By David Vine
Tuesday, January 2, 2007
Forty years ago, on Dec. 30, 1966, at the U.S. Embassy in London, representatives of the U.S. and British governments met, as one participant later put it, "under the cover of darkness" to sign an "exchange of notes" giving the United States the right to create what was to become a major military base on Diego Garcia, an obscure British island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. In doing so they made provision for "those administrative measures" necessary to forcibly deport the entire native population of the island and the surrounding Chagos Archipelago.
While Diego Garcia has gained some attention as a key launch pad for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, few know about the expulsion of nearly 2,000 people, called Chagossians, that was eventually carried out between 1968 and 1973 to create the base.
Despite the anonymity, the facts are not in doubt: Beginning in 1960, U.S. officials initiated secret conversations with the British government and eventually secured British agreement to provide "exclusive control" of the island "without local inhabitants." The governments finalized the deal with their Dec. 30 exchange of notes, in effect creating a treaty but circumventing congressional and parliamentary oversight. A separate secret agreement provided for $14 million in undisclosed U.S. payments to deport the Chagossians and turn Diego Garcia into a military colony.
With the financial and diplomatic details ensured, beginning in 1968, islanders leaving Chagos for vacations or medical treatment on the island of Mauritius were barred by the British from returning and thus marooned 1,200 miles from their homes. The British soon began restricting supplies for the islands, and by the turn of the decade, more Chagossians were leaving as food and medicines dwindled.
In 1971 the U.S. Navy began construction on Diego Garcia and ordered the British to complete the removals. First British agents and U.S. soldiers on Diego Garcia herded the Chagossians' pet dogs into sealed sheds and gassed and burned them in front of their traumatized owners awaiting deportation. Then, between 1971 and 1973, British agents forced the islanders to board overcrowded cargo ships and left them on the docks in Mauritius and the Seychelles.
Upon arrival, Chagossians received virtually no resettlement assistance and found themselves homeless, jobless and with little money. In 1975 The Post broke the story of the expulsion, finding the people living in "abject poverty" as a result of what The Post's editorial page called an "act of mass kidnapping."
When a single day of congressional hearings followed, the U.S. government denied all responsibility for the islanders.
After years of protests and strikes, the British government, in 1978 and 1982, paid Chagossians some compensation. It totaled less than $6,000 per recipient. Many used the money to pay off large debts accrued since the expulsion, and for most, conditions improved only marginally. After living with the islanders over four periods between 2001 and 2004, I found that as a group, Chagossians -- now numbering more than 5,000 -- have been severely and chronically impoverished by the expulsion.
I came to document the expulsion's effects after being asked to serve as an expert witness in lawsuits brought against the U.S. and British governments. The suits are demanding the right of return, proper financial compensation and the right to work on the base.
In Britain, the High Court in London has twice -- in 2000 and 2006 -- ruled the islanders' expulsion illegal under U.K. law. In February the group will return to the court to contest the British government's appeal of the latest ruling; another victory could finally open the way for a return to Chagos.
By contrast, a federal district court and an appeals court have dismissed the U.S. lawsuit, with judges unwilling to overrule the executive on what one judge called the "improper misplacement of the plaintiffs," an act held to be a matter of foreign and military policy. During the 1975 House hearings, Lee Hamilton, then a member of Congress and now co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group, asked a State Department representative if the government had any legal or moral responsibility for the people. The representative replied, "We have no legal responsibility. Moral responsibility is a term, sir, that I find difficult to assess."
Forty years almost to the day after the signing of the initial Diego Garcia agreement, there should be no difficulty in assessing the responsibility of the United States: The U.S. government developed the idea for a base on Diego Garcia, demanded the removal of the islanders, paid the British for the deportations and gave the orders to complete the removals.
While almost no attention has been paid to the Chagossians since The Post's 1975 report, the time has come for the story of the Chagossians and Diego Garcia to see the light of day, and for Congress and the Bush administration finally to accept and act on the responsibility of the United States for a people's ongoing plight.
The writer is public anthropologist in residence at American University.