Saturday, November 29, 2003

Diego Garcia - doesn't he run the tapas bar on the High Street?

The Ilois (also known as Chagossians) are one of the most poverty-stricken groups of people in the world. They are Creoles, claiming descent from the ancestors originating from India, Madagascar, Mauritius and Mozambique who were mostly African slaves or Indian labourers. Today they number around 7,000 and most of them inhabit an urban slum called Cassis on Mauritius, impoverished and marginalised from Mauritian society.
Life is very hard for the Ilois. They have a 60% unemployment rate (the rate for native Mauritians is 4% for men and 15% for women) and 45% are illiterate. Out of despair many of the younger Ilois men have resorted to alcohol, drugs and crime while many women owe their continuing existence to prostitution. The suicide rate is very high.

So what? There are cultures all over the world who have an even tougher existence.

On the 21st May, 2002, Jack Straw signed a document that effectively made the Ilois British Citizens as they were formerly inhabitants of a British colony. The problem is, the ungrateful wretches don’t want British passports. They want to go home.

Home is the Chagos Archipelago, a collection of tiny islands and atolls situated in the middle of the Indian Ocean, a thousand miles south of Mauritius. The largest island is a tropical paradise called Diego Garcia. The Ilois survived by fishing or cultivating sugar cane and coconuts. They didn’t have cars, telephones or any gizmo a western culture would consider essential to daily life life. But their culture has flourished in the archipelago since the early nineteenth century and what they did have was theirs – or so they thought.

The Chagos Archipelago is part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), or what remains of it after the Seychelles gained independence in 1976. Its three thousand inhabitants lived their lives, bothering no one. But all that changed in 1967.

Just two words changed the lives of the Ilois - strategic importance. In the northern hemisphere the Cold War was at its height. The US needed a base within reach of southern USSR. Britain had the real estate that exactly fitted the bill – Diego Garcia. In a secret deal with the US, the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson, Britain, gave the US a fifty year lease on Diego Garcia and allowed them to establish a military base (the lease expires in 2016). The US Navy has a base on the island and so does the US Air Force (for long range B1 and B52 bombers).

Suddenly the Ilois found themselves labelled as “contract labourers” rather than an indigenous culture. Harold Wilson served up the archipelago to British and US politicians as “uninhabited” which was a cynical lie. Their existence officially denied, even refused birth certificates that could identify them as born and bred Chagossians, the Ilois found themselves illegally and callously disenfranchised.

Between 1965 and 1973 the entire population of the Chagos Archipelago was either conned into leaving their homes or, during the final phase in 1973, forcibly removed, loaded onto boats and relocated to the Seychelles or Mauritius (mostly to the latter). They were forced to abandon their homes, their furniture, their livestock, their land and the cemeteries that contained generations of their ancestors (which made a complete nonsense of the “contract labour” soubriquet even without the birth certificates). Cast adrift in a strange land, destitute and lacking the skills to cope in society completely alien to their culture, the Ilois were left to rot for seven years. Britain then offered some financial assistance but is was pitifully too little, too late and was rejected by the majority of Ilois. They didn’t want foreign money or to live in a foreign slum, they wanted to go home.

In 1982, the plight the Ilois people was championed by World in Action and by a Labour backbench MP by the name of Robin Cook. Cook conveniently forgot all about them when he became a cabinet minister. Perhaps, when he resigned and unleashed his venom against his cabinet colleagues, he also conveniently forgot something else the public ought to know about Diego Garcia.

With the Cold War over Diego Garcia was used as a refuelling base during the Gulf War in 1991. During Operation Desert Fox in December 1998, B52s flew from Diego Garcia base to launch a payload of 100 cruise missiles at targets inside Iraq. The war against Afghanistan saw both B1 and B52 bombers take off from Diego Garcia. The base also played a crucial strategic role during the war with Iraq earlier this year and seems set to be a valuable military asset for some years to come.

In an article penned by Jeremy Corbyn MP, Corbyn points out that, when papers relating to the Diego Garcia deal were released under the thirty year rule, it was discovered that, quote, “Labour ministers and officials were very aware of the Ilois’ existence.” Presumably so were the people, both British and American, who cleared the Ilois out of the islands and saw evidence that they were not merely a transient population – unless you consider 200 years of continued occupation transient.

And the price of causing three thousand people and the following generation abject misery? Five million pound knocked off the price of a Polaris nuclear submarine!!! The US pays no rent or any other remuneration for its occupation of a British sovereign territory.

The Ilois won a seminal victory in the British courts in November, 2001 when their claim to the Chagos Archipelago was recognised, as was the illegality of their removal from their homes. Unfortunately, Phoney Tony, world statesman and indefatigable champion of Human Rights, had his government swiftly launch legislation permitting the Ilois to return to the Archipelago but not to Diego Garcia.

This was too much for the Ilois. Denied their existence, thrown out of their homes without compensation and now winning a victory only to have it snatched from them, they launched a new lawsuit, claiming for compensation against the British Government for the loss of their homes and for personal injury suffered during their eviction and resettlement. Appeal Court judge Mr. Justice Ousely dismissed the Ilois’ claim, perversely accepting the argument of the British Government which insisted that the Ilois held the status of mere contract labourers and not natives and therefore possessing no legal claim to the islands. In effect, Bleugghh took the lie spun by Wilson to oust the Ilois from their homeland and used it to keep them out and not pay them a penny in compensation, and all in the spirit of the “special relationship”. Pity Phoney isn’t as ruthless with the likes of hate-preaching Abu Hamza.

The term “contract labourers” hints at short term occupation of the islands yet the Ilois and their ancestors have inhabited the islands since at least 1814. Some contract!!!!! What sort of legal footing does this give any small nation founded by slaves, the impoverished and the dispossessed?

The judge sympathised, admitting the Ilois had been treated shamefully. Yet he denied them compensation because their claim had now been time barred. This is rich given that the British government refused to recognise the existence of the Ilois for thirty years and they could only bring their case to court once official documents acknowledging their existence had been released under the 30 year rule.

The Ilois continue to fight on, not only on British soil but by taking their case to the American courts too. I wish them well in their quest for justice.

As a foot note to this scandal, the US now has a new, even more sinister use for its base on Diego Garcia. The base is currently playing host to some al-Qaeda terrorists. Among the “guests” being detained and interrogated is Riduann Isamuddin, alias Hambali. Isamuddin is the leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, the Asian terrorist group believed responsible for the Bali bombing earlier this year.

Given the US track record for its treatment of Muslim prisoners held without charge at Guatanamo Bay, Cuba, it’s very likely that similar conditions exist on Diego Garcia which is, of course, firmly situated on British territory. Despite the atrocities these prisoners may or may not have committed, what happens inside Guatanamo is an international disgrace. If this sort of thing is occurring on British soil, with the full knowledge of New Labour ministers, then it is a scandal that potentially equals the recent Hanson enquiry into the death of Dr. David Kelly and the allegations that Downing Street sexed-up a WMD dossier to make a phoney case for a war with Iraq. Could this possibly be the reason for Phoney’s oh so feeble attempts to castigate Dubya for his unethical treatment of Guatanamo detainees whose guilt (or innocence) has not been established?

I think we should be told.