Over four decades ago, citizens of the picturesque Indian Ocean archipelago of Chagos were tricked or forcibly removed from their land by the UK to make way for a US military base following a secret deal between the two countries. The suffering of the forcibly exiled Chagossians, and their fight to return home is well documented. Now a new report brings hope their ordeal could soon be over. Dr Sean Carey finds out how.
Olivier Bancoult, the leader of the Mauritius-based Chagos Refugees Group is cautiously upbeat. “Our right of abode seems to have been recognised at last,” he says in response to the news that a British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) commissioned report, carried out by professional services firm KPMG, to look into the repatriation of the forcibly exiled Chagossians, may soon make his people’s return to their ancestral home possible.
“After everything we have been through in the courts and in our lives, we never expected the British government to do this, so we are all pleasantly surprised to know that the day that we can return to Chagos is coming ever closer,” he says.
Although resettlement is not yet a done deal, Bancoult’s positive reaction is justifiable. He is one of around 1,750 Chagos islanders, the descendants of African slaves and workers, who were forced into exile by the UK authorities at the height of the Cold War so that the US could build and use Diego Garcia as a military base.
The largest and southernmost island in the Chagos Archipelago, part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), is a hugely important US installation with anywhere between 2,000 and 5,000 US military and civilian personnel (and some 40 British naval officers) in residence. The horseshoe-shaped coral atoll, dubbed the “Footprint of Freedom” by the Pentagon, has been used as a launch pad for B-2 and B-52 bombers for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has also played a part in the so-called war on terror by being used for the refuelling of two “rendition” flights in 2002. So the fact that resettlement in Chagos is being explored is highly significant; it demonstrates that there has been a massive shift in attitudes towards the exiled islanders in both Washington and Whitehall in recent years.
Before it was a different story. With the conspicuous exception of the late Robin Cook, who, as UK foreign secretary, was willing to allow the Chagossians to return to islands other than Diego Garcia, after Bancoult’s spectacular victory in the UK High Court in 2000 won them that right, Labour foreign secretaries – Jack Straw, Margaret Beckett and David Miliband – prevented their return.
In 2010 Miliband, for example, responded to a campaign led by influential conservation bodies, including the Pew Environment Group, the Zoological Society of London, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and declared that (except for Diego Garcia) the remaining 640,000 square kilometres of the BIOT was to become the largest “no-take” Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the world. This MPA “would, in effect, put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago’s former residents”, in the view of Colin Roberts, the FCO Director, Overseas Territories, according to a leaked cable from the US Embassy in London released by Wikileaks. That cable, written by US Embassy political counsellor Richard Mills, concludes that “[he does] not doubt the current [Labour] government’s resolve to prevent the resettlement of the islands’ former inhabitants”. Miliband is now President of the New York-based International Rescue Committee (IRC) charity, which works with refugees and displaced persons in 18 African and 22 other countries. A search on the IRC website for “Chagos” yields zero responses.
However, in 2013 the then Conservative Foreign Secretary William Hague, acclaimed biographer of anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce, signalled a new approach to the issues. He instructed KPMG to carry out the study into the feasibility of resettlement in Chagos. This was a follow-up to one commissioned by Cook in 2000 that lasted two years and which, although never completed, nevertheless contained the recommendation that around 1000 Chagossians could settle without any problem in the archipelago. Another report, running to over 600 pages, carried out by management consultancy Royal Haskoning, was then published in 2002. This time the conclusion was markedly different: even short-term resettlement, it was claimed, was unfeasible due to storms and seismic activity. Relying on this finding, which FCO officials and government ministers were happy to portray as the advice of “independent” consultants, the feasibility study was terminated.
In June 2004, Jack Straw authorised a new Order-in-Council using the Royal Prerogative to ban the Chagossians from returning home. This led to further litigation by Bancoult’s lawyers. The UK government eventually won that case in a 3-2 judgement in the House of Lords in 2008. However, this was not the end of the legal story. Bancoult’s lawyers are preparing to challenge this ruling again, having submitted an application to the UK Supreme Court, based on papers released by the FCO in May 2012 in response to a separate legal challenge, concerning the newly proclaimed MPA. They had long suspected systematic FCO interference in the shaping of the Royal Haskoning report – in particular that the recommendation that 1000 islanders would be able to resettle had been deleted – but could not find the evidence. The papers released in 2012 contain “all the relevant documents”, which the Bancoult legal team had been told were destroyed, according to barrister and coral scientist Richard Dunne.
He thinks these documents demonstrate “how officials had required changes to be made to the report such that the final conclusion was, in fact, not supported by the detailed evidence and which revealed that the study was fundamentally flawed.”
Richard Dunne suggests that the release of documents relating to the FCO feasibility study is legal dynamite. “If these documents had not been concealed at the time and we had known this, then an effective challenge could have been mounted to a central pillar of the government’ case,” he says. “I have no doubt that the judgement by the House of Lords would have been different and perhaps the Orders-in-Council would have been ruled unlawful.”
The legal context is critically important for the islanders’ right of return but so are the politics. There is no doubt that a key factor driving the change in policy towards resettlement is that an optional 20-year extension to the 50-year agreement between the UK and US regarding the use of Diego Garcia needs to be in place by 2016. Over the last decade or so, the issue of the Chagossians’ exile has been an embarrassment to the UK. Not surprisingly, media commentators in countries as diverse as Iran, Israel, Qatar, Russia and Sri Lanka, nations often castigated over human rights and other abuses by some UK commentators, have been quick to point out the plight of the islanders – in particular pointing to the difference in treatment meted out to the Chagossians compared with their fellow British citizens in the Falkland Islands.
A second factor driving change is that the endorsement of the Chagossians’ right of return by celebrity supporters, including 2008 Nobel Prize- winner for literature J-M. G. Le Clézio, adventurer and broadcaster, Ben Fogle, best-selling historical novelist, Philippa Gregory, and dub (reggae) poet Benjamin Zephaniah, has helped significantly in raising the profile of the issue.
Their voices have gone at least some way to counterbalancing the powerful, “fortress conservation” lobby clustered around the London-based Chagos Conservation Trust. A third element is that the establishment of the UK’s Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) in 2008 has succeeded in raising awareness of the Chagos issue amongst UK parliamentarians, many of whom, including John Prescott, deputy prime minister in Tony Blair’s Labour government, were completely unaware that the 1966 exchange of notes between the US and the then Labour government headed by Harold Wilson over the use of Diego Garcia, led to the deportation of the islanders, under the pretence that they were “contract workers”. Significantly, Prescott has said: “I’m ashamed UK governments allowed this to happen. It was wrong and we must make amends.”
The recently published draft report by KPMG, based on meetings with some of the extended Chagossian community in Mauritius, Seychelles and the UK, states that there are “no fundamental legal obstacles” to resettlement. KPMG also makes it clear that arguments concerning defence, security, climate change, sea level rise, increased storminess and viability are not a barrier either. The best options, according to the study, are for a pilot, small-scale resettlement of around 150 people at a cost of £63 million over three years or a medium-sized community of around 500 people at a cost of £107 million over four years. A larger-scale resettlement of around 1500 people, initially on Diego Garcia and then expanding to some of the outer islands in the archipelago, may require a whopping £414 million investment over six years.
Concerned that the government will take fright over such financial projections, the APPG has come up with other ideas. One suggestion is that the UK should not source expensive building materials for resettlement in the US and EU but instead explore cheaper options in Africa and Asia and learn from the experience of other countries in the region, such as the Maldives and Mauritius in running small, remote island communities. Another is that a pilot resettlement should be confined initially to Diego Garcia and then proceed incrementally from a lower base in terms of numbers and living conditions than that outlined by KPMG.
Back in Port Louis, Bancoult thinks that the proposed initial resettlement on Diego Garcia rather than the outer islands of the archipelago is a sensible way to proceed. “It’s a place that has a harbour and an airstrip so travelling by boat or plane isn’t a problem,” he says. “And it has all the facilities, such as electricity, water and hospitals.” It seems likely that the initial numbers returning will be low – perhaps less than 100 people – with more returning later when they see what can be achieved. In any event, like many islanders, Bancoult is confident that economically and socially sustainable communities can be created in the archipelago. “Once the settlement on Diego is up and running we can explore the possibility of people returning to the outer islands like Peros Banhos and Salomon,” he says. “Chagossians are very resourceful – we can make a living through fishing, coconut processing, handicrafts, and perhaps later through eco-tourism. We can also forge regional trading partnerships with people in the Seychelles, Réunion and Mauritius.”
Reassuring the green lobby, he adds: “Conservationists, who have opposed our return, have nothing to fear from our presence; it’s in our interest to look after the environment. But Chagossians can never accept that the fish in the sea have more rights than we do.”
Even though new UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond is unlikely to be as sympathetic as his predecessor, William Hague, the issue of the Chagossians’ return now has considerable momentum, as well as powerful advocates. Indeed, Hague, now Leader of the House of Commons, has already indicated that he supports an “inclusive and transparent” discussion once the final KPMG report is available. No doubt the Speaker of Parliament, John Bercow, a former member of the APPG, will back the debate. “There is widespread support for the Chagossians in parliament,” says David Snoxell, former British High Commissioner to Mauritius (2000-2004) and coordinator of the APPG. “2015 is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, which provides that no ‘free man’ shall be exiled. There could be no better way of celebrating the freedoms and the Rule of Law enshrined in Magna Carta than by allowing the Chagossians, who are also British, to return home. The British public, the UN, African Union, Commonwealth and international community, would welcome this. It would strengthen the credibility of the UK’s promotion of international human rights.”
Of course, successive Mauritian governments have maintained their claim to sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago (including Diego Garcia), which was excised from the colony of Mauritius in breach of international law prior to the country’s independence in 1968. Mauritius has been informed by the UK on numerous occasions that the archipelago will be returned when it is no longer needed for defence purposes. This long-standing grievance resulted in Mauritius taking its case regarding sovereignty and the legality of the UK’s unilateral decision to declare BIOT an MPA to an international Arbitration Tribunal established under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 2010.
A judgement is expected early this year, coincidentally the 50th anniversary of the establishment of BIOT. But the Chagos Refugees Group, aware that some Mauritian politicians have accused its members of being “unpatriotic” is wary of being drawn into this legal dispute. “Our main priority is the right of return,” says Bancoult. “We have always asked how others, Americans, can live on our islands where we, the indigenous people, are not allowed to. For us sovereignty is a secondary issue.”