’ve ever read in their life.
I mean seriously, that whole business about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction which could be deployed in 45 minutes looks more convincing than this pile of bullshit]
Equally, restoration of full immigration control over the entire territory is necessary to ensure and maintain the availability and effective use of the territory for defence purposes, for which it was in fact constituted and set aside in accordance with the UK’s treaty obligations entered into almost 40 years ago. Especially in the light of recent developments in the international security climate since the November 2000 judgment, this is a factor to which due weight has had to be given.
[Now we finally get to the real reason why the government will not allow the Chagossians to go home – precisely because their IS a big fuck off US Naval Base on Diego Garcia; one which in every material respect is sited there illegally and in violation of international law and the rights of the Chagos islanders. Environmental concerns my arse, the sole reason the Chagossians are being denied their rights to their own homeland is because the Yanks are there and their attitude is ‘it’s ours now – you can just fuck off’.
And what have we got to say to the US about that? Yes boss!]
It was for these reasons that on 10 June 2004 Her Majesty made two Orders in Council, the combined effect of which is to restore full immigration control over all the islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory. These controls extend to all persons, including members of the Chagossian community.
The first of these two orders replaces the existing constitution of the territory and makes clear, as a principle of the constitution, that no person has the right of abode in the territory or has unrestricted access to any part of it. The second order replaces the existing immigration ordinance of the territory and contains the detailed provisions giving effect to that principle and setting out the necessary immigration controls. These two orders restore the legal position to what it had been understood to be before the High Court decision of 3 November 2000. I am arranging for copies of the orders to be placed in the Library of the House [But not the internet where we, the Chagossians and the rest of the world can see just what a shameless bunch of wankers the British government really are].
I’ll leave things there for now, but with a few questions I’d like you ponder.
If the British government – any government of the last 40 years, as lets not forget that while this whole business started with a Labour government [Wilson] and continues today under another Labour government [Blair] the Chagossian’s fight for justice and the right to a homeland to call their own; a homeland that was their own until we signed their birthright away to the US for a few cut-price nukes, continued right through three different Tory administrations [Health, Thatcher and Major] as well – can so easily sign away the rights of the Chagos islanders when it suits them, then what makes us think we can believe them when they talk about protecting our rights.
A Court of Law – the High Court, no less, and in a judicial review – ruled the forced expulsion of the Chagossians and the refusal to permit them to return to their homeland to be illegal – and how do Blair and co respond?
They prevaricate until the dust has settled on the embarrassment of the Chagossian’s court victory and then, in total secrecy – which includes deliberately withholding information from a select committee of the House of Commons – they move the goal posts, making use of the royal prerogative to slip changes in law through the Privy Council without debate or Act of Parliament…
…and to add mortal insult to injury, they do it on the same day as local and European elections take place, just to make absolutely certain of burying their shame where no one will notice it.
Hell, ain’t democracy great!
I don’t know about you but I certainly don’t feel any safer for knowing that.
The second question should be obvious – it’s the title of this piece after all…
How many people does it take before it becomes wrong?
What value do we, as citizens, place on the lives and the rights of the 4,500 Chagossian exiles – are they worth less than us, as our government clearly seems to think, or should we accord them the same rights and the same value as human beings that we accord ourselves.
And don’t you just feel absolutely fucking ashamed for even having to consider that question at all?
So, next time you find yourself being lectured by politician about ‘rights’ and ‘responsibilities’ – if that kind of thing happens to you – especially one associated with our present government then why not ask them what they are going to do to protect the rights of the Chagossians and discharge their responsiblity to put right one of the great hidden injustices of the 20th Century – our own dirty little secret, our private East Timor.
Because if our politicians lack the moral courage to protect the rights of the weakest amongst us, as the displaced Chagossians are, then how can we possibly trust them to protect our own rights?
One last conundrum for you – if there’s no one allowed to live on the Chagos Islands but a few British adminsitrators, 1500 UK and American servicemen and 2000 mostly Fillipino civilian contractors, then how come we imported £57,000 worth of essential oils, resinoids, perfume materials, clothing and accessories from there last year – and why does the CIA’s World Factbook state that there are no industrial or agricultural activities on the islands?
UPDATE: The Disillusioned Kid has a whole section [check the sidebar] and shed load of good stuff on the plight of the Chagos islanders – well worth a visit.
UPDATE: A booklet which accompainied John Pilger’s documentary ‘Stealing A Nation’ chronicling the shameful treatment of the Chagos Islanders can be found here – if you do nothing else, read it.