by Kayleigh Wenham, student of History at King’s College London.
Over the past few years, a group of displaced Chagossian Islanders have been dying from an unusual disease; sadness.
Ten years before the United Kingdom engaged in a war against Argentina over the identity of the Falkland Islands, they were stealing the nation of another, in what The Washington Post called “an act of mass kidnapping”.
News outlets today are filled with the rhetoric of the United States and Kingdom as the western ‘protectors’, planting the “seeds of Democracy” – to use the words of former President George W. Bush- around the world. It seems to be seldom brought up that the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court explicitly labels the forcible deportation of a population “by expulsion, or coercive acts” as a crime against humanity. A crime that the U.K. and U.S. have committed time, and time again throughout history. But is it too late for justice?
In the 1960s, Diego Garcia, a naturally rich coral island in the Chagos Archipelago, was home to over 2,000 people, holding hundreds of years of ancestry and history. However, situated comfortably between Africa and Asia, it was also in an incredibly tactical position, should conflict between the West and the Middle East ever arise. Little did the islanders know that Prime Minister Harold Wilson and U.S. officials were already conspiring to “sweep” and “sanitise” the island, and transform it into an American military base that would, ironically, be named “Camp Justice”.
Although Islanders could trace their ancestry back five generations, the government labelled them as ‘transient workers’, a fictitious description used to justify their forcible removal from their homes to Mauritius, 1,000 miles away. The secretary of Foreign Affairs, Dennis Greenhill, referred to them as “tarzans” in a handwritten note. The brutality with which their wellbeing was handled is undeniable.
The torment of the Chagossian people was slow and cruel. When they refused to give up their homes, those who had left the island for emergency medical attention were not allowed to return. American soldiers forcibly entered homes, taking away pet dogs in front of the families, and gassing them with military vehicles. When they decided that this intimidation was too much, the Chagossians were loaded onto trucks and boats, allowed to take only one suitcase each. Women and children were forced to sleep on bird fertiliser during the journey.
Although politicians vehemently denied any knowledge of these events, or that any injustices has occurred, a previously classified document entitled “maintaining the fiction”, which urged government officials to “make up the rules as [they] go along”, revealed just how deep these secrets were. However, it is not just the International Court statute that questions the legality of these actions. A 1960 U.N. ruling specifically banned the breaking up of colonies prior to independence. This resolution is vital, as the detachment of the Chagos Islands occurred three years before Mauritius gained independence.
Most of the residents were illiterate in English, and this was exploited by the U.K. government. Using documents that they could not read, they were tricked into signing away their right to return home in exchange for less than £3,000 compensation, after being led to believe it would result in the opposite.
These unethical procedures signify nothing less than ruthless imperialism on behalf of the United Kingdom, and America. The archaic use of a Royal Prerogative, and the secret files used during negotiations, do not seem to fit into the idealistic portrait of Western democracy that politicians so often paint to justify their militaristic actions.
Yet this is no isolated incident. In the 1940s, thousands of people were forcibly deported from their homes in the Bikini Atoll so that it could be used for nuclear testing. The islands are still unliveable, and former residents have been living in exile ever since. The erasing of culture and history for the sake of the West’s military expansion is a narrative far too familiar throughout the 20th century.
One former resident of the Chagos Islands, Rita Bancoult, lost three of her children to poverty after being deported. She claims that their expulsion had a terrible effect on the health of Chagossian families, her own husband suffered from a stroke and died when told they would never return home. Another talked of being afraid that she would be gassed, like her dogs had been, did she not comply.
Since their deportation, the former residents of Diego Garcia have been forced to live in poverty. Plagued by death, malnutrition, and suicide, Mauritian doctors declared them a lost cause, explaining that they could not treat ‘sadness’. With very little governmental help, they have been forced into prostitution, and drug use, alienated from their new society.
The horrific treatment of the Chagossian people, however, is not merely the long forgotten past. Under the Blair government, they sought the help of international lawyers to fight for their right to return. In 2000, a historic case in the high court declared the government’s actions illegal. Within hours, the Foreign Office produced a bogus report declaring the islands unfit for re-habitation, citing facts that were later uncovered to be entirely fictitious. In the years following what had seemed like a land mark victory, Parliament issued a Royal Prerogative, banning the Chagossians from ever being able to return home and preventing MPs from revisiting the issue in the House of Commons.
However, in 2006, the high court ruled families like Bancoult’s did have the right to return home. David Miliband and the Foreign Office personally intervened, trying their very best to usurp the judgement. With the threat of failure, Miliband took further preventative measures, proposing the establishment of a marine reserve around the islands. A Wikileaks source revealed that this was done with the intention of making it impossible for the Chagossians to return home.
Yet there is still hope. The Mauritian government themselves -supported by every country in Africa- have intervened, questioning the legality of Miliband’s proposals. An International Court will hear testimonies, casting serious doubt over the UK’s sovereignty over the Chagos Islands, and unravelling Britain’s archaic colonial hold over these small states. If ruled in favour, the PCA’s decision would be final, and irreversible. It is now more urgent than ever to fight for the human rights of the Chagossian Islanders. Until there is such justice, we cannot truly claim that the decolonisation of Africa is complete.
The Chagossian people, and their homes, are far more than expendable resources to be used by Imperial governments. They are human beings, and it is time we began to fight for them as such.