Shame of empire
By Paul Mcgarr
“AN ACT of mass kidnapping.” That’s how the US Washington Post newspaper described one of the dirtiest episodes in British and American foreign policy. The details were heard in London’s High Court last week. The court case saw people from the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia demanding the right to return to their homeland almost 30 years after they were forcibly deported.
Diego Garcia is some 1,500 miles south of India, and midway between Africa and Indonesia. It was at one time a French colony and then a British one. The Western colonial powers imported slaves and labourers from India and Africa to work on coconut plantations.
By the 1960s 2,000 people lived there. Many families had been there for four or five generations. The Ilois people, as they called themselves, had their own language and culture, and held British passports. Diego Garcia had been part of the British colony of Mauritius. But when Britain conceded independence to Mauritius in the 1960s Diego Garcia was carved off and kept under British control, in defiance of a United Nations resolution.
Britain’s Labour government, under prime minister Harold Wilson, had made a filthy deal to lease Diego Garcia to the United States. With the Cold War raging, and a hot war in Vietnam, the US wanted the island as a military base.
Today the island is one of the world’s largest military bases, home to a vast stockpile of nuclear weapons and giant B-52 bombers. Back in the 1960s there was only one obstacle to US and British plans-the native population.
Harold Wilson’s Labour government solved the problem brutally-by systematically removing people. Britain was well paid for its work, with an 11 million discount on the US-made Polaris nuclear weapons system it was then buying. Families from Diego Garcia were used to taking boat trips to Mauritius every few years. The British authorities hit on the idea of simply refusing to allow people to return.
They even offered people tickets to make the voyage-forgetting to point out that they were one way. Olivier Bancoult was four in 1968 when he and his family travelled to Mauritius to seek medical treatment for his sister. She died in Mauritius two months later and the family prepared to return home. “It was a big surprise when my parents registered their names,” recalls Olivier. “They were told by the officer that we could not return because the land had been given to the US to make a military base. I remember it as if it was today. My mother was crying because she was very sad about our beautiful country. We had to stay in Mauritius and face all the difficulties we are still facing.”
Only a few hundred people were left on the island by the early 1970s. Britain cut off essential provisions which arrived by boat, and in 1971 the remaining islanders were called to a meeting.
Lisette Talale was at the meeting: “We were told that the Ilois must move to Mauritius to make way for the military base. We said we did not want to leave, but we had no choice. Many people wanted to stay but all the provisions had been stopped, and there were no doctors and nurses.” The Ilois people were simply dumped in Mauritius, and a few in the Seychelles, with nothing. They were left with no money, work or social facilities and were forced into rotten, overcrowded accommodation.
“Life was very difficult,” says Olivier Bancoult’s mother, Rita Elysee. “Mauritius became a hell.” Unemployment among the Ilois hit 60 percent and, not surprisingly, social problems grew. Alcoholism, drugs, prostitution and suicides scarred the community.
In 1982 the Tory government waged war in the Falklands, with the support of Labour. It used the welfare of 1,800 islanders, British citizens, to justify it. This is in complete contrast to the way British governments have treated the people of Diego Garcia.
Britain and the US sought to cover up what had happened. A 1974 joint US-British memorandum simply stated, “There is no native population.” In the early 1990s the Mauritius government took the issue up at the United Nations and the International Court of Justice. The British government’s response was to cut off all economic aid to Mauritius.
In 1995 the international Treaty of Pelindaba was signed, declaring the Indian Ocean to be “nuclear weapons free” as part of the supposed “peace dividend” after the end of the Cold War. Britain and the US insisted that lines were drawn on the map to specifically exclude Diego Garcia.
When the story of what had happened to the people of Diego Garcia first came to light in 1975 a young left wing Labour MP raged against their treatment. That MP was Robin Cook, now New Labour’s foreign secretary and the man who famously coined talk of an “ethical dimension” to New Labour’s foreign policy. Yet Cook’s officials were in court last week opposing the islanders’ call for justice.
“It was a great injustice that the UK government has done to its own people. We consider it is because we are black people, because we came from slaves,” says Olivier Bancoult.
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