To the shame of the American press (other than wire services), the following is the sum total of US coverage of yesterday's British Law Lords' decision on the expulsion of the inhabitants of Diego Garcia and the islands of the Chagos archipelago. From the Washington Post, Page A14, 23 October 2008, paragraph seven in roundup of short items entitled Around the World:
Chagos Islanders Lose Legal Fight
Britain's highest court dashed the hopes of Chagos Islanders seeking to return to the Indian Ocean homeland they lost in 1971, when the island of Diego Garcia was leased to the United States for an air base. The law lords' ruling that Britain was not obligated to allow a return reversed last year's decision by an appeals court.
From News Services
That's it. Minimal context, and only the briefest of history. No linking to the fact that this case was entirely decided by British obeisance to American wishes. The London Independent has a fuller account.
"The Footprint of Freedom" - referring to the atoll's approximate shape - is what the US Navy has dubbed its Support Facility at Diego Garcia (the image is from the official website). The Navy people have even included an "Island History" on the site, with vintage B&W photos of the islanders who - in "Operation Stampede" - were expelled in the late Sixties and early Seventies to make room for the base. There is no mention of their fate on the base website.
For a heartrending account of how the UK and US governments cleansed the Chagos Islands of their population, see John Pilger's 2006 book "Freedom Next Time." Pilger, a prolific documentary film maker, covered similar territory in his 2004 film "Stealing a Nation" (click on the link to watch online). Pilger speaks of the "vandalized lives" of the islanders, whose extreme "sadness" was a leading cause of death when they were exiled from their homes to distant Mauritius.
"Maintaining the fiction" of the supposedly uninhabited islands was the title of a Foreign Office memo to the Wilson Government in the late Sixties, and the "fiction" was maintained throughout subsequent decades by governments Labour and Conservative, Democratic and Republican, on both sides of the Atlantic. Meanwhile, in the Indian Ocean, the Ilois led lives in desperate poverty on the outskirts of Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius.
In his 2006 book, Pilger tracked down the late British Foreign Minister Robin Cook, who admitted that "the episode was one of the most sordid and morally indefensible I have ever known." At the time, then US Ambassador to Mauritius William Brewer wrote to Washington:
It is absurd to state that Diego Garcia has no fixed population. There is no question that the island has been inhabited since the eighteenth century.
But as Pilger writes, both UK and US governments would play "ping pong" with responsibility, "maintaining the fiction" right up to yesterday's ruling. Writing the minority opinion, Lord Bingham cited "highly imaginative letters written by American officials," which brandished vague fears of terrorism as a reason to continue the exclusion of the islanders from their homes.
Had the US and British governments wanted to secure the Diego facilities years ago, what better way than to enlist the islanders as workers and security guards? One Foreign Office functionary asked at the time, "I don't see why the Americans shouldn't allow some to stay. Could they not be useful?" But as Mark Gillem writes in "America Town: Building the Outposts of Empire," his study of US military bases overseas, American planners want "white space" around their perimeters. In the case of Diego Garcia, this has been carried to absurd lengths, where even islands more than a hundred miles away from Diego Garcia must be clear of human habitation.
I have an old diplomatic passport stamped "BIOT" (British Indian Ocean Territory, i.e. Diego Garcia) when I went there from the US Embassy in Mauritius, some twenty years ago. The trip was related to the longstanding arrangement between Mauritius, the British authorities, and the US Navy to employ hundreds of civilian workers for maintenance and housekeeping chores on the base. But no one from the Chagos refugee community, who from time to time delivered protest letters to the Embassy, was recruited for work on Diego Garcia. Mauritians, yes, Filipinos, of course. But no one who might deem themselves as "going home."
Despite prior British courts citing the Magna Carta and its proscription of "Exile from the Realm," yesterday a one-judge majority upheld the government's exile of these forgotten "mini-slaves," as these mixed-race descendants of African slaves, Indian indentured workers, and French and English planters call themselves. These British citizens contrast their treatment with that given the white Falkland Islanders, whose far flung islands were defended by HMG at great expense of blood and treasure.
What's next? The Chagossians and their supporters speak of an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. In London and Washington, officials who cannot countenance the notion of a "native" presence on the islands no doubt will take comfort in actuarial fact: by the time the current lease runs out in 2016, many of the surviving exiled Chagossians will be in their eighties. HMG and the USG have waited them out this long - what's another eight years?
Perhaps the only thing that might be different in the next eight years could be two terms of an Obama Presidency. For a campaign that has put "human security" and human rights at the forefront of its Change agenda, the plight of the Chagos Islanders cries out for justice. All it would take from Washington would be an admission that a few hundred former copra workers on out-islands 100 miles away from Diego Garcia would not jeopardize the security of the West. One word from the Americans would get the British off the hook, and would put an end to this excruciatingly long legal rearguard action.
As Olivier Bancoult, the leader of the Chagos community-in-exile said to The Guardian after yesterday's verdict: "How can we be expected to live outside our birthplace when there are other people living there now?"
Don't expect the octogenarians - or their children and grandchildren - to give up. After all - for the similarities in their generations-long uprooting - they've been called "the Palestinians of the Indian Ocean."