Death by Sadness: Theft of the Chagos Islands

On the docks of the industrial harbor of Port Louis, Mauritius, stands a solemn monument in remembrance of where the British government stranded Chagos islanders a thousand miles from their native land. Barred from returning home, destitute, and resigned to live in abject poverty in a hellish slum, Chagossians say their family and friends, young and old, who passed away in exile, simply died of sadness.

Since the 18th century, Chagossians had labored on plantations, returning to their own homes each evening. The surrounding environment provided their daily sustenance, and they sang joyous songs, fished in pristine waters, and played with their beloved pets.

In the 1960’s, life began to change drastically on the islands. Rear Admiral Grantham, U.S. Navy, arrived in 1961, conducting a survey for a potential billion dollar military base, which would allow the United States military to dominate the Indian Ocean and areas further afield, as the islands are halfway between Asia and Africa. Washington asked the British government to depopulate the Chagos to accommodate a new military installation. In 2005, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) documents revealed a US official communicating that the land was to be “swept” and “sanitized.”

Initially, the Pentagon had selected Aldabra, part of the outer islands of the Seychelles; but someone leaked the plan to scientists at the Royal Society in London who generated an uproar out of concern for the island’s residents: the Giant Land Tortoise, the last flightless bird in that oceanic region, and nesting seabirds. Undeterred, Washington instead set its sights on Diego Garcia, of the Chagos Islands, which was free of any rare species, home only to 2,000 dark-skinned islanders who had inhabited the land for generations, as well as your run of the mill animals: dogs, chickens, donkeys, pigs, seagulls, and the like. Few if any came to the defense of the Chagossians or their beloved pet dogs, both of whom would meet a cruel and twisted fate.

In 1972, William Brewer, the US Ambassador to Mauritius, documented his feelings on the Chagos matter: ”There is no question that the islands have been inhabited since the 18th century.” A year later, the last native inhabitant had been tricked, frightened, or forced off the islands. As a dire warning to the locals, British agents and US soldiers had exterminated over six hundred dogs: sadistically using gas from exhaust tubes of American military vehicles, strychnine, or by burning them alive. It had been made clear to Chagossians that if they chose to remain in their motherland, their destiny would mirror that of their four-legged companions.

The British government and US military restricted food and medicine to the island and threatened locals with bombing; those who weren’t tricked or frightened off their land were, in the end, forced onto a ship. In all, two thousand traumatized souls were moved like worthless cargo, fifteen hundred to Mauritius and five hundred to the Seychelles. They slept on bird dung with preferential conditions given to the horses that were also being transported. As one Chagossian woman put it, “They had no pity.”

To whom do the islands belong? In 1965, Britain purchased the Chagos Islands for 3 million pounds from Mauritius, three years before the island territory gained independence from British colonial rule. Mauritius maintains that the United Kingdom required it to sell the islands in exchange for self-governance. A year after the so-called sale, the British Foreign office gave the Pentagon a fifty-year lease on Diego Garcia, with an automatic twenty-year extension, and, in exchange, Britain received a deal from the US on Polaris nuclear missiles. A three decade cover-up in London and Washington ensued, in which one government administration after another, on both sides of the Atlantic, propagated the great fiction that the inhabitants of the Chagos Islands were merely “transient workers” given a boat ride back to the Seychelles and Mauritius, and that no permanent population had existed.

In 2000, the British High Court ruled in favor of the Chagos Islanders‘ right to return. It was a short-lived moment of great joy for the exiled community, symbolized by their representatives leaving the courthouse steps with smiles and relieved expressions and two finger victory salutes held high over their heads. Hours later, the Tony Blair government issued an immigration ordinance banning Chagossians from ever returning home. Chagossians, open to compromise, have inquired about being resettled in the outer islands to avoid the complications from the US military occupation of their largest island. In 2002, the British government carried out a “feasibility” study in which it concluded that the costs of resettlement on any of the islands were prohibitive, despite costs equaling those of maintaining the British embassy in Mauritius. Experts have lambasted the study’s environmental concerns, such as complications from climate change and fresh water resources, as invalid reasons for denial of resettlement, especially considering that US military personnel and contractors live under idyllic condition on Diego, enjoying barbecues, nights at a disco, and water sports.

In 2004, the British government employed an Order-In-Council, an undemocratic ceremony in which the Queen of England approves policies with a single word: “Agreed,” to pass a decree prohibiting any return to the Chagos Islands by its original inhabitants and their descendants. Two years later, the High Court overruled the dictate, reaffirming its original ruling to resettle the islanders as soon as possible. The judge called the Order-In-Council decree “repugnant.”

In February 2019, several Chagossians gathered with their descendants outside a refugee center in Point aux Sables, a suburb of the Mauritius’ capitol Port Louis, to watch the International Court of Justice (ICJ) session live from The Hague. After the favorable ICJ decision, which stated that the United Kingdom must return the Chagos Islands to Mauritius “as rapidly as possible,” the BBC described the scene in Point aux Sables as “an explosion of joy.”

“I dedicate this victory to the entire Chagossian community that is scattered in several countries around the world,” said Olivier Bancoult, leader of the Chagos Refugees Group. “It is a great victory as all the time we wanted to go gather on the graves of our families that we lost there [on the Chagos Archipelago].” Bancoult called it an historic day. The British government dismissed the ruling as merely “advisory.”

In May 2019, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly, 116-6, in favor of Mauritius’ claim and reiterated the ICJ’s ruling. The U.N. stated that the acquisition “was not conducted in a manner consistent with the right to self-determination,” therefore, the “continued administration… constitutes a wrongful act”. The resolution gave the British government six months to return the archipelago, a deadline which expired in November with no sign that London plans on abiding by the ICJ’s ruling or the UN General Assembly resolution.

Article 73 of the UN Charter states that a colonial power must not only protect the human rights of dependent peoples, it must work to develop self-governance. Article 7 of the International Criminal Court states that “deportation or forcible transfer of a population [is a]…a crime against humanity.” The British government forcibly removed its own citizens from their homeland and abandoned them to a destitute life. In 1982, it explicitly gave a portion of the exiled community British citizenship, a right already due to them, only to threaten to deport their grandchildren from the United Kingdom in 2018. The British Home Office felt that that citizenship explicitly granted to those forced off the island did not apply to a third generation of Chagossians born outside of Britain. In spite of the decisions from the British High Court, the ICJ, and the United Nations General Assembly, the British government has thus far ignored all legal rulings and international calls for justice.

Diego Garcia became the site of one of Washington’s largest air force and naval military bases outside the United States. Ironically named Camp Justice, the platform has been used to illegally attack Afghanistan and Iraq as well as to render prisoners for torture. Chagossians remember their peaceful coexistence with the island, living in harmony with the environment. Knowing what their homeland continues to be used for only adds to the islanders’ heartache and disillusionment with the world, in which western powers denounce alleged human rights violations of adversaries while consistently and arrogantly disregarding international law and United Nations resolutions.

Paul F.J. Aranas is a lecturer in International Relations, Writer, and Author of Smokescreen: The US, NATO, and the Illegitimate Use of Force. Reprinted with permission from Eye on Global Politics.