Guest Blog: Celia Whittaker, founding member of UK Chagos Support Association
We spend a lot time writing about the Chagossian fight for justice, and thankfully many of you take the time to read about the brave, unyielding work of the Chagossian community.
We thought though it would be interesting to hear the thoughts of a few other people. That is why we are introducing our Guest Blogs, from people with different perspectives on the Chagossian exile and campaign for justice. As guests, what they write does not necessarily reflect the official view of UK Chagos Support Association.
We could think of no-one better to start our series of Guest Blogs than one of our founding members, Celia Whittaker. Celia has volunteered her time and considerable energy for almost 20 years.
Her account of her work should be an inspiration to everyone: if you want to see justice done, get involved and make it happen.
Two decades of standing with the Chagossian community
I did not know anything at all about the Chagos Islands before November 2000 when I read (in the newspapers) a report of a High Court Ruling that said the expulsion of more than 4,500 islanders between 1967 and 1973 was illegal. I was deeply shocked that such a thing as the expulsion - secretly, shabbily and shamefully done - was carried out by the UK. As the then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, said the government would not appeal against the ruling, I was relieved to think that now justice would be swiftly done.
As readers of the UK Chagos Support Association website will realize over a decade later, I was very naïve and completely wrong!
I waited until Christmas, the New Year and our move to a new house were over, then phoned the Foreign Office to ask if the Chagossians were now on their way back to their homeland.
“No”, was their answer.
“Why not?” I asked.
“We have to do a feasibility study.”
“Did you do a feasibility study before shooting their animals, gassing their dogs and dumping them on the dockside of Mauritius and Seychelles with few possessions and no support?”
”No we didn’t.”
“It wasn’t necessary.”
I was taken aback by this arrogant, uncaring attitude, but requested the contact details of the Chagossian legal representative, Richard Gifford in London, and wrote to him.
Margaret and Wilfred Brown, Sylvia Boyes and Paul Heaton had done the same so Richard put us in touch with one another and suggested we started a support group, which we did. Our aim with the Association was to try to increase public awareness of the issue and to help persuade the government to give justice to the exiled islanders. We contacted our MPs, wrote to the papers, started a website, and did everything we could.
We gradually learned that every time a step was made in the right direction for the Chagossians, the Foreign Office/Government would block the way again. For example, we learnt that the Government published a new Immigration Ordinance banning the Islanders from Diego Garcia on the very day of that Court Victory!
The above amentioned Feasibility Study was eventually published saying that resettlement was not a practical possibility, but this duplicitous document, paid for by the Government, was later totally discredited.
In 2004 they passed the infamous Orders in Council (a method of secretly and undemocratically enforcing acts without putting them before Parliament) which banned the Islanders from returning to the formerly inhabited houter islands as well as Diego Garcia. As Bill Rammell, Foreign Office minister, claimed at the time, everything had been returned to what it was before the November 2000 court victory. Back to square one.
The application of a blanket Marine Protection Area (MPA) to the entire Chagos Archipelago and its waters is another outstanding example of the FCO’s determination to thwart the Islanders. In that case David Miliband made it look like caring for the environment rather than an underhand measure to keep the Chagossians exiled. Wikileaks releases subsequently proved the latter to be the case.
Incidentally, Diego Garcia was exempted from the MPA so the US government and thousands of service personnel can go on fishing and doing whatever they wish at the heart of the MPA. David Miliband started a new job as CEO of an organisation that deals with homing refugees - having tried to ensure the Chagossians stay forever exiled. Irony is not dead.
I could go on but if you are reading this, you will already have a fair grasp of the history! However, I would like to list a few things I wish the Foreign Office and government would take on board:
1. It is a good thing to allow the Falkland Islanders to choose where and how they live but the same right should be extended to the Chagossians.
2. Not treating all islanders the same smacks of the racist attitudes that prevailed in the FCO at the time of the Island Clearances and for a long time afterwards. (Do not forget that ten years before going to war with Argentina to keep the Falkland Islanders on their homeland, this government physically exiled the Chagossians from theirs.)
3. Before criticising other governments for the reprehensible things that they do, put your own house in order. It is less hypocritical.
4. Returning the Islanders can be a huge win-win situation as they could help take care of the environment and make the government look good too!
It is heartbreaking that the Chagossian exile has lasted so many decades and that so many of them have died. When we started the Association, we hoped that we would be able to close it down in a reasonably short time and now it is fifteen years old.
To end on a more upbeat note, I have met so many wonderful people through UKChSA (none of them in the Foreign Office, I am sorry to say). Some, not all, environmentalists prefer the pristine natural environment of Chagos (that they are privileged to visit) to remain unpopulated and have sometimes been less than completely honest and straight forward.
But the Chagossian people are totally awe-inspiring. They have amazing resilience and patience. They inspire me to carry on actively supporting the Chagossian cause: spreading the word & letter writing.
When I stood down from the Committee I hoped to make room for younger, more technical-savvy people with fresh ideas and am delighted to say that has happened. You are all great! Our Patrons are terrific too: hardworking and dedicated. Thanks, too, to the Chagos Islands All Party Parliamentary Group.
UKChSA supporters are wonderful too. Two brief examples (I could quote many):
1. John Loader, who was on Diego Garcia during World War II, refuelling seaplanes for the RAF. He found the Chagossians he met there (before the deportation) hard working, very likeable people and is still fighting for their return in his nineties. You can see a short film John made about the Chagos Islands on Youtube.
2. Barbara Tindall who emailed me, after reading her UKChSA Update wearing her wellington boots because her house was flooded, to say that at least she was in her own home in her own country - unlike the exiled Chagossians.
Both inspirational supporters for a worthwhile cause.
Keep up the good work, everyone.
If you'd like to find out more about the history of UK Chagos Support Association and the broader struggle for justice, remember we can read news updates going back to 15 years in our online archive.