Monday, 25 May 2015 00:00

Insights in the fight for the Chagos Archipelago: Views from Britain

IOO Editor Wanjohi Kabukuru interviewed Stefan Donnelly chair of the UK Chagos Support Association Committee which is an advocacy group that campaigns for the return of exiled Chagossians to their homeland. Chagos which is officially known to the UK as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) remains in contention as the UK deported the Chagossians from their homeland and granted a 50-year lease (1966-2016) of the archipelago to the US government to use a military base. In US defence parlance the Chagos archipelago is Diego Garcia Base. This is an enlightening read as Donnelly unmasks a 40-year dark history that saw Chagossians bartered for a nuclear weapon system.

 

1. For the benefit of new readers, where is Chagos and what happened in Chagos slightly over four decades ago?
SD: In the late sixties and early seventies, Chagossians were deported from their homeland so a US military base could be built on Diego Garcia. Chagossians and their ancestors had lived on the islands since the late 1700s but were deliberately characterised as “migrant workers” by the British Government to justify their deportation. Offical documents from the time have confirmed even whilst doing so the UK authorities knew this was not the case.

Flag of British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) best known as Chagos at the UK Foreign Office [Image Credit: FCO]

2. What inspired the "depopulation", "forceful eviction" of Chagossians from their native homelands
SD: The involuntary deportation of the Chagossian people was the result a deal between the UK and US Governments. The US military wished to build a base on Diego Garcia and declassified documents have revealed the “cleansing” of the islands' native population was a condition of this deal. The same documents reveal the racist spirit in which this deal was drawn up, with Chagossians referred to as “Man Fridays” and “Tarzans.” In return for betraying their own citizens-as Chagossians were and are-the UK Government received an £11 million discount on the US-made Polaris Nuclear Weapons
System.

3. What was the population of Chagos at the time of eviction? How many were men, children and women?
SD: There were around 1700 permanently settled Chagossians in the late sixties when the UK began efforts to force them to leave. This began with buying and closing the coconut plantation, which was a major employer. It also involved refusing Chagossians who left the islands to visit relatives or get medical treatment the right to return. The population was gradually reduced until the final deportations from Peros Banhos in 1973. (Sorry as far as I know there was no breakdown of men, women, children etc)

4: Were the Chagossians ever compensated for the forced eviction? How much per family?
The UK Government gave compensation to the Mauritian Government to distribute to Chagossians. This, however, was not given to the Mauritian authorities until 1972 and distribution did not begin until 1977. Remember that is almost of a decade later than the majority of the evictions. During this time inflation had been rampant in Mauritius, sometimes running at over 20%. The real value of the compensation was then massively reduced. In claiming the compensation Chagossians had to rely on a series of middlemen, with many reporting they received substantially less than had been promised. In any case by the time whatever compensation had been received, Chagossians had often fallen into severe debt and poverty, as they had in many cases literally been dumped on the docks of Port Louis. These meager payments did little to alleviate this poverty.
There was further compensation of around £550 per person distributed to some, although not all, Chagossians in the early 80s. This was highly controversial, however, as it contained a clause that Chagossians were effectively renouncing all rights to their homeland by signing. The document was written in legalistic English, which most Chagossians did not then speak, and many reported this condition was never explained. In any case seems highly unethical to try to offer often deeply impoverished people a paltry monetary sum to 'buy' their human rights.

Finally, it is worth remembering the significant number of Chagossians deported to The Seychelles rather than Mauritius received no compensation whatsoever.

5: How many times have Chagossians sought redress in courts and can you specify the courts and jurisdiction (UK, US, EU, UN)?
There have been a number of cases brought by Oliver Bancoult of the Chagos Refugee Group. Most have taken place in the UK courts, with a landmark decision victory in the High Court in 2000 which found the deportation unlawful and reinstated Chagossians right to return to the islands.

UK and US Governments, however, failed to engage on how to actually support Chagossians in exercising this right. Then in 2004, on the same day as the European elections to avoid media scrutiny, the Government issued Orders-in-Council (Royal Prerogative) banning anyone from setting foot on the islands. This essentially nullified the High Court decision.

Chagossians were understandably furious at this and resolved to take further legal action. In 2006 the High Court found the 2004 Orders-in-Council unlawful. The Government appealed the decision but the Court of Appeal again found the Orders-in-Councils unlawful, calling the Government's actions “an abuse of power.”

The Government made a final appeal to the Appealate Committee of the House of Lords (since replaced by the Supreme Court) in 2008. In this case, by a verdict of 3:2 amongst the Law Lords, the Government won their appeal.

As this was then the highest court in the land there was no room for appeal immediately in the UK, so the Chagossian took their case to the European Court of Human Rights. In late 2012, however, the Court found the case was “inadmissable” as it had already been dealt with in domestic courts, citing previous compensation which allegedly forfeited their rights to further legal action.

For the reasons mentioned above, Chagossians strongly dispute this point. The court did though acknowledge the “callous and shameful” treatment endured by Chagossians at the hands of the UK Government.

As the British Indian Ocean Territory (the official name for the Chagos Islands) remains UK territory there has not to my knowledge been any legal action in the United States. Activists continue to work there, however, and I know Olivier Bancoult has recently attended a number of events in the USA.

New UK legal cases are being prepared to take to the Supreme Court, most likely late this year or early next. Right now, however, the Government has the opportunity to resolve the issue politically.

A feasibility study into Chagossian return to their homeland was commissioned by the Government in 2013. This reported in January and found return was possible, with minimal environmental impact and very limited economic costs. It also found no serious security or legal obstacles.

The Government pledged to reach a decision before the election but failed to do so. This means it will now be the responsibility of the next Government and we urge that they take this opportunity to resolve the issue by democratic means rather than wasting more taxpayer money fighting Chagossians in the courts.

6. What does the recent ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration portend for Chagossians?
It has been suggested that the Permanent Court of Arbitration (not, as has been widely reported, a UN body) decision was positive for Chagossians. The truth is a little less clear. It does suggest the UK cannot make unilateral decisions about the Chagos Islands without consulting Mauritius.

This is because the UK has pledged to return the islands to Mauritius when “no longer required for defence purposes.”

The decision really then relates to the management of the Islands. Even the question of sovereignty was assessed by the court to be beyond its remit. Chagossians' rights were not mentioned in the case. It is true, however, that there is considerable political consensus in Mauritius in support of the Chagossian people's right to return home.

The UK has now pledged to engage with Mauritius to reach a compromise; we would simply add they should also engage with Chagossians about any decisions effecting their homeland.

Salomon atoll in Chagos archipelago. [Image Credit: WikiCommons]

7: Conservationists and environmentalists are keen for Chagos to be left for "birds and marine life". Do you agree with this position which seems to support UKs 2010 decision to make Chagos the "world's largest marine park"?
We don't recognise a conflict between conservation and the right of the Chagossian people to return home. The Government-commissioned independent feasibility study into Chagossian return has shown that return could be managed to reduce environmental impact to highly minimal levels. The study also reported a high-level of “commitment” to environmental protection amongst Chagossians, with a desire to work in conservation roles upon their return.

Rich marine life found in the Chagos archipelago [Image Credit: ZSL]

So the Marine Protected Area established in 2010, although at least in part intended to prevent return, is actually no barrier to return. Chagossian society could thrive with little or no alteration to the terms of the MPA.

A settled Chagossian society could actually benefit the environment in the long-term, as they would be able to enforce the MPA. In the last couple of years it has been revealed the US military have caused serious environmental damage by the improper disposal of waste in the Diego Garcia lagoon. Chagossian would be keen to enforce environmental oversight of their homeland.


8. Will Chagossians ever return home?
SD: There is no reason for the UK and US Governments not to support Chagossian return. The agreement between the two nations on the use of Diego Garcia expires in 2016 and the conditions of an extension are being negotiated now. It seems obvious support for Chagossian return would be an obvious condition of any extension.

And of course we now have independent evidence that return is possible. Chagossians have been repeatedly let down by successive Governments on both sides of the Atlantic, so there's a lot of caution. A failure to deliver the right of return now would though be as much of an injustice as them deportation itself.

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