Monday, July 25, 2011
Diego Garcia and the War on Terror
But, only a few decades ago, the islanders’ way of life came to an end, following a clandestine political agreement which still influences events today.
In the early 1960s, American officials decided they needed a military base (‘communications facility’) in this strategically important area. Originally they had planned on using the uninhabited Aldabra Atoll, but environmental groups successfully lobbied for the protection of the rare tortoises living there. Plan B was Diego Garcia, which they intended to lease from Harold Wilson’s Labour government as part of a joint military venture.
Accordingly, a secret plan was hatched to ‘sweep’ and ‘sanitise’ the island clean of the ‘Tarzans and Man Fridays’ [sic] living there. The island was to be depopulated. For this to work, the British Foreign Office realised they would have to portray the native Ilois as being merely a ‘floating population’ of migrant workers, who would not mind being shipped off to neighbouring islands. One British official summed it up in a memo: ‘we propose to certify the people, more or less fraudulently, as belonging somewhere else.’ Through this giant fraud, they circumvented international law, pretending that only ‘non-inhabitants’ were to be removed.
Soon, islanders who visited nearby Mauritius to see their families or seek medical assistance began to find that they were not able to return. Those who went to investigate these disappearances found themselves similarly trapped, away from home. Next, in what was presumably an act of intimidation, the governor of the Seychelles. Sir Bruce Greatbatch, ordered that all the islanders’ pet dogs be rounded up, gassed with exhaust fumes, and incinerated in a furnace. At this point, many islanders got the message and left. Others who remained were forcibly deported, in 1971, to Mauritius, and simply left at the docks there, jobless and homeless.
Since then, they have been refused the right to return home. Despite a 2000 High Court ruling that the islanders’ deportation had been illegal, Tony Blair’s government announced that their resettlement on Diego Garcia would be impossible due to existing agreements with the US. This of course is untrue – governments clearly have the right to resettle their own citizens on their own land – rather, they meant that the military base is more important to them than the Ilois people. More recently, in 2004, the Blair government invoked the royal prerogative to overrule the 2000 High Court decision – that is, they got Queen Elizabeth II to exercise her lingering totalitarian powers.
Perhaps even more ridiculous was the government’s claim that ‘feasibility studies’ would have to be conducted to determine whether the other Chagos Islands would even be safe enough for the islanders to live on. These studies, which argue that the islands are ‘sinking’ and ‘without a supply of water’ (despite them having some of the highest precipitation levels of any area in the world), have evidently not stopped the US military from expanding their facilities.
John Pilger writes that today, Diego Garcia constitutes: ‘one of the biggest American bases in the world. There are now more than 2,000 troops, anchorage for 30 warships, a nuclear dump, a satellite spy station, shopping malls, bars and a golf course. “Camp Justice,” the Americans call it.’
And anyone with an atlas or a working knowledge of geography will see why this is the case. Diego Garcia is situated south of Afghanistan and Iraq, providing a convenient launch-pad for airstrikes.
The strange death of police chief Michael Todd also plays into the issue of Diego Garcia. This was a man who had led an investigation into charges that Britain had cooperated with the CIA over secret extraordinary rendition flights. His investigation, unsurprisingly, found nothing to support those claims. But then, 2 weeks before Todd’s death, it unsurprisingly emerged that CIA flights to Guantanamo Bay had in fact refuelled on British Territory. More specifically, as Foreign Secretary David Miliband admitted, they had refuelled at Diego Garcia.
But that wasn’t the end of things. In 2008, an article in the Guardian cited senior intelligence sources as saying that Diego Garcia had been used as a secret ‘black site’ for the torture/interrogation of terror suspects. The human rights group Reprieve claim to have sources from the UN and CIA to confirm this.
So, as if the treatment of the Ilois by their own government wasn’t bad enough, their former home is being exploited for use in various war crimes and human rights abuses. “‘Camp Justice’ they call it”…