The legacy of one of the most despicable episodes in British history continued in controversial style this week. A British Government decision to create a marine park around the Chagos Islands that arguably prevents the former inhabitants from being able to return to their homeland has been upheld by the High Court of Justice.
In the late 1960s, those living on the Chagos archipelago – a cluster of coral atolls in the middle of the Indian Ocean – were forced by the British to leave so a US military base could be built on the largest of the islands, Diego Garcia. In 2006, the Chagossians won a case in the High Court which found they were entitled to go back to the islands, but this was overturned in 2008 after an appeal by the then Foreign Secretary, David Milliband. Then, in April 2010, the government announced the creation of a marine protected area (MPA) around these islands. Many view the MPA as a cynical ploy to ensure Chagossians have no chance of returning.
‘The MPA makes it very hard for us to go back,’ says Roch Evenor, spokesperson for the UK Chagos Support Association. ‘And even if we can go back the MPA prevents us from fishing, which we need to do to survive.’
The islands are part of the British Indian Ocean Territory and the marine reserve – the world’s largest covering a 545,000-sq-km area – was set up by the previous Labour government, ostensibly to protect the area’s wildlife and corals from industrial fishing and deep-sea mining. For this reason, some environmental groups are in favour of the ruling for the MPA to remain in place.
‘The world’s oceans have been drastically overfished in the last 30 years so it is of huge benefit to the Indian Ocean,’ says William Marsden, chair of the Chagos Conservation Trust. ‘It is an extremely good example given by the British government.’
But the government’s good intentions were brought into question by a US cable published by Wikileaks in December 2010, in which the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Director of Overseas Territories, Colin Roberts, reportedly said that the protected area should have ‘no human footprints’ or ‘Man Fridays’ and that such a reserve would make it ‘difficult, if not impossible’ for former residents to pursue their resettlement claims. A key moment in this week’s court case was when judges ruled that the cable, or copies of it held by the media, could not be used as evidence due to the Diplomatic Privileges Act, 1964.
‘We always had our suspicions but after the Wikileaks episode it became more black and white,’ says Roch Evenor. ‘It’s just another way of keeping us away from our homeland and dividing us.’
And divided they remain. Although many of the original 1,500 to 2,000 Chagossians who were removed from the islands have since died, their numbers have swelled to more than 4,000 in exile, with roughly half living in Britain and half living in Mauritius and the Seychelles. But while Chagossians in Mauritius generally believe the MPA to be a bad idea and remain deeply sceptical of the British government, some UK-based Chagossians – who mostly live in Crawley in southwest England – are more optimistic.
‘There is a deep confusion,’ said Allen Vincatassin, President of the Diego Garcia and Chagos Islands Council. ‘The government has highlighted that if we are allowed to return, the MPA would be adjusted so that we can fish, I believe they will make it good.’
This could be wishful thinking as British governments past and present have failed to offer any meaningful concessions to Chagossians and this most recent court ruling continues in this shameful spirit.