Close the US military base on Diego Garcia! Complete the decolonisation of Mauritius!
US-occupied Diego Garcia
By Lindsey Collen, Lalit (Mauritius)
October 26, 2008 -- Five separate judgments were handed down in the House of Lords’ October 22 judgment on the appeal of the British government against the Chagossians’ right of abode on Diego Garcia. Lords Hoffman, Rodger of Earlsferry and Carswell found against the Chagossians’ right of abode, while Lords Bingham of Cornhill and Mance found in favour. In this article, we’ll summarise the arguments the judges relied upon and also briefly comment on the numerous mentions of Lalit in the judgment, before moving on to the question of Diego Garcia in more political terms; the illegal military occupation of Diego Garcia and the Chagos islands by the British and US, which is the reason for the horrendous banishment of the Chagossians from their home islands is an eminently political problem.
The House of Lords judgment came as a shock the Chagossians supporting the case. During the previous 10 years, while two sets of court cases, one after the other, made their way through the divisional courts and appeal courts, since the first judgment in 2000, a total of nine out of nine judges found in favour of the Chagossians’ right to return, as their lawyer, Robin Mrdaymootoo has pointed out.
So, there was reason for hope that they could win the right of return, although this return would have unfortunately been, as has been known since the beginning of the litigation, as British subjects of the illegal colony, the ``British Indian Ocean Territory’’. In the House of Lords two of the five judges did find in their favour, using enlightened argumentation. But, a majority found against them. “It is true that the Chagossians will now require immigration consent even to visit the islands”, the majority judgment says.
One of the main arguments used by the majority judges was that the ancient, feudal method of making laws called a Queen’s “Order in Council”, which is in fact a cabinet decree behind the back of parliament, and which was used in 2004 to prevent the Chagossians returning despite having won their case in 2000, was perfectly legal.
Lord Bingham, the presiding Judge, had a much more convincing position in his minority opinion. He said the Order in Council as a method of legislating is passing through an historical process of being phased out, and it cannot thus be used in order to do new things not already done in the past and was thus void. In fact, he says the decree was passed “without public debate in arliament and democratic decision”.
Another principle argument of the majority judges was that the political issue, the foreign policy issue, of the defence of the UK and its ally, the USA, was important enough to justify the Order in Council, and the judiciary is, they argue, not in a position to question this. The logic behind this argument is that the Order in Council was made not just in the interests of the inhabitants of the BritishIndian OceanTerritories, but in the interests of everyone in “the undivided realm” of Great Britain and its territories taken as a whole. As Hoffman puts it: “Her Majesty in Council is therefore entitled to legislate for a colony in the interests of the United Kingdom.” And so the government “had to give due weight to security interests” and is “entitled to”. “Expenditure of public resources and the security and diplomatic interests of the Crown are … within the competence of the Executive.” Lord Carswell calls this “essentially a political” consideration for the executive. “Looming over all considerations were the twin issues of prohibitive cost and the United Kingdom’s interest in co-operation with an important ally in maintaining a secure defence installation” for which ``the US clearly desired to keep a large clear area around the base”.
Again Lord Bingham argues rather more succinctly. He says that the British government would not have commissioned a feasibility study had it considered Chagossian presence to “threaten the security of the base on Diego Garcia or national security more generally”. And “there was no credible reason to apprehend that the security situation had changed”.
Human rights issue or funding?
As to whether infringements of the Chagossians’ human rights made the Order in Council illegal, Hoffman said that they no longer actually lived on the islands and “during the four years that the Immigration Ordinance 2000 was in force, nothing happened. No one went to live on the islands. Thus their right of abode is,” he said, “purely symbolic.” And he found that “the whole of this litigation is ... ‘the continuation of protest by other means’.” Adding that “funding is the subtext of what this case is about”. Hoffman said that the Chagossians’ attempt to get compensation through an ordinary court case (in 2002) failed, so that is why they are using this as a step “in a campaign to achieve a funded resettlement”. In this sense, he argues, it is not a human rights case, but about money.
Hoffman thinks it reasonable that the secretary of state refers to feasibility and expense. He adds that this is because under the UN Charter colonial powers have a “sacred trust” to “ensure …[the] economic, social and educational advancement” and “send reports to the [UN] Secretary-General”. And that that would cost money. On the human rights issue, Lord Rodger of Earlsferry, another majority judge, accidentally highlighted Chagos having been illegally split from Mauritius, going so far as to say that, “At no time while Mauritius was a colony was legislation passed to replace the existing law of the island or its dependencies, wholesale, with the law of England. Therefore, when the Chagos Archipelago was separated from Mauritius in 1965, Chapter 29 of Magna Carta formed no part of its statute law.” Meaning that the right of abode enshrined in the Magna Carta does not apply to the Chagossians.
Robin Cook’s undertaking
Another issue was whether, when Robin Cook, as British Foreign Secretary, made a formal statement that the British government would not appeal against the judgment of 2000, this was a firm statement of policy that was binding or whether it depended upon a feasibility study. The majority found it to be contingent on the feasibility study. The study paid for by the British government, not surprisingly, came and showed that civilised society could not easily exist on the Chagos islands, and if it could, it would be too costly.
Lord Bingham by contrast thinks that Robin Cook’s assurance that the British government would not appeal was a clear and unequivocal statement of policy and could not be undone by a mere decree without some pressing reason which was not present. He said in response to the British government’s argument that Lalit and the Chagossians were planning a Peace Flotilla, “Little mention was made in the courts below of the rumoured protest landings by Lalit.”
Lord Bingham has other harsh, if understated, comments of interest on the British government: “Remarkably, in drafting the 2004 Constitution Order, little (if any) consideration appears to have been given to the interests of the Chagossians, whose constitution it was to be.” This phrase sums up the continued cynicism of the British state.
Equally stinging, he adds that the Order in Council “cannot be justified on the basis that it deprived [the Chagossians] of a right of little practical value. It cannot be doubted that the right was of intangible value, and the smaller its practical value the less reason to take it away.”
Renditions for torture
And before concluding commentary on the judgment, it is worth referring to Lord Hoffman’s own stinging obiter dictum on the British executive’s responsibility for illegal renditions. “There are allegations, which the US authorities have denied, that Diego Garcia or a ship in the waters around it have been used as a prison in which suspects have been tortured. The idea that such conduct on British territory, touching the honour of the United Kingdom could be legitimated by executive fiat, is not something which I would find acceptable.”
In short, in conclusion, the majority judgment is a victory for what the French call raison d’etat. You don’t need convincing arguments for raison d’etat. The state is its own argument. Even the British mainstream press seems to interpret the judgment as one of political expediency.
Political struggle needed
Although, to be truthful, even though the decision was determined by just one judge deciding this way or that, it is difficult to imagine the judiciary in Britain being able to “win” real battles against the USA-UK’s state military arm. This is what haunts the case.
Behind the issue of the right to return was the UK‘s illegal dismemberment of a colony prior to its Independence and of its leasing of Mauritian territory to the USA for a military base that is beyond social and political control. Most US and UK citizens have for 40 years not even known of its existence, most Mauritians have opposed the illegal occupation and the base for 30 years, but it has been hard for our voice to be heard, and certainly not possible to control what goes on there. Olivier Bancoult’s cases [the person who took legal action on behalf of the Chagossians], although he has finally lost at the House of Lords, have over the past 10 years contributed to making the crimes of 40 years ago known to the people of Britain and elsewhere. This is an important contribution.
But, we now on a worldwide basis have to confront the UK-USA politically imposed military base. For this we surely require a hard political struggle. No number of judges can replace it.
Referefences to Lalit
Before going on to look at the future of the Chagossians’ struggle for the right to return and to Diego Garcia and Chagos in geopolitical terms, it is worth touching on the references to Lalit in the judgments. Lalit and the plan to take a Peace Flotilla to Diego Garcia and the Chagos is mentioned in the following paragraphs of the judgment (which is reproduced in toto in the documents section of our website: www.Lalitmauritius.org ): paragraph 25, 26, 72, 112, 170, 171.
The political issue is this: the British government had a difficult problem. Reeling under the sting of the thorough denunciation the British government suffered from judges in 2000 case, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook undertook not to appeal against the judgment, and to go ahead with a feasibility study for resettlement.
The study was done. But what is likely to have happened is that big brother USA “leaned” on the British executive, and got it in 2004 to pass an Order in Council to say “no person has the right of abode in the territory”. Anyway, given Robin Cook’s statement, this Order in Council, already a dodgy old form of “legislation”, would not stand up in court unless there was a “compelling reason” for the government to have changed its mind. So, the compelling reason invoked was that the British High Commissioner in Mauritius at the time had reported that Lalit and the Chagossians were planning a landing there.
This is true. We were. And had got support from the No Bases meeting at the World Social Forum in Mumbai. And such a landing was perfectly legal because the Chagossians had won their right to return in 2000. Anyway, all the judges thought it was being used by the British state as a bit of a pretext, and that if Lalit’s planned Peace Flotilla had anything to do with the Order in Council, it was only to determine its timing, not the fact that there was one.
However, the fact that Lalit and the Chagos Refugees Group’s planned action was brought up as the reason for the British state’s actions shows the potential importance of such political struggles.
Olivier Bancoult and his lawyers will be continuing with an appeal to the European Human Rights Court. If they win, that means as British subjects of a colony, they get the right to return. Then, the US and UK will use administrative means and pay-outs to prevent the right of return having any real form.
Another road map is the reunification of Mauritius and the closing down of the military base on Diego Garcia. This way, the Chagossians get the right to return by means of the return of Mauritian sovereignty over Chagos, including Diego Garcia. They go back as Mauritians. The Mauritian state has already said it will foot the bill for resettlement.
The way to go about the struggle for reunification of Mauritius is for the Mauritian government to get Southern African Development Community (SADC) support by going through its political committee, the Troika, then gathering support in the African Union, so as to put a motion at next September’s United Nations General Assembly to put in a case for an Advisory Judgment at the UN International Court of Justice at The Hague. This would have strong political repercussions. Lalit has written to new minister for foreign affairs Boolell to do this. Now we need to mobilise to force the government to act.
Meanwhile, at least one sovereign country has outlawed foreign military bases in its constitution, and has done that by means of referendum. In September, 2008, Ecuador has done this. It is not a rich country. But its people are mobilising.
The impotence pleaded by successive Mauritian governments has always been abject. It may be less convincing now that the world financial crisis puts the US in an economically weaker position than ever before. The US is already an empire suffering from over-reach in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and is closing bases every year. We have to make it politically expedient for them to close Diego Garcia down next.
And the overall message of the legal defeat of the Chagossians is that, when one fragments the struggles into separate bits, one risks losing even in victory. What is the meaning of the right to return, when one does it at the expense of once again being colonised? What is the use in one’s own sovereignty, if one’s country is used to bombard a wedding procession in Afghanistan or an inhabited city like Baghdad? To win struggles, these issues must be tied together, because they are tied together already by history.
We learn lessons from the judgement. The right of return must be without a condition, like the condition that one is re-colonised. We also learn that legal strategies must keep political coherence, not fall into legalistic traps. We learn that what we need now are political struggles for proper reparations for their suffering to be paid to the Chagossians by both the UK and the US governments. What we need now is for the Mauritian state to put a case before the ICJ to force Britain to cede the islands they stole. The Mauritian Militant Movement (MMM) shadow foreign affairs minister Vijay Makhan has taken a firm stand in favour. Surprisingly Paul Bérenger, just when this diplomatic initiative is on the table, brings up a red herring of the International Criminal Court.
At the same time, the Mauritian state must even now set up an Island Council in exile, on the lines of the Rodrigues Regional Council, and change the constitution to set up a constituency for the outer islands. It is the military base that is the cause of the Chagossian’s suffering, so it must be closed down. It is the military base that has prevented complete Mauritian decolonisation, so it must be closed down. And when the base is closed, the USA must do a clean-up of the concrete and nuclear mess it has made there.
These are the kinds of demands people in Mauritius have been mobilising behind since the 1970s and up to the massive support from all the unions and women’s organisations that Lalit got in 2004 for the Peace Flotilla. The working-class movement is already behind these demands.
So Lalit kontinye [the struggle continues] … as we say.
Volume 56, Number 9 · May 28, 2009
A Black and Disgraceful Site
By Jonathan Freedland
Island of Shame: The Secret History of the US Military Base on Diego Garcia
by David Vine
Princeton University Press, 259 pp., $29.95
In the very lowest reaches of organized English soccer, in the bottom division of the amateur Crawley and District Football League, there is a team whose name sets it apart from its rivals. They are identified with their home villages in Sussex in southeast England: Ifield, Maidenbower, Worth. But this team has a name replete with an altogether different history. It is Chagos Island.
The soccer club is one of the few visible signs of a community of former subjects of the British Empire who now live in what they rarely thought of as "the mother country"—clustered, to be precise, in the unlovely exurbs around Gatwick airport. They, or their forebears, lived once in the Chagos archipelago, a string of more than sixty white-sanded, palm-fringed coral islands that are tiny dots on a map of the Indian Ocean, halfway between Africa and Indonesia. Many of these Chagossians trace their roots back to the archipelago's largest and best-known island: Diego Garcia.
To explain how they come to be living in Crawley, many of them working menial janitorial jobs in and around the airport, is to tell one of the more shocking tales of modern-day imperialism. It is a story of an old empire passing the torch to the new, Britain handing over one of its furthest-flung territories to the United States and expelling the native inhabitants to make way for the construction of a military base that has since become central to US control of the Indian Ocean and domination of the Persian Gulf. It is the tale of how a remote island idyll was simply emptied of its people, allowing for the creation of a place so secret that no journalist has been allowed to visit, a key staging post in George W. Bush's war on terror, both the launch pad for the B-1s, B-2 "stealth" bombers, and B-52s that pounded Afghanistan and Iraq and a crucial node in the CIA's rendition system, a "black site" through which at least two high-value suspected terrorists were spirited, far from the prying eyes of international law.
This is the story laid bare in Island of Shame, a meticulously researched, coldly furious book that details precisely how London and Washington colluded in a scheme of population removal more redolent of the eighteenth or nineteenth century than the closing decades of the twentieth. It reconstructs, memo by memo, how the deed was plotted, how it was done, and how it was denied through lies told to both politicians and public. Above all, it serves as a case study for the way contemporary empire operates, exploding the myth that the United States differs from its British, Spanish, and Roman predecessors by eschewing both the brute conquest of land and the dispossession of those unfortunate enough to get in the way.
David Vine is an anthropologist by training, hired by lawyers for the Chagossian people to set down, for the first time, a detailed account of their fate. He has not let them down. He has raked through the archives in the United Kingdom and the United States, reading diplomatic cables and internal Defense Department memoranda. But he has also embedded himself in the slums of Mauritius where many of the islanders were first dumped and where most now live—only a small minority went to England—and mastered the distinct Chagos Kreol dialect in which the older survivors of the expulsion still recall their lives.
They remember a paradise island. That their ancestors were either enslaved Africans or indentured south Indians—the victims of an earlier empire and its desire to control the Indian Ocean—did not prevent them from developing a deep attachment to the islands they called home. Even discounting for the rose-colored vision of exile, they recall a place of lush plenty, easy kinship, and relative freedom. They were the employees of a conglomerate that ran the islands as an extended coconut plantation, but they were also the subjects of British imperial power, via the colonial administration of Mauritius, who, though they elsewhere exercised a tight grip, ruled Chagos with a looser rein. That was thanks in part to the islands' remoteness from anywhere else: "neighboring" Mauritius is 1,200 miles away.
Throughout the book, Vine quotes Rita Bancoult, who was born in 1928 and whose son, Olivier Bancoult, leads the Chagos Refugees Group. "You had your house—you didn't have rent to pay," she tells Vine, recalling how, when the sea was at low tide, her dog would catch fish in his mouth and bring them back to her. The men would harvest the coconuts; the women would shell them, usually completing their task by midday. Then they would either tend their gardens, growing squash, chili peppers, and eggplant, or "hunt for other seafood, including...lobster, octopus, sea cucumber, and turtles." Saturday night was sega night, when the villagers would gather around a bonfire:
Under the moon and stars, drummers on the goat hide–covered ravanne would start tapping out a slow, rhythmic beat. Others would begin singing, dancing, and joining in....
As Rita recalls, "Life there paid little money, a very little...but it was the sweet life."
The islands' rulers shared that view. "Funny little places!" wrote Sir Hilary Blood, former colonial governor of Mauritius, "But how lovely!" The landscape turned him lyrical: "Coconut palms against the bluest of skies, their foliage blown by the wind into a perfect circle.... Its beauty is infinite."
Trouble came to this paradise in the late 1950s, when Stu Barber, a bright American naval analyst, dreamed up what would become known as the Strategic Island Concept. Barber understood that in the era of decolonization, retaining US bases on other nations' soil would work in places where the host governments were pliant: Britain, Germany, Japan. But in geopolitical hotspots, local populations were bound to chafe against an armed US presence. They had already done so in Trinidad and Tobago, which celebrated independence by getting rid of US bases. Yet the US could not simply retreat from tricky parts of the world. To do so would invite the Communist enemy, whether Chinese or Soviet, to fill the vacuum. Barber hit on a solution that would allow the US to continue projecting its power across the globe without the complicating presence of other people: islands, especially those with next to no inhabitants.
Barber and his colleagues had only to look at a map to see that Diego Garcia was perfect. Its location was "within striking distance of potential conflict zones," enabling the US to reach both Asia and the Persian Gulf. In focusing on the Indian Ocean, Barber showed more foresight than even he probably realized. In an article in the March–April 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs, the military analyst Robert D. Kaplan wrote that "the Indian Ocean is where global struggles will play out in the twenty-first century." Citing both the surge in piracy off the coast of Somalia and last year's terror attacks in Mumbai, as well as the strategic value of the ocean to the rising powers India and China, Kaplan argued that "the world's third-largest body of water" has now replaced both the Atlantic and Pacific as "center stage" in international relations.
Not only was Diego Garcia in a vital place, the V-shaped atoll formed a natural harbor and there was room for a large airstrip, too—all under the control of America's most loyal ally. Best of all, the population was such that it could be written off, in CIA-speak, as NEGL: "negligible." Barber urged the Navy to snap the place up before it, and other conveniently placed islands, were lost to decolonization forever.
So began a fifteen-year effort that would pursue two goals: winning the support of the US government and securing the permission of Chagos's imperial ruler, the United Kingdom. Vine's account makes clear that the latter quest was much the easier of the two. The British simply rolled over, gladly agreeing to "lend" the islands to the US to be used however the Americans saw fit, with the UK retaining only the most nominal sovereignty. (The Union flag still flies and apparently a red telephone box is on show, but functionally this is US soil: cars drive on the right-hand side of the road.)
London's motive was clear enough. Drained by World War II and rapidly retreating from empire, it could no longer afford to police the Indian Ocean the way it had since the Napoleonic Wars. Better to hand the island over to its richer, stronger ally and retain at least some involvement than to pull out altogether and watch the Communist enemy step in. To sweeten the pill still further, Washington took $14 million off the bill Britain owed the US for its supposedly independent nuclear weapon, the Polaris missile. For that money, Britain was expected to leave the islands in the condition the US wanted to find them: pristinely empty of human habitation.
On this point Washington could not have been more explicit: a British official note of talks with US counterparts stated that the United States wanted the islands under its "exclusive control (without local inhabitants)." Later, in 1971, the US chief of naval operations, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, responded to a memo on the people of Diego Garcia with three clear words: "Absolutely must go." The British were told that they were to be responsible for the expulsion—thereby handing Washington an albeit thin form of deniability and the chance to avoid any unpleasant questions from the United Nations, then animated by postcolonial notions of the rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination.
The executive and legislative branches of the US government posed much stiffer resistance to the dreams of Stu Barber and his Long-Range Objectives Group. By charting the bureaucratic battles involved, Vine provides an anatomy of bureaucratic decision-making in the US, a guide whose instructive value is not confined to the specific case of the Chagos Islands.
What becomes clear is that doggedness is the primary quality of any Beltway warrior. The Strategic Island Concept found its champion in Paul Nitze, who, even when rebuffed by his boss at the Department of Defense, Robert McNamara, would not let the idea drop. He simply presented the scheme in new language, with new budgets or a new rationale. Once offered as a communications facility, Diego Garcia was reproposed as a refueling station for ships. Sheer persistence eventually wore down the resistance of the Pentagon, the executive branch, and Congress.
In Vine's persuasive telling, it is from the expansionist instincts of the military services, rather than the conscious decisions of civilian policymakers, that the imperialist project draws much of its energy. It is the military brass's reflexive empire-building that builds an empire.
If the Diego Garcia case is typical, then deception is a central part of the imperial modus operandi. The advocates of the Chagos scheme never came clean. They promised it would be "austere," conjuring images of an isolated listening post, when in fact even the first budget request sought funds for an eight-thousand-foot airstrip, seventeen-mile road network, movie theater, gym, and small nightclub.
But the greatest deceit related to the people of the Chagos Islands. Mindful that international law required them to regard the interests of a territory's permanent inhabitants as paramount, US and UK officials lighted upon a device Vine rightly describes as "Orwellian." They would simply pretend that the Chagossians were not a permanent population with homes, deep roots, traditions, and ancestral burial places on the island, but a "floating" group of "transient workers" eligible for none of the UN's safeguards. This, the officials themselves recognized, was nothing more than a "fiction."
The deception was maintained when the Navy faced questions from senators keen to know if there was a Chagos population they ought to worry about—"negligible" came the answer— and kept up again with the American public when the Nixon administration announced its plans for Diego Garcia in December 1970, describing the population as "a small number of contract laborers from the Seychelles and Mauritius."
So it was that, too far away to be noticed, the people of the Chagos Islands saw their birthright sold. The Americans paid the British, who in turn paid the government-in-waiting of soon-to-be-independent Mauritius. The latter was given a choice: accept a $3 million bribe and the loss of the Chagos Islands—or there will be no independence. It took the money.
With the UK, Mauritius, and the US Congress all lined up, the path was now clear for building to begin. Vine describes how in March 1971 a tank landing ship and five others
descended on Diego with at least 820 soldiers.... The Seabees brought in heavy equipment, setting up a rock crusher and a concrete block factory. They used Caterpillar bulldozers and chains to rip coconut trees from the ground. They blasted Diego's reef with explosives to excavate coral rock for the runway. Diesel fuel sludge began fouling the water.
Wasting no time, the British began ridding Chagos of its people. First those luckless enough to be away from home were told they could not return: their islands were now closed. Those still on the archipelago were then informed that it was a criminal offense to be living in Chagos—a place that most of them had never left—without a permit. Next they were, in effect, starved out, as British officials deliberately ran down supplies of food and medicine. Salvage crews came to dismantle the plantations: there would be no work and no rations. Then, in a demonstration of US and UK resolve, the commissioner of the British Indian Ocean Territory, as it was now renamed, gave the order for the islanders' pet dogs to be killed; after US soldiers armed with M16 rifles failed to shoot them all, the animals were gassed as their owners looked on.
The remaining Chagossians were forced to board crammed cargo ships for a nightmarish crossing—sleeping on decks slick with urine and vomit— to Mauritius or the Seychelles where they were dumped, with no homes to go to and no compensation to make up for the possessions and livelihoods they had been forced to leave behind. From then until now, they have lived among the corrugated tin shacks of the slums of Port Louis in Mauritius, their lives scarred by extreme poverty, unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, and diseases unknown in their previous island home. Most lethal was the sagren, the deep melancholy brought on by the loss of a homeland, recognized by the World Health Organization as a genuine medical phenomenon. Rita Bancoult believes she lost her husband and three of her children to sagren : all now dead, they could not recover from the pain of dispossession.
The place they left behind looks very different now, not that many people have seen it. Among the few is the Conservative member of Parliament Michael Mates, who, as chair of the House of Commons select committee on defense in the early 1990s, visited Diego Garcia. "It is quite an astonishing sight," he told me. "There's a vast American fleet anchored offshore, ships containing a division's worth of armor and artillery."
He estimated that as many as 150 tanks, armored personnel carriers, heavy artillery, and engineering vehicles were kept in the hold of cargo vessels, safely away from the corrosive sea air. Every year or so, Mates was told, the entire fleet is sailed back to the US, where the vehicles are unloaded, driven around to make sure they still work properly, then reloaded onto the ships and sailed back to Diego Garcia. "The expense of it is mind-boggling," he says.
Indeed, the base is predicated on the assumption that money is no object. Vast amounts of multibillion-dollar hardware and equipment are maintained as a contingency, so that if they are needed, they are pre-positioned, ready to go.
The visiting MPs were left in no doubt about whose guests they were. The official designation of the site as RAF Diego Garcia was, says Mates, "a complete fiction": it is a US facility, rebranded as the "Footprint of Freedom." The new masters do at least care for the habitat they have taken over. Mates recalls being told he could walk on the beach so long as he didn't pocket any shells. "It is gorgeous," he remembers. "Absolutely lovely."
And useful. No one has denied that the Footprint of Freedom was the launching site for the bombardment of Iraq and Afghanistan. More cloudy is Diego Garcia's service in the system of extraordinary rendition by which the Bush administration picked up wanted men in one foreign country, then flew them to another for coercive interrogation, if not outright torture. What is known came to light on February 21, 2008, when the British foreign secretary, David Miliband, had to admit to the House of Commons that his fellow ministers had misled Parliament when they had repeatedly denied that Diego Garcia had been used for rendition. "Recent US investigations have now revealed two occasions, both in 2002, when this had in fact occurred," Miliband said, claiming that a US clerical error had prevented the truth from emerging earlier. He explained that in both cases a plane with a single detainee on board had landed at Diego Garcia on a mere refueling stop. These men had not left the aircraft and no other "US detainees have ever been held on Diego Garcia...or any other Overseas Territory," Miliband said.
Those reassurances have met with skepticism, partly because of the earlier denials and partly because of a series of statements from authoritative sources. Last August, Time quoted a "senior American official" and regular participant in White House situation room meetings saying that the CIA had twice confirmed that the US had imprisoned and interrogated "high-value" detainees on Diego Garcia in 2002 and possibly 2003. Separately, and in two interviews two years apart, the retired four-star US general Barry McCaffrey listed Diego Garcia alongside Guantánamo and Bagram in a roll call of American detention facilities outside the US, apparently unaware that the information was even controversial. A Council of Europe report has spoken of "concurring confirmations," and the UN's special rapporteur on torture of "credible evidence" that Diego Garcia was used to hold suspected terrorists.
The London-based human rights organization Reprieve draws particular attention to two items of circumstantial evidence. First, the prison facility on Diego Garcia was upgraded in December 2001, just as similar work was underway on US bases in Poland and Romania, locations that served as "black sites" for unlawful interrogations. Second, the suspicion that detainees were held in a floating prison off Diego Garcia is strengthened by the US admission that John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban, was held on board the USS Bataan—a ship that Reprieve says has been serviced from the island. The group is also interested in the USNS Stockham, which was deployed to Diego Garcia in July 2001 and which was extensively modified in 2004 in order to support the "war on terror." One Reprieve document quotes Vice Admiral Brewer, commander of Military Sealift Command from August 2001 until his retirement in early 2006, saying of the Stockham : "That ship is off doing some real good stuff that we can't talk about."
Vine could easily have written a book called Islands of Shame. He argues that there are at least sixteen such cases, where "often in isolated locations, often on islands, and often affecting indigenous populations, the US military has displaced local peoples" to make way for bases or similar activity. They range from the Bikini Atoll, picked for a nuclear test, to Koho'olawe, Hawaii, taken after Pearl Harbor; from Guam, of which the US military controls around one third, to the Philippines, where "Clark Air Base and other US bases were built on land previously reserved for the indigenous Aetas people." The Navy pushed aside Aleutian islanders in Alaska, Puerto Ricans from the small island of Vieques, and Inughuit people from Danish Greenland—to say nothing of the 250,000 people displaced by the US base in Okinawa, fully half of the island's population.
Vine's evidence casts a fresh light on the ongoing debate over whether or not the US can be said to constitute an empire and, if so, how it might compare with its historical predecessors. It had previously been fashionable to regard the US empire as exceptional, a break from the past in that its influence is almost entirely indirect and economic, since it refuses to join the Romans or British in ruling over colonies directly.
Thanks to the work of scholars such as Chalmers Johnson and now Vine, we can see the weakness in that argument. The latter estimates that there are one thousand US military bases and installations "on the sovereign land of other nations." This "base world," as Johnson calls it, is presented benignly, as the product of voluntary, bilateral pacts between the US and those states that agree for their land to be occupied. But often this presentation is, in the idiom of that British official, a "fiction." Behind the veneer can lie the crude expropriation of land and the callous dispossession of some of the world's weakest people. That is how it used to be in the old days of empire, whether under Rome or Queen Victoria. And that's how it was in the Chagos Islands not much more than a generation ago.
Of course there are some novelties. For one thing, not all of today's imperialists are cartoon racists and bigots. While one British foreign official waved aside the Chagossians as no more than a "few Tarzans or Men Fridays," US Admiral Zumwalt made his mark by integrating the Navy and granting more senior roles to women, saying: "There is no black Navy, no white Navy—just one Navy—the United States Navy."
Nor were these men blind to the consequences of their actions. One naval official warned a colleague that "a newsman" could cause great damage by reporting that
long time inhabitants of Diego Garcia are being torn away from their family homes because of the construction of a sinister US "base."
There is a further, more intriguing difference between contemporary US officials and their imperialist forebears. The ancients would be surprised to see that their current counterparts have reversed the previous driving logic of empire. Following the lead of the Romans, London once dreamed of coloring the map pink, ruling the world by conquering as much territory as it could. But its US successor seeks to do the opposite, to rule by holding, directly at least, as little terrain as it can. Vine quotes military expert John Pike:
"Even if the entire Eastern Hemisphere has drop-kicked us" from every other base on their territory, he explained, the military's goal is to be able "to run the planet from Guam and Diego Garcia by 2015."
In view of the strategic importance of their island home to the sole global superpower, simple realism surely says that the tiny Chagossian nation, numbering no more than five thousand, should give up all hope of ever reclaiming it. After all, the US is not about to retreat from a region just as potential rivals move in. Beijing now runs surveillance facilities on islands in the Bay of Bengal, while working on an extremely ambitious, Panama Canal–style plan to link the Indian Ocean to China's Pacific Coast. India, meanwhile, has established its own naval stations and listening posts on Madagascar, Mauritius, and the Seychelles. The US is not likely to leave them to it. Robert Kaplan reports that in October 2007 the US Navy decided that it needed a "sustained forward presence in the Indian Ocean."
All of which should surely spell doom for the Chagossians. Yet they have not given up. Instead they have fought a marathon legal battle, enduring every possible reversal of fortune. In 2000, Britain's high court ruled that the original expulsion was unlawful and that the people of Diego Garcia had the right to go home. Then in 2004, the UK government sought to void that court decision by issuing an executive order, bypassing Parliament, that simply abolished the islanders' right of abode. In October 2008 that decision was upheld by a 3–2 ruling in the House of Lords, Britain's highest court. The three law lords in the majority had apparently been persuaded by testimony that after September 11, 2001, the US regarded Diego Garcia as a "defence facility of the highest importance" and that, in the wrong hands, the islands would be useful to terrorists. Lord Hoffmann dismissed the very notion of a fundamental right to abode in the place of one's birth: "The law gives it and the law may take it away," he said.
Nevertheless, the Chagossians refuse to disappear. Their lawyer, Richard Gifford, told me, "They are literally pining to go home," to return to what he calls "their paradise lost." In March the European Court of Human Rights served the British government with legal papers, demanding a response by June 12. Gifford hopes that the European Court will order the UK to restore the Chagossians' right of abode and do whatever is necessary to enable them to realize that right in practice.
It is not such an unrealistic request. The Chagossians are not asking that the base on Diego Garcia be dismantled; Bancoult and the Chagos Refugees Group insist that they do not oppose it. They will be happy for the chance to work there, they say, confining their resettlement to the two thirds of Diego Garcia currently unused by the US military or, failing that, returning to the dozens of other islands in the archipelago, some 135 miles away from the Footprint of Freedom. That the US military can exist alongside civilians in those places is borne out by the fact that yachtspeople visit there frequently, either scuba-diving and snorkeling or enjoying beach barbecues close to the empty homes of the former villagers.
The Chagossians are convinced that they could make a go of it, by turning the archipelago into a high-class tourist destination boasting what is said to be the finest marine ecology in the world. They even imagine restoring the old coconut plantations, noting that coconut oil currently fetches the best price on the biofuels market. Yet for thirty years the coconuts have simply been falling to the ground uncollected.
If the legal route fails, it will have to be politics that returns the people of Chagos to their home. They are surely too small in number to stir an international movement on their behalf. But one likes to think that if Barack Obama were somehow to stumble across a copy of David Vine's fine book, he would instantly realize that a great injustice has been done—one that could easily be put right.
—April 29, 2009
Save for one fleeting exception in 2007, when reporters traveling with George W. Bush stopped on Diego Garcia for ninety minutes as Air Force One, en route from Iraq to Australia, refueled: the traveling press were confined to an auditorium, lest they glimpse what no journalist has been allowed to see.
See Robert D Kaplan, "Center Stage for the Twenty-first Century: Power Plays in the Indian Ocean," Foreign Affairs, March/April 2009. In explaining the importance of the Indian Ocean, Kaplan notes that its western reaches "include the tinderboxes of Somalia, Yemen, Iran, and Pakistan—constituting a network of dynamic trade as well as a network of global terrorism, piracy, and drug smuggling. Hundreds of millions of Muslims...live along the Indian Ocean's eastern edges, in India and Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia." He adds that 90 percent of global commerce still travels by sea, with fully half of the world's container traffic—and 70 percent of the total trade in petroleum products—passing through the Indian Ocean.
For a full account of the rendition network, see Stephen Grey, Ghost Plane: The True Story of the CIA Torture Program (St. Martin's, 2006), reviewed in these pages by Raymond Bonner, January 11, 2007.
See Jamie Doward, "British Island 'Used by US for Rendition,'" The Observer, March 2, 2008.
This specific question forms a core part of the argument in my own essay, "Bush's Amazing Achievement," The New York Review, June 14, 2007.
Forcibly exiled nearly 40 years ago, Diego Garcia natives fight to return to island home now used as key US military outpost
October 9, 2009 -- We turn now to another island that is a key military outpost for the United States. Located in the Indian Ocean, Diego Garcia has often been used for strikes on Iraq and Afghanistan and played a critical role in the US extraordinary rendition program. Unlike Guam, Diego Garcia has no inhabitants resisting the US military. All of the island’s residents were forcibly removed in the early 1970s. For the last four decades, former residents of Diego Garcia and their descendants have been fighting for the right to return. We speak with Olivier Bancoult, a leader of the exiled people of Diego Garcia and president of the Chagos Refugees Group; and David Vine, author of the book Island of Shame: The Secret History of the US Military Base on Diego Garcia.
Olivier Bancoult, leader of the exiled people of Diego Garcia and president of the Chagos Refugees Group.
David Vine, author of the book Island of Shame: The Secret History of the US Military Base on Diego Garcia.
JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to another island that is a key
military outpost for the United States. Located in the Indian Ocean,
Diego Garcia has been used for—often used for strikes on Iraq and
Afghanistan. The island also played a critical role in the US
extraordinary rendition program.
The military analyst John Pike recently described Diego Garcia
as the most important facility the US has. According to Pike, the
military’s goal is to be able to run the planet from Guam and Diego
Garcia by 2015.
Unlike Guam, Diego Garcia has no inhabitants resisting the US
military. All of the island’s residents were forcibly removed in the
early 1970s by the British as part of an agreement with the United
States. Most of the former residents of Diego Garcia were shipped to
Mauritius, located over a thousand miles away. For the last four
decades, former residents of Diego Garcia and their descendants have
been fighting for the right to return.
We’re joined now by Olivier Bancoult. He is a leader of the
exiled people of Diego Garcia and president of the Chagos Refugees
Group. He was expelled from his native Diego Garcia when he was four
We’re also joined by David Vine, author of the book Island of Shame: The Secret History of the US Military Base on Diego Garcia.
Olivier Bancoult, I want to start with you. Welcome to Democracy Now!
OLIVIER BANCOULT: Thank you for inviting me to Democracy Now!
JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you talk to us first about the
experience of the removal, what you and your family remember of the
removal by the British and how it came about?
OLIVIER BANCOULT: Yeah. The way that we have been
removed, it was forcibly removed by the British government in order to
make place for the US military base in Diego Garcia. We all have to
move, first on Diego Garcia and then followed by the outer island,
Peros Banhos and Salomon. So that means that we have been removed
twice. And we have been dumped in the slum of Port Louis without any
consideration and without any planning.
And the whole what we used to do in Chagos was now the same in
Mauritius. Life become more and more difficult for us. This is why we
have been trying to see what we can do, and it give me this opportunity
to be here in the United States to just try to have an open dialogue
with the new administration of Barack—President Barack Obama
administration, to see. And it’s very important that on this day I’ve
been—learned that President Barack Obama had been awarded Nobel Peace
Prize. And I think that he will use it in order to solve the problem,
to put an end to all the—solve the problems faced by Chagossian
community since the uproot, their removal from their birthplace.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And when the British removed your people
from the island, how many people were removed? Did they offer any kind
of compensation to the families for the properties they lost? And what
kind of compensation did they receive?
OLIVIER BANCOULT: When we were removed, we were, in all,
2,500. But there was no compensation. This had been followed by all the
legal battle, not only by hunger strike, by demonstration, by
Chagossian women. And for some years, we have received very little
compensation, which was not enough in order to pay all the debt we had
done during our stay in Mauritius, because in Chagos, everyone has his
own house, whereas in Mauritius, we have to pay rent, and we don’t have
money, we don’t have a job. And this is why we consider that
compensation was not enough. And people are still living in poverty,
and we have been dumped the slum of Port Louis, the capital of
JUAN GONZALEZ: David Vine, you have chronicled this
incredible story that is little known throughout the rest of the world.
How did the British end up depopulating the island on behalf of the
DAVID VINE: It was—and this is one of the main points of my book Island of Shame—it
was, from the beginning, a US plan. The US identified Diego Garcia as
the site for a military base beginning in the late 1950s and approached
the British to gain access to the islands and to remove the
Chagossians. And with the help of a $14 million secret payment that we
made to the British government, we secured their agreement to give us
access to the island and then to forcibly remove all the Chagossians,
which was ultimately done, again, on our orders.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the island remains under whose sovereignty right now?
DAVID VINE: It remains a British colony, actually the
last created British colony. But the base is firmly a US base. It’s a
massive Air Force and Navy base.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, you went all around the world trying
to dig up the documents on this. Tell us how you got involved in
investigating this scandal.
DAVID VINE: I got involved about eight years ago, when
some of the lawyers representing the Chagossians in lawsuits in the
United States and Britain contacted me to serve as an expert witness in
their suits, to go and live with the Chagossians and to document the
effects of the expulsion on their lives. But very quickly, I realized
there was a larger story that I wanted to understand and tell, and that
was how US government came to order the expulsion of the Chagossians
and orchestrate it and why we have a military base in the Indian Ocean
in the first place.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And why is Diego Garcia so important?
DAVID VINE: Largely because of its proximity to a large
swath of the globe, from south—from southern Africa through, and
especially, the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, all the way to South
and Southeast Asia. But it’s been the control that the United States
has been able to exert over the Middle East and the Persian Gulf, and
its oil and natural gas supplies, in particular, that have made Diego
Garcia so strategically important.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, you make the point in your research
that the leaders of Congress were not always favorable to this idea of
establishing this base on Diego Garcia and that, in effect, folks in
the Pentagon attempted to circumvent the political leadership in terms
of being able to reach the point that they have now of this major
DAVID VINE: That’s right. Actually, members of Congress
were not told at all about the base until the end of the 1960s, when
the Navy went to Congress asking for an appropriation for the
construction of what they called an “austere communications facility,”
although, from the beginning, they had plans for a much larger base.
But members of Congress were simply not informed about the expulsion of
the Chagossians and were lied to, in fact.
At the end of the 1960s and in the early 1970s, when they asked
about local inhabitants, they were simply told that the island was home
to a few transient laborers. This was part of a public relations plan
that the British helped craft, where they would, quote, “maintain the
fiction,” unquote—and those were the words they used—“maintain the
fiction” that the islands were inhabited by transient laborers, rather
than an indigenous people that the Chagossians are, who had been living
there for more than five generations, since the time of the American
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Olivier Bancoult, your reaction to
being labeled by the Pentagon “transient laborers”? What was life like
on Diego Garcia before the military came?
OLIVIER BANCOULT: Life was very good. Everyone was
enjoying life in harmony and peace, because we have our culture, we
have our tradition. We all have a house. We all have a job. We used to
work in a coconut plantation, where just after working our work, we
used to go to the sea to fish. And there is an idea of share between
each other. We all live as one family. And we have our culture, like
our special meal, like our music, which had been taken [inaudible],
because everyone wants to promote culture, but what about our culture?
They just want to destroy it. This is why it’s so important for us to
have our dignity and our fundamental rights back as all human beings to
be able to live in our birthplace.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the rest of the population of the
island was scattered, not just to Mauritius. What other parts of the
world did they end up in?
OLIVIER BANCOULT: Yeah, most of the Chagossians was—they
have been in Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius. But we have others
of our brothers and sisters in Seychelles, and where we still are
fighting—the most important for them is how life was in Chagos, is very
different to Mauritius and to other place, because we prefer to be in
our birthplace, as all human beings, because it’s something very
important to all human beings.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And David Vine, you traced some of this diaspora to other parts of the world, as well, even to England directly?
DAVID VINE: That’s right. In the past six years or so,
the Chagossians, as a result of the struggle that Olivier described,
that they’ve been waging for more than four decades now, the
Chagossians won the right to full British citizenship, which includes
the right of a vote in Britain. So we’ve seen in the past several years
about a thousand or more Chagossians moving to Britain, where
they’ve—some have been able to improve their lives a bit. Many are
actually working in low-wage jobs at places like Gatwick Airport. But
the diaspora has spread, while they continue their struggle to return
to their homeland and receive proper compensation for what they’ve
suffered in exile.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And you mentioned that this is an island that journalists—no journalist has ever visited?
DAVID VINE: Since the very early 1980s, essentially no
journalist has been allowed to go. I was denied and turned down on
multiple occasions when I asked both the US and British governments for
permission to go to the islands to carry out my research. And
journalists have effectively been barred there for more than two
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I’d like to thank you both for being with us, David Vine, author of the book Island of Shame: The Secret History of the US Military Base on Diego Garcia, and Olivier Bancoult, a leader of the exiled people of Diego Garcia and president of the Chagos Refugees Group.
DAVID VINE: Thank you so much.
OLIVIER BANCOULT: Thank you so much.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Thank you for being with us.
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