Perfidious Albion and the Chagos Islanders

by Gwynne Dyer

For arrogance, hypocrisy and nastiness, few organizations in the world rival the British Foreign Office. Exhibit A in the case against it, for the past decade, has been its marathon legal struggle to deny the former inhabitants of the Chagos Islands their rights. Last week, it cheated them again.

The Chagos Islands, a group of seven atolls in the Indian Ocean, were settled in the 18th century by slaves who were brought there by the French to work in copra plantations. Britain took the islands from France in 1814, but little changed for the descendants of the original African and South Indian settlers, by now a blended, French-speaking population, until 1967 — when Britain expelled all of them. The islands now have no permanent population.

The islands have many thousands of temporary residents, though, all of them working for the U.S. armed forces except for a few British service personnel. The Chagossians were deported from their homeland to make room for a giant base from which the U.S. Air Force could dominate the entire Indian Ocean, and part of the deal was that there should be no local inhabitants to complicate matters.

Most of the Chagossians were dumped in Mauritius, where they lived in poverty and squalor, but some eventually made their way to England. As they got some education, they started demanding to be sent home, but the British government stonewalled. So the long struggle in the British courts began — and it ended in the House of Lords last week with a triumph for injustice, cynicism and realpolitik.

Nobody in Britain now defends what was done to the Chagossians, not even Foreign Secretary David Milliband. “It is appropriate on this day,” he said, “that I should repeat the government’s regret at the way the resettlement of the Chagossians was carried out in the 1960s and 1970s and at the hardship that followed for some of them. We do not seek to justify those actions and do not seek to excuse the conduct of an earlier generation.” Unfortunately, he does not seek to make restitution for it, either.

On the contrary, the Foreign Office has waged a bitter struggle through the British courts to deny the Chagossians the right to go home. It lost the first round when the British High Court ruled in 2000 that they could return to the islands although not to the specific atoll, Diego Garcia, on which the Americans had their air base, and that ruling might have been allowed to stand if 9/11 hadn’t happened.

It did happen, however, and the subsequent mania about security made the British and American authorities determined to keep the islands uninhabited. So in 2004 the British government issued “Orders in Council” — essentially an exercise of the royal prerogative that sets aside court judgments — renewing the ban on anybody returning to the Chagos islands.

The Chagossians went back to court, and in 2007 seven judges of the Court of Appeal unanimously ruled that the use of Orders in Council was invalid. This meant that the islanders could rely on the 2000 High Court judgment and demand to be returned to their homeland, so the Foreign Office appealed once again, this time to the highest court of all. And last week the House of Lords Appeal Committee decided, by a 3-to-2 majority, that the government did indeed have the right to ignore the islanders’ wishes.

The U.S.-British agreement that created the Diego Garcia base in 1966 gave each party a veto on who is allowed on the islands, and it is the U.S. that has been exercising its veto behind the scenes throughout this whole episode. Indeed, a dissenting judge, Lord Bingham, referred to “highly imaginative letters written by American officials” that had been placed before the court, although he doubted that Osama bin Laden was planning any attacks in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

The French used to refer to Britain as “Perfidious Albion,” and the British Foreign Office is indeed steeped in perfidy. But latterly it has also learned servility, and it is the latter attribute that is driving its current behavior. Diego Garcia is an American base, and it is really the U.S. State Department that is denying the Chagossians the right to go home.

The Chagossians can appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, but no U.S. administration would pay any attention to its rulings. They can wait for the U.S.-U.K. agreement to expire in 2016 (but it is renewable for another 20 years). So what can they do?

The best hope for the Chagossians is a braver British foreign secretary than David Milliband, because the U.S. is hiding behind Britain in this affair. Washington would never use its veto against the Chagossians openly, and it probably wouldn’t punish Britain severely for defying it either. All it would take is some guts in London.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.