For the price of a missile

Print edition : September 02, 2000

After more than 30 years of forced exile, former inhabitants of Diego Garcia and two other islands challenge in the court their eviction by the British government.

ONE of the more tawdry episodes in British colonial history was unveiled in the British High Court recently when some former inhabitants of the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia and two nearby islands took legal action against the British government fo r evicting them from their homes more than 30 years ago. The Chagos islands, of which Diego Garcia is the largest island, is one of Britain's last remaining overseas colonies, but its inhabitants were unceremoniously told to leave in the late 1960s and e arly 1970s so that a United States military base could be built on Diego Garcia. Since then they have been trying to return home.

Until their eviction, the inhabitants of Diego Garcia, Peros Banhos and the Salomon islands had led placid and contented existence fishing and extracting oil from copra. As a U.S. Navy Website puts it: "Until 1971, Diego Garcia's main source of income wa s from the profitable copra oil plantation. At one time, copra oil from Diego Garcia and other nearby islands provided fine machine oil and fuel to light European lamps." The lush coconut plantations and the idyllic life of the islanders were, however, d estroyed by the imperatives of U.S. and British global strategy, which required Diego Garcia to be converted into a base to allow Western power to be projected into the Arabian sea and the Indian Ocean. As the U.S. Navy puts it: "Its strategic location a nd full range of facilities make the island the last link in the long logisitics chain that supports a vital U.S. and British naval presence in the Indian Ocean and North Arabian sea." The Diego Garcia base was put to use most recently during the U.S. op erations in Somalia, and during the Gulf War.

Sometime in the mid-1960s, Britain agreed to lease the Chagos islands to the U.S. to build a base. The islands were then part of the British colony of Mauritius, but when Mauritius was given independence in 1965, Britain retained possession of the Chagos and created a new colony, called the British Indian Ocean Territory. The U.S. wanted to lease the islands in uninhabited state and so the residents of the islands were unceremoniously put on boats by the British and shipped to Mauritius, where they have been living in poverty for the last three decades. In return for the islands, the U.S. apparently took 11 million off the price of the Polaris submarine based missiles it sold to Britain.

When they left home, most of the people were not even aware that they faced permanent exile. Louis Bancoult, now 51, went to Mauritius in 1967 with his family because his sister needed medical treatment. When they tried to return to their home on Peros B anos, the British authorites simply told them they could not come back. The islanders say that others had to leave when the British stopped shipping essential supplies to the islands. They say that the British took them to Mauritius promising them land, money and animals to begin a new life. But when they got to Mauritius, there was nothing there for them. Nearly 30 years on, the islanders are still poor and miserable. They have not succeeded in integrating themselves into local society, and the rate of unemployment is high among them. They live in shantytowns, and sustain themselves by working as manual labourers and domestic servants.

Although they had been promised money to resettle, it was only in 1982, more than 10 years after they had been exiled, that Britain paid them a total of 4 million, a sum they say has not been enough for them to rebuild their lives.

Not surprisingly, the islanders have long been trying to return home. The British issued an ordinance in 1971 banning them from returning to the islands, but it was only earlier this year that they won permission from the courts, in the teeth of governme nt opposition, to seek judicial review of this ban order. Now 447 of the surviving adults, as well as the 3,000-odd children who were born to the original evictees, want the right to return.

British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.-ALAIN MORVAN/GAMMA

When the case came up for hearing in the High Court in July, lawyers for the islanders produced British Home Office documents from the 1960s which showed the contempt with which the government had dealt with the islanders. Senior British civil servants d ecided that they would describe the inhabitants of the islands as "contract labourers" rather than permanent inhabitants, so that it would be easy to evict them. This was despite the fact that some islanders said they had lived there for generations.

Internal documents that are now in the public domain show that Britain knew that there were permanent inhabitants on the island, and was trying to cover it up. As one civil servant put in a note, it was essential to "maintain the pretence that there were no permanent inhabitants". The then head of the British Foreign Office, Sir Paul Gore-Booth, urged his officials that "we must be very tough about this", adding that "there will be no indigenous population except seagulls." Another diplomat, in a fine e xpression of colonial disdain for the colonised, described the people of the islands as Tarzans and Man Fridays. "Unfortunately along with the birds go a few Tarzans and Man Fridays whose origins are obscure, and who are being hopefully wished on to Maur itius." Britain clearly wanted to avoid the possibility of the United Nations getting involved, and the then Colonial Secretary, Anthony Greenwood, noted that it was "important to present the U.N. with a fait accompli."

The lawyer for the islanders, Sir Sydney Kentridge QC, recently told the court that between 1967 and 1973, Britain had evicted all 2,000 people who lived on the Chagos islands without their consent, without consultation with them, and without making any arrangements for their resettlement. In what he described as a "very sad and by no means creditable episode in British colonial history", Sir Sydney said that "when the ships carrying them arrived in Mauritius, they were simply dumped on the dockside wit h no provision made at all for their housing or subsistence."

The islanders are basing their legal challenge on the violation of their fundamental rights. The islanders being British citizens, their lawyers have argued that they should be allowed to return to their homes "as a right of birth and citizenship." They have argued that the Magna Carta, one of the foundations of British law, prevented the unlawful banishment of citizens from their homes. They have said that they do not want to interfere with the U.S. base on Diego Garcia, and are willing to be resettled on the eastern side of Diego Garcia, away from the base, and on the outlying islands.

The British Foreign Office, which administers the British Indian Ocean Territory, and is fighting the case on behalf of the government, at first tried to argue that the High Court did not have the jurisdiction to hear the case. This was overruled, and th e Foreign Office argued that there was nothing illegal in the original ordinance exiling the islanders. But at the same time, it appears to have suggested quietly that the islanders could return. Baroness Scotland, the Foreign Office Minister, revealed t hat a small delegation of islanders had been taken to one of the islands, Peros Banos, to see what conditions there were like, and to assess whether they wanted to return. "We are taking the advice of consultants to assess whether people could return to the outer islands, and what the environmental impact would be." The islanders were apparently ready to return, and feel that they can earn their livelihood by opening up the islands to tourism.

The Foreign Office is trying to distance itself from the original decision 30 years ago to evict the islanders. "This case is now more about granting access to the islands, not about the original decision that was taken," a Foreign Office spokeswoman sai d. The Foreign Office's quiet volte-face is not surprising. In 1975, one of the more vocal champions of the islanders' right to return was a young Labour MP, called Robin Cook. Today, as Foreign Secretary, he finds himself in the embarrassing posi tion of having to defend a court action by the islanders.

After five days of hearings, the judges are expected to deliver their judgment sometime in October.

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