From Tue Nov 27 08:00:17 2001
Date: Mon, 26 Nov 2001 12:53:30 -0600 (CST)
Subject: Diego Garcia: How the B-52's bombing Afghanistan came to roost
From: Sanjoy Mahajan <>
Article: 130952
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

A little-known and suppressed British atrocity in a faraway island tells us much about the function of globalisation

By John Pilger, New Statesman, 27 September 1996, p. 34

When President Clinton attacks Iraq again, the island of Diego Garcia will make another fleeting appearance in the news. Diego Garcia is a British colony in the Indian Ocean, from which American bombers patrol the Middle East and make their assaults on Iraq. There are few places so important to American military planners as this refuelling base between two continents. Who lives there? During the last Clinton attack on Iraq, a BBC commentator referred to the island as uninhabited and gave no hint of its past. This is understandable, as the true story of Diego Garcia is shocking and instructive.

Diego Garcia is part of the Chagos archipelago, which ought to have been granted independence from Britain in 1965 along with Mauritius. But, at the insistence of the Americans, the Wilson government told Mauritius it could only have its freedom if it gave up the islands. Ignoring a United Nations resolution that called on the British to take no action which would dismember the territory of Mauritius and violate its territorial integrity, the government did just that, and in the process formed a new colony: the British Indian Ocean Territories.

The reason for this became clear the following year. In high secrecy the Foreign Office in effect leased the islands to Washington for 50 years, with the option of a further 20 years, although the FO prefers to deny this now, pointing to a joint defence arrangement. Diego Garcia subsequently became a US nuclear weapons base. In 1991 President Bush used it as a base from which to carpet-bomb Iraq. In the same year the Foreign Office told an aggrieved Mauritian government that the island's sovereignty was no longer negotiable.

Until 1965 the Ilois people were indigenous to Diego Garcia. With the militarisation of their island they were given a status rather like that of Australia's Aborigines in the 19th century: they were deemed not to exist. Between 1965 and 1973 they were removed from their homes on the island and dumped in Mauritius. In 1972 the US Defense Department assured Congress that the islands are virtually uninhabited and the erection of the base would thus cause no indigenous political problems. When asked about the native population, a British Ministry of Defence official said: There is nothing in our files about inhabitants or about an evacuation.

The British authorities, says a Minority Rights Group report, expelled the native population without any workable re-settlement scheme; left them in abject poverty; gave them a tiny amount of compensation and later offered more on condition that the islanders renounced their rights ever to return home. They were allowed to take with them a minimum personal possessions, packed into a small crate. Most ended up in the slums of the Mauritian capital in gross poverty, and unknown numbers of them have died from starvation and disease.

The British action violated articles 9 and 13 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which state that no one should be subjected to arbitrary exile and everybody has the right to return to his country. No one caused a fuss. The Ilois people had no voice in Britain; and the Labour Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart, could boast: I think we have much to gain by proceeding with this project in association with the Americans. The islanders, wrote the historian Mark Curtis, had been officially designated by the state as Unpeople.

According to John Madeley, the author of the Minority Rights Group study, Britain's treatment of the Ilois people stands in eloquent and stark contrast with the way the people of the Falklands islands were treated in 1982. The invasion of the Falklands was furiously resisted by British forces travelling 8,000 miles at a cost of over a thousand million pounds and many British and Argentinian lives. Diego Garcia was handed over without its inhabitants—far from being defended—even being consulted before being removed.

While there was virtually no press comment on the British atrocity in Diego Garcia, there was unanimous condemnation of the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands. The Financial Times called it an illegal and immoral means to make good territorial claims, as well as an outrage that should not be allowed to pass over the wishes of the Falkland Islanders who wish to preserve their traditions. Echoing Prime Minister Thatcher, the Daily Telegraph said the wishes of the [Falkland] islanders were paramount, that these islanders must not be betrayed and that principle dictates that the British and American governments could not possibly be indifferent to the imposition of foreign rule on people who have no desire for it.

The concept of Unpeople is an important one in understanding how globalisation, which is modern imperialism, works. Unpeople exist in their millions all over the world: in West Papua, East Timor, Turkish Kurdistan and Somalia (where thousands were killed by US troops flown in via Diego Garcia), to name but a few. They rarely appear in the British press because, as Curtis points out in his 1995 study The Ambiguities of Power (Zed Books): The systematic link between the basic priorities and goals of British [and American] policy on the one hand and the horrors of large-scale human rights violations on the other is unmentionable in the [Western] propaganda system, even though that link is clearly recognisable.

Unpeople are especially invisible in Iraq today, where the next batch of American bombs are to be delivered, almost certainly from the uninhabited island of Diego Garcia. The attack will be news, though its victims will not. They are Unpeople, like the half-a-million Iraqi children who, according to the World Health Organisation, have died as a direct result of British and American sanctions. One child dies every six minutes, wrote Jean Lennoc, of the Health Development Information Project. At a hospital in Baghdad I witnessed the death of eight-month-old Ali Hassan from diarrhoea. His life could have been saved with simple antibiotics. I also witnessed the grief of his mother. Like many of us, she could not understand why her child had been punished for the actions of the Iraqi government.

Unpeople can be found in this country, too, which has a modified version of the system that declared expendable the short life of Ali Hassan. This was described recently by Tony Blair as a common front when he gave his whole-support to John Major's endorsement of Clinton raining missiles on Iraq. Under this system the British government is to spend # 15 billion on a new fighter aircraft while more than one in four of the British population lives in poverty. They are our Unpeople, whose plight was explained the other day by Roy Hattersley, the famous democratic socialist. Poverty, wrote Hattersley, is not sufficiently visible to make its alleviation an obvious moral necessity.