Of all the superlative investigative documentaries made by journalist John Pilger, perhaps the most moving is his film “Stealing a Nation” (released in 2004) about the plight of the Chagossians.
There are times when one tragedy, one crime tells us how a whole system works behind its democratic facade and helps us to understand how much of the world is run for the benefit of the powerful and how governments lie. To understand the catastrophe of Iraq, and all the other Iraqs along imperial history’s trail of blood and tears, one need look no further than Diego Garcia.
The story of Diego Garcia is shocking, almost incredible. A British colony lying midway between Africa and Asia in the Indian Ocean, the island is one of 64 unique coral islands that form the Chagos Archipelago, a phenomenon of natural beauty, and once of peace. Newsreaders refer to it in passing: “American B-52 and Stealth bombers last night took off from the uninhabited British island of Diego Garcia to bomb Iraq (or Afghanistan).” It is the word “uninhabited” that turns the key on the horror of what was done there. In the 1970s, the Ministry of Defence in London produced this epic lie: “There is nothing in our files about a population and an evacuation.”
Diego Garcia was first settled in the late 18th century. At least 2,000 people lived there: a gentle creole nation with thriving villages, a school, a hospital, a church, a prison, a railway, docks, a copra plantation. Watching a film shot by missionaries in the 1960s, I can understand why every Chagos islander I have met calls it paradise; there is a grainy sequence where the islanders’ beloved dogs are swimming in the sheltered, palm-fringed lagoon, catching fish.
All this began to end when an American rear-admiral stepped ashore in 1961 and Diego Garcia was marked as the site of what is today one of the biggest American bases in the world. There are now more than 2,000 troops, anchorage for 30 warships, a nuclear dump, a satellite spy station, shopping malls, bars and a golf course. “Camp Justice” the Americans call it.
During the 1960s, in high secrecy, the Labour government of Harold Wilson conspired with two American administrations to “sweep” and “sanitise” the islands: the words used in American documents. Files found in the National Archives in Washington and the Public Record Office in London provide an astonishing narrative of official lying all too familiar to those who have chronicled the lies over Iraq. 1
Click here to read John Pilger’s complete article published in October 2004.
The award-winning documentary “Stealing a Nation” was a Granada production for ITV. It was first broadcast on ITV1, October 6th 2004.
Directors: John Pilger and Chris Martin.
Producer: Chris Martin.
Pilger says he only become aware of the plight of the Chagossians in 1982 around the time a British task force had sailed thousands of miles into the South Atlantic to protect a different dependency from foreign invaders:
“It was pointed out to me that Britain had sent a fleet to go and save two thousand Falkland Islanders at the other end of the world while two thousand British citizens in islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean had been expelled by British governments and the only difference was that one lot were white and the others were black. The other difference was that the United States wanted the Chagos Islands – and especially Diego Garcia – as a major base. So nothing was said, which tells us something about the ruthlessness of governments, especially imperial governments.” 2
Meanwhile the invisible people of the Chagos Islands continued their fight for justice. And, in May 2006, after more than 30 years in exile the High Court issued “a damning verdict” that overturned the Blair government’s two Orders-in-Council under the Royal Prerogative issued in 2004 to ban the islanders from ever returning home:
In a damning verdict, the High Court in London condemned as “repugnant” the decision at US insistence to remove the 1,500 islanders in a series of expulsions between 1967 and 1973. It overturned orders in council made by Tony Blair’s administration in 2004 which reversed a previous court decision and banned anyone from living on the islands, known officially as British Indian Ocean Territory. The orders, made under the royal prerogative, allowed the Government to dispense with the inconvenience of parliamentary oversight.
The judges, Lord Justice Hooper and Mr Justice Cresswell, were scathing in their assessment of British policy, concluding: “The suggestion that a minister can, through the means of an order in council, exile a whole population from a British Overseas Territory and claim that he is doing so for the ‘peace, order and good government’ of the territory is to us repugnant.” 3
This was the second time the High Court had granted the islanders the right to return home (the first occasion in 2000 is detailed in Pilger’s film) and it should have settled the case except that Blair’s government refused to submit to defeat. Led by then-Foreign Secretary, David Miliband – who since 2013 is President of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), an unbelievably compromised 4 humanitarian aid and relief NGO – the government took their appeal to the House of Lords who reversed the decision:
In a statement, Mr Miliband said: “It is 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.
“We do not seek to justify those actions and do not seek to excuse the conduct of an earlier generation.”
However, Mr Miliband said that the courts had previously ruled that fair compensation had been paid to the Chargossians [sic] and that “the UK has no legal obligation to pay any further compensation”.
He added: “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.” 5
It was also around this same time, when news began to leak that the island of Diego Garcia, which is still a British sovereign territory, had been used as a stopover for “extraordinary rendition” flights and was most probably the location of a CIA “black site” – paradise not only paved, but fitted out for detention and torture:
Manfred Novak, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture, who is charged with investigating human rights abuses, said he had received credible evidence from well-placed sources familiar with the situation on the island that detainees were held on Diego Garcia between 2002 and 2003. […]
Novak said he had spoken to people who had been held on the atoll, situated in the Indian Ocean and home to a large US naval base. They had been treated well in comparison with the regime some endured at places such as Guantánamo Bay. ‘There were only a few of them and they were not held for a long time,’ he said.
In 2004, the then Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, confirmed to parliament that there was a detention centre on Diego Garcia. Planning documents show it was ‘upgraded’ in December 2001. Ships operating offshore have also been used as floating ‘black sites’ to hold detainees, according to human rights groups.
Last month the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, was forced to admit that two US planes carrying rendered suspects had landed in Diego Garcia in 2002, a major humiliation for Gordon Brown’s administration, which had until then repeatedly denied the claims. 6
A little later, in April 2010, the same Brown government established a marine nature reserve around the Chagos Islands. According to a US Embassy diplomatic cable from 2009 and released by wikileaks shortly afterwards:
“Establishing a marine reserve might indeed, as the FCO’s [Colin] Roberts stated, be the most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands’ former inhabitants or descendants from resettling in the [British Indian Ocean Territory].” 7
In the coming weeks (before the end of 2016), the British government is once again expected to make a final decision on the exiled Chagossian people’s right to return to their archipelago. So here is a belated chance for Britain to act honourably towards those it has repeatedly abused and for a measure of justice to at last prevail.
As former UK ambassador Craig Murray writes [March 1st]:
Probably the most breathtaking piece of hypocrisy in modern history was when New Labour proudly announced that they had demarcated the waters around the Chagos Islands as the world’s first total marine conservation area – purely so they could make it impossible for the fishing based island community ever to return.
It is of course another example of the unparalleled talent for hypocrisy of the British state that the same politicians who declare their willingness to fight and die for the right of self-determination of the Falkland Islanders, will defend the deportation of the Chagos Islanders and their continued exclusion from their own islands. Again I would stress that Labour have been at least as guilty as Tories. The entire British state is complicit in this atrocity.
I would also encourage others to follow the link, except that unfortunately it appears to have since stopped working. My advice therefore to anyone wishing to help the cause of the Chagossian people is to send an email directly (using the text below which is copied from the original link and provided to be cut and pasted into your message) via the WriteToThem link.
As a constituent, I am asking you to do all you can to secure the right to return for the exiled Chagossian people. The Government will make a decision on this issue in the coming weeks and it is vitally important Ministers take the opportunity to offer a belated measure of justice to Chagossians and remove a terrible stain on the UK’s human rights record.
In the late sixties and early seventies, Chagossians were forcibly removed from their homeland under British orders. This was to make way for a still-extant US military base on Diego Garcia. Exiled communities now live in Crawley, London and Manchester, and various other nations, and have spent decades fighting for the right to return.
The Government have accepted Chagossian return to their homeland is “practically feasible” following an exhaustive Government-commissioned study. They also accept there is mass demand for return (98% according to a Foreign Office consultation) and that the original deportation was wrong. It is then just a matter of the political will to do the right thing. As my MP please represent my view this is a unique opportunity to deliver a belated measure of justice to Chagossians.
Chagossians were deported as part of US-UK Agreement to build a military base on Diego Garcia. This agreement expires this year. If the agreement is to be renewed, the UK must insist that a condition of any new agreement is support for Chagossian resettlement. Negotiations are going on now and I ask you to make this point to the relevant Ministers
Click here to send an email to your MP in support of the Chagossian’s right to return home
And here to visit the campaign website.
1 From an article entitled “Paradise cleansed” written by John Pilger, published in the Guardian on October 2, 2004. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2004/oct/02/foreignpolicy.comment
3 From an article entitled “Britain shamed as exile of the Chagos Islands win the right to go home” written by Neil Tweedie, published in The Telegraph on May 12, 2006. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/1518195/Britain-shamed-as-exiles-of-the-Chagos-Islands-win-the-right-to-go-home.html
4 Alongside David Miliband, the IRC’s Board of Directors and Overseers currently includes James Wolfensohn, Timothy Geithner, Condoleezza Rice, General Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger. http://www.rescue.org/board-and-overseers
6 From an article entitled “British island ‘used by US for rendition” written by Janie Doward, published in the Guardian on March 2, 2008. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/mar/02/ciarendition.unitednations