Diego Garcia is an atoll in the Indian Ocean, which has been converted into an American military base where no one is allowed to set a foot without official permission. This has been the state of affairs since 1966 when it was leased by United Kingdom to the US for fifty years. All the United States had to compensate was about $14 million concession on the Polaris missile that UK was buying from it. The lease was supposed to expire on the 31st day of December, 2016, and campaigners like myself were hoping that President Obama, who was elected on a moral platform and had taken some notable decisions on human rights would appreciate the inhumanity and do the right thing. He did not; and as we are in 2017 now, it is reasonable to presume that the least has been extended for another 20 years as was being speculated. The islanders have been treated as expendables and badly let down! Here’s an expose of the worst human rights violations by two democracies of the world, by Ashoka, in an exclusive report, in Different Truths.
As we have just stepped into the year Two Thousand and Seventeen Anno Domini, I think it is apposite to spare a thought for a group of people who would not be celebrating its onset! They have been victims of a protracted injustice which has, in my estimation, no parallel in modern history. The injustice I have just mentioned involves uprooting an entire community from its homeland forcibly using the most minatory techniques by utilising techniques that would send the entire humankind to shame.
And no! I am not alluding to any tinpot military dictatorship or an authoritarian monolith like the erstwhile Soviet Union. The guilty parties here are two countries that never cease to parade their credentials as the harbingers of democratic values. I mean of course the United Kingdom and the United States.
The worst aspect of this story is that it is totally shrouded in mystery and there has been no real concerted effort on part of anyone including the most vociferous human rights campaigners and even the top journalists to bring this to public attention.
I am referring to Diego Garcia and what has happened to it in the last 50 years!
It would be appropriate to provide some background. Diego Garcia is an atoll in the Indian Ocean, which has been converted into an American military base where no one is allowed to set a foot without official permission. This has been the state of affairs since 1966 when it was leased by United Kingdom to the US for fifty years. All the United States had to compensate was about $14 million concession on the Polaris missile that UK was buying from it. The lease was supposed to expire on the 31st day of December, 2016, and campaigners like myself were hoping that President Obama, who was elected on a moral platform and had taken some notable decisions on human rights would appreciate the inhumanity and do the right thing. He did not; and as we are in 2017 now, it is reasonable to presume that the least has been extended for another 20 years as was being speculated. The islanders have been treated as expendables and badly let down!
Diego Garcia is one of the 60 atolls that was part of Chagos Archaepalego. It was one of the very few islands that wer inhabited. It is located just south of the Equator about 1000 miles from the southern tip India and about 800 miles from Seychelles. The island along with the other islands was uninhabited until the mid-8th century and its ownership oscillated between the French and the British. Eventually, when the plantations were introduced, indentured labour was brought over mainly from Indian and Malay region. They had lived there for more than 200 years and developed a language of their own viz., Chagossian Creole.
The region was known for its breath-taking natural beauty of abundant vegetation and unspoilt beaches. It was part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) when it was leased to the United States.
The United States had expressed a need to develop a base in the Indian Ocean in the era immediately after the Cuban missile crisis. They asked Britain to provide them the territory. The negotiations took place in complete secrecy. There would have been a major uproar had it been revealed that Britain was involved in moving the entire population of not just Diego Garcia but neighbouring islands against their will. The papers have revealed some very unedifying conversation between the British diplomats in which the Diego Garcians were alluded to in the most disparaging racial terms.
I have personally spoken to several Diego Garcians, in Seychelles, when I worked and Mauritius where they still remain as refugees yearning to return to their homeland paradise. The sufferers and the eyewitnesses have revealed how they were forcibly evicted and placed on boats that took them to Seychelles or Mauritius where they are still treated with hostility. One person mentioned that the British gassed the children’s pet dogs and threatened that they would meet the same fate if they did not do as they were told.
In effect, there are about 3000 Diego Garcians who have been condemned to live as refugees eking out a miserable living while the whole world is indifferent to their plight. The US maintains that is a British territory, which they have legally leased and do not in any was consider themselves responsible for the plight of the hapless islanders. Wikileaks papers have shown that Diego Garcia base has been involved in the most inhuman activities – far more disconcerting than those on the Guantamo that brought US so much of ignominy.
It is the conduct of successive United Kingdom governments that should draw international concern. It was the Labour Party government of Harold Wilson, on paper committed to anti-colonialism that initially made the deal with president Lyndon Johnson. Successive governments, both Labour and Conservative (and even the Liberal who were in coalition with Tories during Cameron’s first term) have all let the islanders down ignoring the most fundamental precepts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which they are signatories.
Not much could be expected from Margaret Thatcher who was unashamedly insensitive to the concerns of the non-Caucasians as her support of the apartheid regime demonstrated. But I expected Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron to take a human stand! I was deeply disappointed. In fact, Gordon Brown even went to the extent of arranging a marine park around the islands to prevent any fishing, which obliterated the islander’s livelihood.
The islanders did win their legal case in the UK High Court, which reaffirmed their right to re-settle in their homeland along with compensation, in 2000. Not one of the islanders I met did not express a deep yearning to go back to their homeland – even the ones who were born later and have never been there. The British government in a thoroughly devious move utilised the doctrine of a royal prerogative in the Queen’s name – an obscure regulation that had not been used for decades – to nullify the decision in 2004.
The late Robin Cook was a prominent MP from Scotland who used to take up the cause of the islanders and be very vocal about it. I had corresponded with him when he was in Edinburgh. When his Labour Party came to power, the then Foreign Secretary ruled out an early return of the islanders to their native island. The name of this Foreign Secretary was Robin Cook!!
The question that should exercise us is whether UK would have been this insensitive had the islanders been Caucasian whites! The answer is there for everyone to see. Just look at the way Thatcher acted when Argentina occupied Falklands that had 1700 islanders, who were Caucasians! There was a fill fledged war that was fought between the two countries.
The present situation is that the US military personnel are allowed on the Diego Garcia along with token civilian support of Filipinos who are allowed to remain there in batches. Even the neighbouring islands are not allowed to be inhabited.
My own interest in the matter goes back to the time I was a medical student in the early 1970’s when I tended to see this issue as the most egregious instance of abuse of human rights and human dignity. I was always flabbergasted as to why the journalists did not take up this matter and myself wrote to the leading journalists of the time. Only Nikhil Chakravarti displayed an interest and wrote articles on the sheer inhumanity. Later on I wrote to the parliamentarians in the Morarji government imploring them to act. One MP did place a question but I have to confess that he was a blood relative of mine. The government was forced to resign before the Foreign Minister Vajpayee could respond.
It is also important to point out that in my estimation the treatment of the islanders is the most glaring example of injustice in modern times. Yes even more so than the Palestinians whose right to a homeland I support. The difference here is that the Palestinians have never been off the international radar and rightly so. Diego Garcia debacle remains an enigma to most.
I personally believe that if we are to present ourselves as victims of injustice, we have to be doubly sensitive to those whose oppression through injustices is far more intense and we have to be prepared to fight on their behalf as well. This would ensure that our fight is against injustice wherever we see it and not just for ourselves. Only then would we be able to eliminate global injustice.
On that count alone, I would urge everyone who values justice and places a premium on human dignity to stand up for the Diego Garcians. There have been no UN resolutions; they would probably be vetoed anyway! But we cannot leave the plight of these hapless people unattended.
I hope the islanders get to see some light at the end of the tunnel, in 2017, and wish them well.
©Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad
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