New Internationalist

Diego Garcia’s shameful history continues

In the week David Cameron meets his Mauritian counterpart to discuss the Chagos Islands’ sovereignty, Virgil Hawkins sees suspicious motivations on both sides.

A satellite image of the largest Chagos Island, Diego Garcia, now home to a US military base.
Photo by NASA under a public domain license.

The modern history of the Chagos Islands is a thoroughly despicable one. This small archipelago, situated in the middle of the Indian Ocean, was originally part of what was then the self-governing British colony of Mauritius.

Mauritius was convinced to sell these islands to the UK in 1965 under dubious circumstances: the sale was part of the independence negotiations (independence was achieved in 1968) and the prime minister of Mauritius who negotiated the deal was awarded a knighthood soon after the transfer.

The UK subsequently leased the largest island of the archipelago, Diego Garcia, to the US (who wanted it for a military base) partly in exchange for a discount on Polaris nuclear missiles. In preparation for the construction of the military base, the UK then proceeded to forcibly remove the islands inhabitants, dropping them off unceremoniously in the Seychelles and what was left of Mauritius.

Diego Garcia became an important base for the US, particularly so in the 2000s, when it served as a hub from which long-range bombers attacked Afghanistan and Iraq. The base has been used by the CIA for so-called ‘extraordinary rendition’ flights, and may also have served as a CIA black site prison.

In 2010, the UK established a Marine Protected Area (the world’s largest) around the archipelago. According to US diplomatic cables made public courtesy of Wikileaks, this move was specifically designed to prevent former residents from returning (survival for the inhabitants would be difficult if they were prevented from fishing).

For the UK, this clever ‘solution’ looked good from any angle: not only would the possibility of return be taken off the table, but US military activities could continue, and ‘points’ for environmental concern could also be scored.

Isolated and unpopulated (or conveniently depopulated) islands are, of course, the ideal springboards from which to project military power in this day and age. There are none of the hassles associated with holding or running a colony, for example, and not only do they make sense in pure military terms (especially if one has long-range bombers), but they also preclude witness or interference by any pesky civilians, journalists or human rights organizations.

In the case of populated islands, the consent of inhabitants can, to a degree, be bought, but opposition can still be politically and financially costly, as the US and its generally willing collaborator (the Japanese government) have found, for example, in the use of Okinawa for military bases.

A former coconut plantation on Diego Garcia, out of use since 1970.
Photo by Steve Swayne under a CC Licence.

The lease of the Chagos Islands to the US expires in 2016, and any possible extension has to be agreed on by December 2014 (the lease allows for a 20-year extension). Crucially, the original terms of purchase of the Chagos Islands allow for their return to Mauritius when they are no longer needed for defence purposes. If there is a time for negotiating a return of the islands to Mauritius, it is now. Indeed, the prime ministers of the UK and Mauritius are set to meet this week, and the issue of the Chagos Islands is on the agenda.

Mauritius has expressed its intention to have the islands returned, but interestingly, has also made it clear that it does not intend to challenge the continuation of US military activities there. Clearly, allowing the base to remain in Diego Garcia would serve as a considerable financial incentive for the government of Mauritius.

But how receptive will the UK be to a call by Mauritius for the return of the islands? Will their response reveal anything about possible plans in the West to bomb Iran? Diego Garcia would undoubtedly serve as one of the key military hubs in the case of any such catastrophe.

There are other deals in play. Mauritius has recently agreed to offer its territory and services for the prosecution and imprisoning of Somali pirates. Was this designed to improve their bargaining position for the return of the Chagos Islands? To what degree will any such deals benefit the people of Mauritius and the former (forcibly evicted) inhabitants who wish to return to the Chagos Islands (as opposed to a few people holding political power at the top)?

Will the end result of all of this simply be a continuation of the same old systems under new management? This is a good time for some hard-hitting media scrutiny on this issue – in the UK, US and Mauritius.

Virgil Hawkins is the author of Stealth Conflicts: How the World’s Worst Violence is Ignored and is currently an associate professor at the Osaka School of International Public Policy (OSIPP), Osaka University, Japan and a research associate at the University of the Free State, South Africa.

This blog originally appeared on Hawkins’ website and is reproduced with his permission.

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  1. #1 Yasmin Jade 07 Jun 12

    How absolutely shameful! Thank you for shedding light on this, Virgil.

  2. #2 Backside 07 Jun 12

    The worst bit is that the compensation given by the UK government for these inhabitants was squandered by the Mauritian Government and lived in poverty. This makes it look very unlikely the Chagossian people will benefit from this.

  3. #3 Mishka 07 Jun 12

    What interesting and informative reading... As one who needed enlightenment on this subject, I can say that this article/blog was much appreciated. Please continue to provide such illuminating and readily understandable summations of issues we should all know about.

  4. #4 BJ 08 Jun 12

    These type of problems may appear of little importance to large nations and multinationals but to the individuals who are displaced they are major disasters and it is good when the problems are highlighted and then hopefully some remedial action can be taken.

  5. #5 HKR 08 Jun 12

    Why doesn't the mainstream media tell us about this kind of injustice?...

  6. #6 DaveQB 10 Jun 12

    I am glad someone is reporting on these issues. So many issues go under the radar of ’mainstream’ media.

  7. #7 Arusan 12 Jun 12

    Thank you, Professor Hawkins, for your excellent and hard-hitting dissection of the machinations of two of the current world powers, the USA and UK. The only consolation I find is in knowing that change is unavoidable and empires always collapse, always.

  8. #8 Barack Obomber 13 Jun 12

    Stealing a Nation

    Conspiring with the Americans, the British government expelled the entire population of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean. The aim was to give Diego Garcia to the Americans who wanted it as a military base. The story is told by islanders who were dumped in the slums of Mauritius and in the words of the British officials who left a 'paper trail' of what the International Criminal Court now

  9. #9 MBP 13 Jun 12

    All this is really shameful and messy but what people dont realise is that are the Chagossians really going to go back to their islands? Or is the coverage just to get a better life elsewhere? This article is somewhat biased because it implies the mauritian govt havnt done anything for the chagossians, which is not true.

  10. #12 gerard 19 Feb 13

    Stealing A Nation |

  11. #13 George 15 Apr 13

    This story makes me so angry at the hypocritical British and the Americans!

    They have ruined the world! They will pay in big buckets for what they have done to the inhabitants of this island, and the Queen (who is above law) for approving all this villainy to the poor island nation.

    Americans and the British are the very ones who talk about human rights In Other lands, and they are also the very nations who violate human rights and rob nations in broad day light. DISGUSTING!

  12. #14 malcom 15 Mar 14

    Now we know where the Malaysian hijacked plane was heading. destroy this Usa ik obscenity

  13. #15 Beatrice mason 21 Dec 14

    This is terrible.
    These people was forcibly removed from their island, made to leave everything they know and owned behind so you can build a USA base without a thought for them.
    Give these people back their island.

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