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Jamila Verghese
Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

Books written by B G Verghese

With the ethnic cleansing of the atolls, Diego Garcia was turned into a luxuriously appointed military base named “Camp Justice”. It was from here that Afghanistan and, later, Iraq were bombed with grievous “collateral damage”.

Chagos Tragedy Hides Awesome Humbug

These Indian Ocean islands were ethnically cleansed to clear the way for the Diego Garcia US naval and air base. The story remains mostly untold.

By B G Verghese

Deccan Herald, 25 March, 2012

The UN Human Rights Council has voted a US sponsored resolution calling on Sri Lanka to move towards securing enduring peace which will be unsustainable “without meaningful steps to foster national reconciliation and accountability” in keeping with the recommendations of the Island’s own Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Committee “to address alleged violations of international law”. This was supported by India, following some pressure by the DMK, but only after duly moderating a key clause that now makes the Council’s “advice and technical assistance” dependant on consultation and concurrence with Colombo.

India would rightly leave it to Sri Lanka to pursue the path of devolution and reconciliation on its own and not be arm-twisted by external powers, some of whom have their own agenda while others wish to divert attention from their own derelictions. Delhi must also be careful not to outsource foreign relations to any State or particular interest group as it did in the 1980s and 1900s with absolutely disastrous results. Crude intervention in Lanka and unthinking support for the LTTE in response to chauvinistic clamour in Tamil Nadu cost us dearly. And we have our own skeletons in the cupboard that we must clean out ourselves without being taunted and forced to do so under international pressure.

Having put Sri Lanka under scrutiny, the world needs to turn its gaze onother sorry instances of human rights abuse. Not least is the unabashedand unparalleled human rights violation long practised by the US and UK in clandestine partnership in the Chagos Islands, renamed the British Indian Ocean Territories. BIOT is best known for the huge US nuclear naval and air base at Diego Garcia, the principal atoll in this huge archipelago of the size of Spain. This constitutes an absolutely dreadful story that has been insufficiently told and not resolutely pressed.

The Chagos Islands were once part of Mauritius and drew settlers from there, mostly creoles and descendants of Indian indentured labour. With Britain’s plans with withdraw from East of Suez in the 1960s, the Americans felt they needed to fill the security vacuum and negotiated a secret 50 year deal with the UK to lease Diego Garcia until 2016 – but extendable by another 20 years - as a key strategic naval and air base in the Indian Ocean. This was to be partly shared with the UK and Britain was forgiven a debt of $14 million and given an 11 billion pound sterling discount on sales of US Polaris submarines. The House of Commons and Congress were kept in the dark and the deal was struck. The Chagossians’ right to return was forever denied and fishing banned.

The rub lay in there being a scattered fifth generation population of three to four thousand Islanders or more in the atolls. They cultivated coconut and sugarcane, fished and kept pet dogs. The negotiators therefore first declared that the Islands were uninhabited. As this did not wash, the tale was amended to there being a small floating population of construction workers. Since that proved no more credible, a decision was taken to move the hapless Islanders, first to the Seychelles and then to Mauritius, where they were literally dumped on the quayside. The process, John Pilger wrote in the Guardian, commenced by disallowing those who had gone to Mauritius for medical treatment to return, and then brutally gassing the Islander’s pet dogs with exhaust fumes from American military trucks, an act that pained and terrified the native populace that was then packed off almost as criminals between 1967 and 1975. Nobody was consulted. Some compensation was tardily paid to cover up what remains a terrible crime.

With the ethnic cleansing of the atolls, Diego Garcia was turned into a luxuriously appointed military base named “Camp Justice”. It was from here that Afghanistan and, later, Iraq were bombed with grievous “collateral damage”. In 1966, Sir Paul Gore Booth, back in the British Foreign Office after having served as High Commissioner in India, chillingly noted in a memo to the State Department in Washington that subsequently leaked, that “the rocks would remain ours” and “there will be no indigenous people, except sea gulls”. A later official noting added that “along with the birds go some few Tarzans or Men Fridays, whose origins are obscure but are hopefully being wished on Mauritius…”.Contempt and derision were palpable. The Americans, equally culpable, got what they wanted – a “sanitised” Chagos Archipelago to save the world.

Then began another sordid saga of twisted justice. The UK High Court found in favour of theIslanders in 2000 and again in 2004and declared their forcible expulsion illegal. The Government, however, prevaricated, pleading Treaty commitments to the USA. The UK Chagos Support Association, however, pressed the case. The Court of Appeals too ruled in favour of the Islanders. Yet, in defiance of law and justice, the UK Government took the matter before the Law Lords who ruled in its favour by three votes to two.

A new subterfuge was introduced with an “expert group” reporting ecological danger to the Islands, which were even found to be “sinking” though the American base with its 2000 personnel, two air strips, heavy bomber fleet, naval docks and service contractors together with rich yacht owners were permitted to enjoy the hospitality of these beautiful Islands. It was thereupon recommended that the Chagos Archipelago, minus Diego Garcia, be declared a Marine Park Reserve Area, an ecological treasure from which the original inhabitants would remain excluded. The UK and US worked hand in glove at the highest levels to play out this charade, law, justice, and human rights be damned, even as these knights in shining armour hypocritically rush to defend these values around the globe as and when it suits them under the new UN doctrine of Responsibility to Protect.

The Islanders are currently preparing to challenge the gross injustice and illegalities they have suffered before the European Court of Human Rights even as Diego Garcia is reportedly being primed for a possible role in disciplining Iran. It is time India and the rest of the world took note of the cruel plight of the Chagos Islanders and the sovereign rights of Mauritius.The Commonwealth too needs to query Britain on this subject, which should in any event be flagged as an agenda item for the next CHOGM meeting. If necessary, a Commonwealth sub-group should be set up to visit Mauritius, record the views of the forgotten Chagossians and place their report before the UN Human Rights Council.

In Delhi some months ago, President Obama pointedly asked India to take a position on human rights in Burma in keeping with its aspirations to be a great power. Now, Hillary Clinton has praised its positive UNHRC vote. Both should be greatly assured that India is not unmindful of its responsibilities in its Indian Ocean neighbourhood with the Chagos Islands lying not too far from the Nicobar chain. The Chagossians, Mauritians and UK Support Association could all do with some Indian support.

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