From email@example.com 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 <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Diego Garcia, halfway between India and Africa, in the Indian Ocean, once an idyllic home to hundreds but also strategically placed to provide the US with a crucial air base, below
Olivier Bancoult, cleared from his Indian Ocean home by the British
government 32 years ago, dropped to his knees and kissed the ground
when he returned this June. Mr Bancoult, who was only four when he
left, was in tears, as were two older islanders accompanying him:
After not being able to see the motherland for so long, it was
something very emotional.
Mr Bancoult and his companions were allowed three days on the islands to gather material for yesterday's successful legal challenge to the Foreign Office. He was hugged by fellow islanders outside the high court in London after winning the right to return home.
Their return—or at least adequate compensation—would bring an end to a shameful episode in British and US history in which both governments tricked the islanders out of their homes to make way for a US military base. The numbers involved are small—anywhere between 400 and 4,000 islanders might want to go home—but the issues raised are not. The episode highlights the ease with which politicians and diplomats in Britain and the US lied; their determination to keep their duplicity hidden from parliament, Congress and the UN; the extent to which the US dictates British foreign policy; and, above all else, how two powers abused the trust of the islanders.
The behaviour of the governments is laid bare in hundreds of pages of correspondence, never published before and almost all of it marked secret. Many were unearthed by the Guardian in the Public Records Office at Kew, others were presented as evidence in court.
One of them, an internal Foreign Office memo in 1980, recommended to
the then foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, that
should be allowed to visit Diego Garcia and that visits by
parliamentarians or congressmen be kept to an absolute minimum in
order to keep out those
who deliberately stir up unwelcome
The US first took an interest in 1962 in the Chagos islands, a beautiful archipelago of 65 islands that includes Diego Gar cia, Penhos Banhos and Saloman, halfway between Africa and India. The US, fixated on the communist threat at the height of the cold war, was alarmed by a Chinese attack on India that year and wanted to plug the gap in its strategic deployment as it had no base between the Mediterranean and the Philippines.
Britain and the US entered into secret negotiations in 1964. The
Chagos islands were—and continue to be—part of
Britain's dwindling empire. Under the deal, Britain would lease
Diego Garcia to the US to use as a base. The US wanted not only Diego
Garcia but the surrounding islands free of people for security
reasons. The only problem was that there were people on them. Britain
agreed. A Foreign Office memo, marked secret, written by P. B. Porter
of the East Africa department on February 13, 1969, disclosed that at
a Whitehall meeting the Treasury representative
the ideal of a complete sterilisation of the islands.
How to achieve this? British civil servants hit on the solution of denying that the islanders were permanent residents and insisting they were temporary contract workers, employed on the copra plantations. This was the line that both the British and US governments were to maintain for years, even though they knew it was untrue. One Whitehall document, dated January 1970, is even subtitled Maintaining the Fiction.
Some of those working on the islands were, as Britain and the US insisted, temporary residents, brought in from Mauritius and the Seychelles to work on the copra plantations. But about 400, as the British government disclosed in memos but not in public, had lived on the islands for at least two generations.
Britain and the US were worried that if this emerged, they would be in
trouble with the UN. Instead, they hit on the ruse of categorising
transient workers with no rights of residence and had
them shipped to Mauritius, even though internal memos admitted it was
an unsuitable cultural and economic environment. Britain paid
Mauritius pounds 650,000 to help them settle.
The Labour MP, Tam Dalyell, then as now a nuisance to government, had
been tabling questions. The Foreign Office, in a memo distributed
round Whitehall on November 13, 1970, said:
We would not wish it to
become general knowledge that some of the inhabitants have lived on
Diego Garcia for at least two generations and could, therefore, be
regarded as ‘belongers’. The memo, written by E. J. Emery of
the Foreign Office's Pacific and Indian Ocean department, added:
We shall, therefore, advise ministers in handling supplementary
questions about whether Diego Garcia is inhabited to say that there is
only a small number of contract labourers from the Seychelles and
Mauritius engaged to work on the copra plantations on the island.
Detailed guidance notes were issued to Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence press officers telling them to mislead the media if asked.
Why did British governments go to such trouble? The obvious reason was that both governments would have faced public outcry if it had come out at the time and would have been in contravention of UN treaties respecting the rights of indigenous people.
But there were further implications. Foreign Office documents marked
top secret reveal that, in return for granting the US the base,
Washington waived pounds 5m Britain owed to the US for the Polaris
nuclear missile. The deal was signed by the Labour foreign secretary,
The US initially asked for the deal to be kept secret and the then Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, complied, lying in public.
On April 18, 1967, C.H. Henn, sent a memo from the Foreign Office to
the US government:
Ultimately, under extreme pressure, we should
have to deny the existence of a US contribution in any form, and to
advise ministers to do so in (parliament) if necessary. Clearly, we
should do more confidently if you could confirm that the US would take
a similar line under pressure.
But the US began to wobble. A Foreign Office memo to the British
embassy in Washington on June 2 1967, advised the British ambassador
to Washington in 1976 to stress personally to the US secretary of
state, Dean Rusk, that
if the Americans, under pressure, reveal the
existence of the financial agreement, then we should be in acute
parliamentary and constitutional difficulties.
Politicians and diplomats will go to extraordinary lengths to explain
away their lies. Michael Stewart, then Labour foreign secretary, wrote
in a memo on April 21 1969:
The Americans did not make a direct
contribution: we have merely paid less than we would have otherwise .
. . there is thus no question of the House of Commons having been
Every government since the 1960s has connived in this injustice. The foreign secretary, Robin Cook, supported the cause of the islanders in opposition but his position now is unclear. The Foreign Office yesterday distanced itself from the events of 30 years ago but it is the same Foreign Office that fought the islanders in court.