In the mid-1960s, the US was worried about possible Soviet expansion in the Indian Ocean and wanted a base in the region – but one without a “population problem” which might upset the base’s operation.
In return, the US was willing to offer the UK an $11m subsidy on the Polaris submarine nuclear deterrent.
A memo from then Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart to Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson in 1969 admitted that the payment was kept secret from Parliament and the US Congress.
The Americans’ first choice was the island of Aldabra, north of Madagascar.
Unfortunately, Aldabra was the breeding ground for rare giant tortoises, whose mating habits would probably be upset by the military activity and whose cause would be championed noisily by publicity-aware ecologists.
The alternative was the Chagos Islands, part of Mauritius, then a British territory campaigning for independence.
The islands were home to some 1,800 people – mainly descendants of slaves – but no tortoises.
Independence was granted to Mauritius, but only after the Chagos Islands were separated in November 1965 by an Order in Council and renamed the British Indian Ocean Territory, or BIOT.
And when it came to having rights, the local population proved to have considerably less clout than giant tortoises.
Creating a fiction
British politicians, diplomats and civil servants began a campaign – in their own words – “to maintain the pretence there were no permanent inhabitants” on the islands.
This was vital, because proper residents would have to be recognised as people “whose democratic rights have to be safeguarded”.
The inhabitants therefore became non-people. To the outside world, there must be no inhabitants, merely people living there temporarily – migrant workers and other transients.
A telegram sent to the UK mission at the United Nations in November 1965 summed up the problem:
“We recognise that we are in a difficult position as regards references to people at present on the detached islands.
“We know that a few were born in Diego Garcia and perhaps some of the other islands, and so were their parents before them.Diego Garcia
“We cannot therefore assert that there are no permanent inhabitants, however much this would have been to our advantage. In these circumstances, we think it would be best to avoid all references to permanent inhabitants.”
Sir Paul Gore-Booth, senior official at the Foreign Office, wrote to a diplomat in 1966: “We must surely be very tough about this. The object of the exercise is to get some rocks which will remain ours… There will be no indigenous population except seagulls…”
The diplomat, Dennis Greenhill, replied: “Unfortunately along with the birds go some few Tarzans or Man Fridays whose origins are obscure and who are hopefully being wished on to Mauritius.”
As far back as 1965, Colonial Secretary Anthony Greenwood had warned that it was “important to present the United Nations with a fait accompli”.
And that was what happened, with decisions taken at the highest level by Harold Wilson and his Conservative successor, Edward Heath.
Those residents leaving the island were refused re-entry, then the copra plantations were bought up by the BIOT administration and closed down, medical facilities and supply ships withdrawn.
When the first Americans arrived on Diego Garcia, the largest atoll in the Chagos chain, the remaining residents were simply shipped out, first to a nearby island and then to Mauritius.
It’s a sordid tale of the legalized theft of a nation from under the feet of its people.
With the rejection of their final avenue of appeal in Britain, the Chagos Islanders have now been denied their undeniable rights once more.
Three Law Lords ruled Wednesday that the British government was not obligated to allow a return, while two other Law Lords sided with the islanders. The decision reversed last year’s unanimous decision by the Court of Appeal in favor of the islanders.
“I can say we, the Chagossian people, will not give up,” Olivier Bancoult, the islander who brought the legal action, told reporters. “We will continue our struggle in consultation with our lawyers.”
Despite Wednesday’s court decision favoring the government, Foreign Secretary David Miliband issued an apology.
“(It’s) appropriate on this day that I should repeat the government’s regret at the way the resettlement of the Chagossians was carried out in the 1960s and 1970s and at the hardship that followed for some of them,” he said.
“We do not seek to justify those actions and do not seek to excuse the conduct of an earlier generation,” Miliband added.
But the courts had already ruled that fair compensation was paid and that the U.K. had no legal obligation to pay any further compensation, he said, adding that British citizenship was granted to many Chagossians.
The islanders’ lawyer said his clients were simply pawns in the world power game.
“It has been the misfortune of the Chagos islanders that their passionate desire to return to their homeland has been caught up in the power politics of foreign policy for the past 40 years,” said lawyer Richard Gifford.
“Sadly, their struggle to regain their paradise lost has been dismissed on legal grounds, but the political possibilities remain open for Parliament, the British public and the international community,” he said.
The court battle centered on the islanders’ claim that the government had failed to keep a promise made in 2000 to allow them to go home.
In his ruling, Lord Hoffman wrote that the statement by the late Robin Cook, foreign secretary at the time, that he was working on the issue was not “a clear and unambiguous promise.”
Lord Bingham, one of the two who backed the islanders, said they were entitled to believe that they would be allowed to return.
In 2004, the government used Royal Prerogative powers, which are not subject to parliamentary debate, to forbid anyone from having a right to reside on the islands.
“Our appeal to the House of Lords was not about what happened in the 1960s and 1970s. It was about decisions taken in the international context of 2004,” Miliband said.
Miliband said the government had to take into account defense and security issues and said an independent study had rejected the “feasibility of lasting resettlement of the outer islands.”
I hope that the United Nations and other international bodies can finally do something right, and see to it that Britain and the USA return their stolen land to these unfortunate people. Anything less will be a disgrace. And, to those who argue that international realpolitik trumps their right to go home: how would you feel if a foreign state forcibly removed you from your land, took it over, and then informed you you weren’t even citizens of that land any more, and had no right of return? Personally, I’d be reaching for my rifle . . . and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the Chagos Islanders now feel that they have no other alternative.