Fifty years ago a British government committed one of its most audacious crimes. Last week the British government refused to put it right.
Tory foreign office minister Baroness Anelay confirmed last Wednesday that the thousands of exiles from the Chagos Islands would not be allowed to return home.
It was a kick in the teeth to those who were expelled by Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1966 and have been fighting to get back ever since.
With the benefit of 50 years’ distance, Anelay could express “regret” for the way the Chagossians had been treated.
But that didn’t mean she thought they should be allowed to go back.
Having wiped out their society, the foreign office is apparently concerned that the Chagossians will have no jobs or public services to go back to.
But in her statement to parliament the baroness pointed to the real reason for keeping the Chagossians in exile. As a British territory, the biggest island—Diego Garcia—is home to one of the US’ biggest and most important military bases.
It was used during the “war on terror” for the “rendition” of prisoners.
Anelay said the base is “a vital part of our defence relationship”. In fact it’s the reason the Chagossians were expelled in the first place.
The US had been eyeing up Diego Garcia since the early 1960s. But first they wanted all the islands “swept and sanitised”.
The problem, as one foreign office mandarin scribbled on a memo, was that there were too many “Tarzans and Man Fridays” living there.
Britain was only too happy to help. In return the US gave Britain an £8 million discount on the Polaris nuclear weapons system.
So the Chagossians were rounded up onto ships and deported to Mauritius, over 1,000 miles away. After deportation many died of illness or suicide.
The Chagossians all have British citizenship and a few hundred now live in Britain.
But for fifty years successive British governments have fought to keep them from ever returning home.
In 1982 Margaret Thatcher’s government offered the Chagossians some small compensation.
But to get it they had to sign a contract in English—a language many couldn’t read or write—that waived their right to return.
Chagossians have fought the government twice in the High Court, in the Law Lords, the European Court of Human Rights and the Supreme Court.
Whenever a legal battle was won, governments responded with challenges and appeals. Tony Blair’s Labour government even got the queen to overrule the High Court in 2004.
In 1966 foreign office diplomat Sir Paul Gore-Booth said “the whole object” of the deportations “was to get some rocks that will remain ours”.
For all her “regret”, that was Baroness Anelay’s aim too. In the same statement she announced that the US lease on Diego Garcia would be renewed until 2036.
She also offered Chagossian communities £40 million compensation. Perhaps she thinks that will make them go away.
But as Chagossian leader Allen Vincatassin said, “In no way will we will be accepting this as an exchange of our right to return.”
The exile of the Chagossians is one of the great crimes of British and US imperialism. It can only be put right when they’re allowed to return home.