The US has been a shadowy puppet master behind the UK's crimes against the indigenous people of the Chagos Archipelago. In the 1960s and 1970s, the UK forcibly removed the Chagossians from their islands to enable the US to build a military base on Diego Garcia, one of the islands in the Archipelago. Diego Garcia is also where rendition planes allegedly stopped before spiriting people, such as Libyan dissident Abdel Hakim Belhaj, away to torture.
The expulsion of the Chagossians for the construction of the Diego Garcia military base is a "many-sided secret," to quote a 2002 cable signed by former US ambassador to the UK, William Stamps Farish. This secret received renewed attention when The Guardian recently reported how the UK lied about the Chagossians to avoid international outcry about their expulsion. Newly released archival documents from the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) show that in 1970, the UK conspired to call the Chagossians "contract labourers" to ensure that no alarm bells would sound over the forced expulsion of the indigenous population.
The US Department of State offered a similar lie to Congress in 1975. After belatedly learning about the expulsion through a Washington Post article, US Senators demanded an explanation about the removal of the Chagossians. In response, the US Department of State speciously claimed in the 1975 Report on the Resettlement of Inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago that the Chagossians were "basically transitory," that the islands were "sparsely populated, essentially by contract workers," and that "[n]o coercion was used" to remove the Chagossians. Unsurprisingly, US Department of State officials did not describe the tactics that were used to remove the population: an embargo that aimed at starving the population, death threats and even the rounding up and extermination of the Chagossians' pets. Questioned about the source of information about the alleged "transitory" population at a November 4, 1975, House Special Subcommittee hearing, George T. Churchill, a US Department of State representative, explained: "[t]he basic sources, sir, are British. All population data that I discovered regarding these people were from British sources."
The US would shift the blame for the expulsion to the UK, but the careful use and repetition of words in the 1975 report, such as "basically" and "essentially," to describe the population shows that the US Department of State knew that the Chagossians were not mere contract workers.
The Chagossians, who now live in abject poverty on the island nations of Mauritius and the Seychelles, have struggled to return to their islands. They are currently fighting two governments that had no qualms about trampling their human rights in pursuit of military interests. As anthropologist David Vine explains in Island of Shame, the Chagossians are the victims of the US's "Strategic Island Concept," which was developed in the 1950s to stave off the possible decline of US military influence in a region where Western colonial power was receding. Vine explains that after the US selected Diego Garcia as a location for a military base and the UK accepted the deal, the US made secret payments totaling $14 million to help the UK manage the costs of removing the Chagossians.
Furthermore, the US plays a significant role in the Chagossians' continued displacement. According to the terms of a 1966 agreement, the UK consults with the US on issues related to the Archipelago. In 2010, the UNROW Human Rights Impact Litigation Clinic, which sued the US on behalf of the Chagossians in 2001, filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests with several government agencies. Declassified US Department of State documents released in response to these requests help to shed some light on just what the US-UK consultation under the 1966 agreement has looked like.
A cable dated July 10, 1999, and signed by Strobe Talbott, then Deputy Secretary of State, shows that US Department of State officials in Washington worked to feed arguments to their counterparts in the UK to help them defend against a lawsuit brought by the Chagossians: "8. (U) Action request. Interested commands are invited to submit additional unclassified arguments for preventing the return of the Illois to the Chagos Islands. The timeline for this information is very brief, as the UK has secured an extension of the court case pending our input." Although the Chagossians ultimately won the case on November 3, 2000, their victory was overturned by a controversial 2004 "Order in Council," which prohibited the Chagossians from returning. In 2008, the case, R. (Bancoult) v. Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (No. 2), was heard in the House of Lords, which upheld the prerogative powers of the Crown. These documents show that while the UK claims sovereignty over the islands, the US pulls the strings, helping to shape the UK's arguments and its policy concerning the Chagossians' fate.
The US government has evaded accountability for the forced removal of the Chagossians, even while simultaneously claiming a commitment to human rights. In response to the class action lawsuit, Bancoult v. McNamara, filed by UNROW in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, the US government invoked the political question doctrine to bar the court from examining the Chagossians' claims of forced relocation, torture, racial discrimination, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and common law torts. The court dismissed the lawsuit on political question grounds, and the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia affirmed the dismissal.
Redress for the Chagossians from the political branches is long overdue. At the Special Subcommittee hearing, the US Department of State claimed that the US bore "no legal responsibility" towards the Chagossians. Many in Congress did not believe this at that time. On October 20, 1975, Senator Culver remarked, "[n]o amount of rationalization by our State Department can alter U.S. responsibility for uprooting the native residents of Diego Garcia in order to make way for a military base."
The recent FOIA documents and the UK FCO archives show that the US's continued disavowal of its responsibility for human rights violations is untenable. More than 28,000 people have signed a White House petition to send a simple message to President Obama: accept responsibility and honor the human rights of the Chagossians.
Elena Landriscina will graduate in May 2012, with a law degree from American University Washington College of Law, where she has focused on human rights and international law.
Suggested citation: Elena Landriscina, Accepting Responsibility for the Displacement of the Chagos Islanders, JURIST - Dateline, Apr. 26, 2012, http://jurist.org/dateline/2012/04/elena-landriscina-chagos-islanders.php.
This article was prepared for publication by Megan McKee, the head of JURIST's student commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org