On April 2, 1982, Argentine forces launched the invasion of the Falkland Islands, beginning the Falklands War. There was a resounding condemnation of the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands by British politicians and press alike. The Falkland Islands was British territory and were inhabited by white-skinned settlers.
The Financial Times of April 5, 1982, called the Falklands invasion an ‘illegal and immoral means to make good territorial claims’, and expressed the view that the British and American governments could not possibly ‘be indifferent to the imposition of foreign rule on people who have no desire for it’. Margaret Thatcher, whose prime ministerial career was shaped by the Falklands War, considered that ‘the wishes of the [Falkland] islanders were paramount’.
No such empathy was forthcoming for the people of Diego Garcia, a British territory located in the Chagos Archipelago of the Indian Ocean, when, in 1965, the government of the United Kingdom leased the island to Washington for a period of fifty years, with an option of a twenty-year extension. There was an almost deafening silence when the British action over Diego Garcia became known (see my previous article, 103: Heaping insult on injury).
What was the difference in the action over these two territories, apart from the fact that Diego Garcia was inhabited by a brown-skinned indigenous nation? The question might well be asked, as, indeed, it might be asked about the entire history of British colonialism!
The poignancy of the silence affecting Diego Garcia was exacerbated when, in 1985, a study by the Minority Rights Group was published. This study concluded that ‘Britain expelled the native population without any workable re-settlement scheme; left them in poverty; gave them a tiny amount of compensation and later offered more on condition that the islanders renounced their rights ever to return home’. Further, the Ilois people of Diego Garcia were allowed to take with them ‘minimum personal possessions, packed into a small crate’. Most of those expelled from their homeland ended up in the slums of the Mauritian capital, ‘leading wretched, disaffected lives; the numbers who have since died from starvation and disease is unknown’ (see Madeley, Diego Garcia, 1985).
(A more complete and detailed account of the atrocious treatment mete out to the Ilois people of Diego Garcia can be found in Section 1: The New Cold War, of the powerful and revelatory book, Hidden Agendas, 1998, by the Australian journalist and film-maker John Pilger. This is one of the very few critical accounts of the Diego Garcia affair that the reader is likely to research)
The initial fifty years period of the lease of Diego Garcia to the United States of America expired at the end of 2016. Hundreds of Chagos islanders living in the UK and Mauritius were eagerly awaiting the announcement that they could begin the return to their homeland. After forty years of campaigning, during which time half of the exiles have died, optimism was high that the wrong committed by a Labour government led by Harold Wilson would be rectified and that the Chagossians would be given the go-ahead to return to settle in Diego Garcia.
In the event, however, great disappointment, allied with accompanying disillusionment; was the outcome as the British government’s Foreign Office announced that, in consequence of a mixture of cost, economic viability and objections from the US military, thousands of Chagos islanders will not be given the right of return to resettle.
Despite the fact that the current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has been a long-term campaigner for the right of return of the Chagossians, we are expected to believe that government Ministers have agonized over this decision for years. However, the reality is more likely that, despite knowing about the disgraceful treatment of the islanders by the British government, Ministers meekly accept that, given the importance of the military base to the Pentagon, it would not be possible to take the land back from the Americans and return it to its historical owners and inhabitants. The ‘special relationship’ obviously has its limitations!
It would seem that successive British Governments, along with their American counterparts, do not genuinely subscribe to the view that ‘people should have a right to return to the country of their birth’. This is a basic human right recognized by all human rights conventions. Recent events in the USA testify to the realization that this is not, however, a human right universally recognized, even in western countries that claim to be champions of democracy and human rights.
It would seem that, contrary to Thatcher’s false and pious pronouncements, the governments of both the UK and the USA are selectively ‘indifferent to the imposition of foreign rule on people who have no desire for it’, and that, in the case of the Chagos islanders and especially the people of Diego Garcia, the wishes of the islanders are not paramount!
The efforts of politicians continue to fudge the issue of the right to return for Diego Garcians and other Chagos islanders. James Duddridge, a former minister for overseas territories, visited the Chagos Islands in early 2016 and came away convinced that resettlement was not the correct solution. ‘We cannot undo an historic wrong, but we can mitigate it,’ Duddridge told a House of Commons debate in October, 2016, ‘…in all candour I must say that I do not believe it is right to repopulate the islands as part of that mitigation’.
Duddridge further states: ‘I am not saying one could not populate the islands, but the concept that the outer islands are an idyllic possibility is for the birds. They were difficult, overgrown, humid areas that were accessible only where the marines had gone in and chopped down foliage’.
The folly of this view is that it seemingly is unable to recognize that the Chagos islanders had lived in harmony and contentment with this environment for many lifetimes before the fateful coming of the British or the Americans. The islander’s idyll was destroyed by the neo-colonial ambitions of the British and the imperial and military machinations of the USA.
The following statement by John Pilger is surely an appropriate summation: ‘Diego Garcia is a microcosm of empire and of the Cold War, old and new. The unchanging nature of the 500-year Western imperial crusade is exemplified in the suffering of the forgotten Ilois people, whose story has been consigned to oblivion, routinely, by the reporters and historians of power. This is hardly surprising, as much of the mainstream Western scholarship has taken humanity out of the study of nations, congealing it with jargon and reducing it to an esotericism called “international relations”, the chess game of Western power’.
In the Chagos Archipelago, the British and the Americans are playing long and loose with people’s lands and lives.