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Interview: UK, US Treatment of Chagossians a Continuing Colonial Crime

How Building a US Military Base Resulted in Crimes Against Humanity

The M/V Nordvaer departing East Point Plantation, Diego Garcia, Chagos Archipelago, circa April 1969. © 1969 Kirby Crawford

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the final forced deportations of the inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago, a group of islands in the Indian Ocean, so the US could establish military facilities on the largest island, Diego Garcia. Appallingly, little if any consideration was given to the more than a thousand Chagossians expelled from their homes to make way for the base, with many condemned to poverty and destitution as a result.

In a new report, “That’s When the Nightmare Started,” Human Rights Watch found that the Chagossians' expulsion by the UK and US governments constitutes crimes against humanity. This damning indictment of both governments coincides with the new negotiations over the islands’ sovereignty between the UK and Mauritius, which claims the Chagos Archipelago as its territory. Anthony Gale, senior media officer, caught up with the report’s primary author, Clive Baldwin, senior legal advisor, to discuss the findings.

First, can you explain what happened to the Chagossians and what it meant for them to be evicted from their homes 50 years ago?

The Chagos islands are a group of islands located in the Indian Ocean. Before the British forcibly evicted their inhabitants, they were home to approximately 1,500 Chagossians, an Indigenous people. Today, there are no Chagossians living on the islands. Its only inhabitants are the staff and personnel of the US military facilities on Diego Garcia and a few British officials.

Over 50 years ago, the UK and US governments conspired to forcibly remove Chagossians, first from Diego Garcia, the biggest island of the archipelago, so the US could build a military base there without people living nearby. The UK then decided to evict the entire population of the Chagos islands to avoid having to report to the United Nations about its continued rule over a colony with a permanent population. Their treatment, Human Rights Watch finds, amounts to crimes against humanity.

The stories we have collected paint a harrowing picture of what life has been like for Chagossians. Families who left the island for routine trips were told that their island had been sold and they could never return. Those that didn’t leave then were, a few years later, forced to leave Chagos for Mauritius and Seychelles, hundreds of kilometers away. They received little or no support, and many faced abject poverty; some described to us living in homes that had to be held together by cow dung. One woman I spoke to described how, after her family were forced to leave Chagos, her baby brother died as her mother’s milk dried up.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing accounts was about the callousness of the removal of the Chagossians from their homes. British officials ordered the killing of the dogs on Diego Garcia, including the Chagossians’ pets. One Chagossian remembered her family pet being taken away and killed. Her family thought it was being done to make them leave.

The Chagossians who were on the boats that took them from Chagos described how badly they were treated. On one trip, they were kept below in the hold, while horses from Chagos were kept on deck. A senior British official had ordered the rescue of the horses.

The report implicates the UK and the US in crimes against humanity. Can you explain what this is and how you applied these criteria to what happened on Chagos?

Crimes against humanity are among the most serious types of crimes known to the international justice system, originating in the Nuremberg trials after World War Two. Given the scale and gravity of these crimes, it is not a conclusion we have come to lightly.

We believe the UK has committed at least three crimes against humanity in how they treated, and continue to treat, the Chagossian people. The first crime, which they have committed with the US, is the forcible displacement of the Chagossians from their homeland. The second is continuing to prevent Chagossians from returning to their home islands. And finally, is the persecution of the Chagossians on racial and ethnic grounds.

These three crimes, we believe, have met the threshold of crimes against humanity. They have been systematic, deliberate state policies.

Tell me more about the persecution of Chagossians on racial grounds. How did you go about finding the treatment of Chagossians as racist?

British officials used racist terms to refer to Chagossians, according to secret official documents that have now been released. These included describing them as “Men Fridays,” a term originating from the character “Friday” described as a Black servant in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. They also used the term “Tarzans,” a reference to the fictional feral child who was raised by apes in Africa. Both descriptions are undoubtedly racist.

But it's also apparent in how the UK government continues to treat Chagossians. The government has gone out of its way to try to claim that the human rights treaties it has ratified do not apply in the Chagos islands. What it is saying is that in its view, Chagossians should not have their basic rights protected. When you compare the treatment of the Chagossians with the inhabitants of other similar British territories with military bases, such as the Falkland Islands and Cyprus, the treatment of Chagossians is starkly different. Unlike on Chagos, the UK government did not forcibly remove the inhabitants of the Falkland Islands, islands where several thousand of the inhabitants are of white, European descent, on the grounds of maintaining the security of its bases, despite it housing significant military facilities. Nor has it gone out of its way to deny the inhabitants of their human rights. In fact, the UK government has explicitly extended the application of the European Convention on Human Rights to those living near its bases in Cyprus and allows islanders to bring cases to the European Court of Human Rights.

Your report says the US is complicit in crimes against humanity, but from what you are telling me it seems as though this is primarily a UK issue?

The United States and the UK are jointly responsible for the forced displacement of the Chagossians. It was the United States that wanted to establish a base on Diego Garcia and both countries planned the displacement. If you examine some of the secret memos that have now been published, the US accepted it had a responsibility for the displacement. From when the decision was made to this very day, the UK and US have been working in concert. While for years now the US tends to prevaricate when the issue is raised, in what little information that has been shared, the US seems to oppose the Chagossians returning to live on the Chagos islands, particularly the island of Diego Garcia. Both the US and UK governments should make full reparations to the Chagossians for the decades of suffering and anguish their actions have caused.

The UK and Mauritius are currently in negotiations regarding the sovereignty of the Chagos Islands. How do you hope this report might influence those negotiations?

Importantly, the Chagossian people need to be part of that process. Having been ignored and abused for decades, it is only right that any negotiations about the future of their island should place Chagossians at their heart. Doing so would ground the negotiations in human rights.

We also want to see guarantees that the Chagossian people will receive reparations; that they will have the right to return to the island if they choose; that the islands will be restored so they can live there in dignity; and that Chagossians will receive compensation for the ill-treatment and abuse they have suffered because of the actions of the US and UK governments.

And finally, what response would you like to see from the UK and US governments?

We would like them to take responsibility for what they have done, and what they continue to do, to the Chagossian people. For years now, British ministers and officials have been saying that the treatment of Chagossians was shameful or wrong, as though this is a crime that has been lost to the sands of time. These are crimes that are taking place today, and the Chagossians are owed reparations. They should have the right to decide whether or not they return to the land that was stolen from them and to receive full financial compensation for the harms inflicted on them. This crime should be acknowledged for the colonial crime it is, and the UK and US governments need to do everything in their power to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.

*This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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