Forty years ago, thousands of people were forcibly and illegally removed from their homeland, the British Indian Ocean Territory, to make way for Diego Garcia, a US military base. The expulsion has been described by some as UK foreign policy’s darkest day. Since then the islanders have fought for the right to go home. They won it from the high court, but the privy council took it away. It now seems, from US information released by WikiLeaks (Foreign Office accused of misleading public over expelled ‘Man Fridays’, 4 December), that the Foreign Office has no regrets over its illegal action, and has been planning to destroy the islanders’ campaign by making their former home a marine sanctuary, in which no one would be allowed to live.
As a long-term advocate of conservation, I am horrified that the UK government has used this to keep the islanders from returning to their rightful home, and that I was duped into supporting the creation of the marine sanctuary under false pretences. According to the leaked documents, Colin Roberts, the FCO’s director of overseas territories, told the US that there would be no “Man Fridays” on the islands and said: “We do not regret the removal of the population.” The FCO described the all-party parliamentary group campaigning for the Chagos people’s right to return as a “persistent” but relatively non-influential group. I now regret my support of the marine sanctuary and look forward to joining the islanders in their campaign to return home.
Archive for December, 2010
The UK Foreign Office misled the UK parliament over its reasons for proposing a Marine Protected Area (MPA) around the Chagos Islands, according to secret US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, and reported in the Guardian. New leaked documents show that the Foreign Office privately admitted its plan to declare the islands the world’s largest MPA would end any chance of the expelled Chagossians being repatriated. The admission completely contradicts public claims by Foreign Office ministers that the proposed park would have no effect on the islanders’ right of return. In fact, the creation of a marine park was a ploy to block their return, as it would make it impossible for them to live there through the ban on fishing, their main livelihood before expulsion.
The disclosure follows years of criticism levelled at Whitehall over the harsh treatment of the islanders, many of whom have lived in poverty in other countries since their deportation. In the past, National Archive documents have revealed how the Foreign Office consistently lied about the eviction, maintaining the fiction that the islanders had not been permanent residents. The latest leaked documents are US state department cables recording private meetings between Foreign Office mandarins and their American counterparts.
In May 2009, Colin Roberts, the Foreign Office director of overseas territories, told the Americans “We do not regret the removal of the population since removal was necessary for [Diego Garcia] to fulfil its strategic purpose,”. Roberts, admitting the government was “under pressure” from the islanders, told the US of the plan to set up the marine park on 55 islands around Diego Garcia, known as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). “Roberts stated that, according to [Her Majesty's government's] current thinking on a reserve, there would be ‘no human footprints’ or ‘Man Fridays’ on the BIOT uninhabited islands,” according to the American account of the meeting. The language echoes the racist terms used in 1966 when Denis Greenhill – later the Foreign Office’s most senior official – described the inhabitants as “a few Tarzans and Man Fridays”. The documents also highlight the cynical calculations on how pressure from environmental groups could be used to support the creation of an MPA, with Mr Roberts stating that the “environmental lobby is far more powerful than the Chagossians’ advocates.”
The struggle for the Chagossians has been long; the UK High Court has ruled numerous times in their favour, the UN has advised on their repatriation and the Organisation of African Unity has appealed that the Chagos people be allowed to return to their homeland where they will undertake and enhance conservation work, and not threaten US security. How is this to become government policy when unelected officials at the Foreign Office appear determined that it shall not be so?