Diego Garcia is the largest island of a tropical atoll in the Chagos Archipelago of the Indian Ocean, named after a 1500s Spanish explorer. It is actually a loop of about 50 islands atop one peak in a vast submarine mountain range. But if it looks less like a tropical paradise than a massive U.S. naval support facility, a ship and submarine support base, a military air base, and a military sealift command center, that’s because it is.
The British own the Chagos — they “separated” the archipelago from the tiny island nation of Mauritius in 1965 — and the U.S. has leased Diego Garcia since the Cold War era because it’s a handy place from which to visit regional troublemakers in force.
But there’s a hitch: People used to live in the Chagos — about 2,000 of them. French colonial coconut plantation masters brought most Chagossian ancestors from Madagascar as slaves in the 1700s. The British had to get rid of them at the insistence of the U.S. when we built our military base.
So between 1968 and 1973, Her Majesty’s Government expelled the Chagossians to Mauritius and Seychelles. The exiles began a running battle to return to their homeland, feeling that forced expulsion and dispossession must be illegal. Moreover, Mauritius wants the Chagos back.
On Feb. 9, 2009, a British newspaper, the Independent, published this story: “Giant Marine Park Plan for Chagos. This green project is to be launched in London by the Chagos Environment Network, which includes the Pew Environmental Group, a powerful U.S. charity which successfully lobbied the Bush administration for marine reserves in America.”
A few months later, according to diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks in 2011, Colin Roberts, Britain’s director of overseas territories, told his national political counselor that the Pew Trusts had proposed a gigantic Chagos marine reserve with no fishing allowed, and was funding a public relations campaign for it. Pew, he wrote, was well-regarded within British governmental circles.
Best of all, Roberts said in the WikiLeaks cable, former inhabitants would find it “difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos Archipelago were a marine reserve” — created, of course, with an absolute condition that the reserve have “no constraints on military operations.”
Britain promised the U.S. that there would be “no human footprints” or “Man Fridays” on the park’s islands. Any returned Chagossians couldn’t go fishing for dinner, but the base’s 4,000 U.S. military personnel could. The U.K. approved the marine reserve.
Pew tried to placate angry Chagossians by promising that if they were allowed to return to Diego Garcia, the park could be revised to accommodate their needs. But Pew carefully distances itself from the real-life outcome of its park campaign, saying that this “remains a matter for the U.K. government.” It sounds like they’re seeking an early peace by the vigorous prosecution of war.
Professor Brian Simpson of Michigan State University Law School described the Chagos with its native population in exile as a “human rights black hole.”
Three weeks ago, the permanent court of arbitration in The Hague ruled that it can hear the islanders’ case, which requires Britain to justify taking the Chagos from Mauritius and challenges its sovereign right to create the marine reserve. The court’s binding decision could possibly void Britain’s claim, returning the islanders to Diego Garcia and Diego Garcia to Mauritius.
How likely is that? The United States pays the United Kingdom a lot for use of Diego Garcia, and the security of at least two nations is at issue, but even Greenpeace deplores the human rights abuses against the Chagossians. How do you picture the outcome of this tangle?