On December 21, 2012, after 8 long months, the White House finally responded to a petition concerning the plight of the Chagossians an indigenous population of the Chagos Archipelago which the US and UK forcibly displaced in the 1960's and 1970's to make way for the US military base on the island of Diego Garcia. The Chagossians' petition, which secured more than 30,000 signatures, called on the White House to redress the harms that the US caused to this native population, which now lives as a marginalized community (mostly in Mauritius and the Seychelles).
The White House response is remarkable for what it says and does not say.
First, the response is remarkable because it is the first acknowledgment by the White House's of the "hardships that [the Chagossians] have endured" as a result of their forced displacement. Since displacing the Chagossians, no US president since Gerald Ford has commented on the Chagossians. Until now, the executive branch has barely recognized the Chagossians' suffering, even while members of the US Congress have. On October 20, 1975, for example, Senator John Culver (D-IA) stated that "[n]o amount of rationalization by our State Department can alter US responsibility for uprooting the native residents of Diego Garcia in order to make way for a military base." The White House's response was signed by three high-level State Department officials: Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary for European & Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon and Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro.
In addition, the White House does not disclaim responsibility for the Chagossians' suffering it cannot. As has been well-documented by historians, anthropologists and journalists, half a century ago the US set its sights on transforming the island of Diego Garcia into a strategic military base. In the 1960s and 1970s, the US government worked deliberately and carefully with the UK to create a fiction that the Chagossians were mere "contract workers" who had no permanent claim to the Chagos Archipelago and who could easily be "resettled" to other lands. The tactics used by the governments to displace the Chagossians included an embargo that aimed at starving the population, death threats and the rounding up and extermination of the Chagossians' pets.
In its response, the White House, however, does little more than recognize the "difficulties intrinsic to the issues raised by the Chagossian community." As in many instances where the US is accused of committing human rights violations, the difficulty is the inability of the US to muster the will to provide a remedy. The Chagossians have sought redress from the US in the form of resettlement aid, compensation or employment opportunities.
Instead of offering redress, the White House speciously passes the buck to the UK based on the view that the UK has sovereignty over the islands in the Chagos Archipelago. That stance is particularly offensive given the US presence and role in decisions that affect the Archipelago. The US operates missions in the Middle East out of the Diego Garcia military base and has used the base as a stop-over for extraordinary rendition flights. In addition, under the terms of a 1966 agreement between the US and UK governments, the UK consults with the US about matters affecting the Archipelago. The coordinated policy of the US and UK government continues today. There appears to be nothing accidental about the timing of the White House's statement, as it came one day after the European Court of Human Rights decision in favor of the UK on a technical question of the admissibility of the Chagossians' complaints.
The White House listed a series of initiatives that the UK launched many of which have begun only recently to engage the Chagossian community that resides in the UK and Mauritius. Yet, the UK government's efforts to involve the Chagossian community do not relieve the US of its share of responsibility. The White House supports these efforts, but words do not offer the exiled Chagossians the ability to be reunited with their homeland, to visit and tend the graves of their loved ones or to no longer be marginalized in their communities. The Chagossian petition highlighted the urgency of their plight: it was written shortly after the passing of Lisette Talate at the age of 70 in January 2012. "We cannot let others die without the opportunity to return home and obtain redress," the petition urged. Just days before the White House response, on December 16, 2012, another member of the exiled Chagossian community Charlezia Alexis passed away at the age of 79.
The US has both a role and an interest in the Chagos Archipelago. It has a responsibility to make sure that the dwindling population of exiled Chagossians and their families no longer suffer the effects of the US decision to rip them from their homelands. Much more than words and recognition of the Chagossians' hardship are needed by the US government to account for its wrongs.
Elena Landriscina graduated in May 2012 from American University Washington College of Law. She became involved with Chagos advocacy in the UNROW Human Rights Impact Litigation Clinic.
Suggested citation: Elena Landriscina, White House Recognizes, But Fails to Accept Responsibility for Chagossian Hardships, JURIST - Dateline, Jan. 21, 2013, http://jurist.org/dateline/2013/01/elena-landriscina-displacement-islanders.php
This article was prepared for publication by Elizabeth Imbarlina, the head of JURIST's student commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org