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Diego Garcia: The Limits of Relying on Courts for Change


The European Court of Human Rights on 11 December, 2012, after EIGHT WHOLE YEARS, has finally chucked out the case brought by Olivier Bancoult and the Chagos Refugees Group against the British Government. The case was an appeal against the decision of the British Courts not to award the right of return or further reparations to the inhabitants of Diego Garcia and other Chagos Islands who were illegally expelled from this part of Mauritius in order to make way for the creation of the phantom colony, the British Indian Ocean Territories, part of which was then sub-leased to the the USA for a massive military base. This entire 1960s and 1970s plot was exposed in all its ugliness in the original judgment in 2000, after a case could be filed in 1998, once documents held under the UK Official Secrets Act were made public after the 30 years’ secrecy finally expired. Then the British State appealed and finally won. After which the Chagos Refugees Group appealed to the European Court.

Amongst other things the judges in the European Court said that when Chagossians had signed bits of paper on receiving minimal compensation from the UK government in 1982, they had effectively signed away their rights. At the time, LALIT had warned against the danger of the clause on the bits of paper being used this way in later years. We were unfortunately correct to suspect this.

The judgment, for your interest, mentions LALIT en passant, when explaining the UK’s strategic need for the USA’s military base. After the initial victory in the lower courts in the UK, when the right of return to Diego Garcia was briefly won, LALIT was organizing with Chagossians to go there, thus implementing the judgment. Referring to this planned action, the judgement at paragraph 21 reads:

“Newspaper articles appeared in Mauritius suggesting that the Chagossians and their supporters were planning some form of direct action by landings on the island. As later described in domestic court judgments, the participants had varying aims; for one group known as LALIT it was part of an anti-American [sic] campaign to close the base at Diego Garcia. Others did not want the base closed as it might offer employment but since permanent resettlement on the islands was not practicable without substantial investment, the landings, even if they led to temporary camps, would largely be gestures in furtherance of respective political aims, designed to attract publicity and embarrass the Governments of the United Kingdom and the United States. Contacts with the United States authorities made it clear that their view was that any attempt to resettle any of the islands would severely compromise Diego Garcia’s security, and have a deleterious impact on military operations. To them Diego Garcia was a vital and indispensable platform for global U.S. military operations, as demonstrated by its important role in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom as well as its continuing role in the Global War on Terrorism; in particular it had unique and exceptional security from armed attack, intelligence collection, surveillance and monitoring and electronic jamming.”

[The entire judgment can be read at the following address:{"itemid":["001-115714"]} ]

In fact what happened was the British State quickly came out with an archaic decree called a “Queens Order in Council” to ban Chagossians from Diego Garcia, and then from all the Islands, thus raising the stakes for the planned visit. The British State further undermined the planned visit by hurriedly organizing and paying for Chagossians to visit the islands by ship, and also handing out British passports and settling Chagossians in Crawley near London. This way, however much it was a humiliation for the British State to have to flap around in this ungainly manner, it allowed them to cut their political losses, while waiting for an ultimate judicial victory. Which they got in December, 2012.

So, after years of subjugating all its important and necessary political struggles to the exigencies of litigation, the Chagos Refugees Group has finally come up against a brick wall. The French would call such a wall “Raison d’Etat”, or the Logic of the State. The logic is the following: The British State is now a humble little ally of the USA State; the USA State says it needs the Diego Garcia military base, therefore all the islands cleared; therefore the Courts find in favour of the British State (and its big brother ally).

In all, the legal battles have taken sixteen years, with appeal after appeal, before hitting this brick wall of the raison d’etat.

And no sooner was the judgment out, before the ink was even dry, than President Obama promptly issued a reply to the long over-due petition submitted to him in March 2012. Again just as LALIT predicted, it was a withering reply. The petition was misguided in the first place. It made people feel that by signing, they were “doing something”, when in fact the content of the petition, were it to be taken seriously, ran the risk of actually making things worse than they already are for the Chagossians, for peace, and for territorial integrity. The petition in fact requested the USA administration to take control of the outer islands that are already under British control, but not under US military control. Here is the Obama reponse:

Response to We the People Petition on Redressing Wrongs Against the Chagossians By Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary for European & Eurasian Affairs Philip Gordon, and Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro.

“Thank you for your petition regarding the former inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago. The U.S. recognizes the British Indian Ocean Territories, including the Chagos Archipelago, as the sovereign territory of the United Kingdom. The United States appreciates the difficulties intrinsic to the issues raised by the Chagossian community. In the decades following the resettlement of Chagossians in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the United Kingdom has taken numerous steps to compensate former inhabitants for the hardships they endured, including cash payments and eligibility for British citizenship. The opportunity to become a British citizen has been accepted by approximately 1,000 individuals now living in the United Kingdom. Today, the United States understands that the United Kingdom remains actively engaged with the Chagossian community. Senior officials from the United Kingdom continue to meet with Chagossian leaders; community trips to the Chagos Archipelago are organized and paid for by the United Kingdom; and the United Kingdom provides support for community projects within the United Kingdom and Mauritius, to include a resource center in Mauritius. The United States supports these efforts and the United Kingdom’s continued engagement with the Chagossian Community. Thank you for taking the time to raise this important issue with us.”

In other words, Obama says petitioners have addressed the wrong State – the US recognizes UK sovereignty, even though no-one else does – and in any case, Obama continues, Chagossians have been, and are still being, bought off by the UK State with belated money and belated citizenship, all of which the US supports. Thank you, Obama says.

So, as today the 2014 deadline for the USA to negotiate a new lease with the UK (the receiver of stolen goods agreeing on a new price with the thief), the imperial powers are tightening up their grip. The judgment finally puts an end to the long period of litigation. The US reply to the petition closes down any appeal to Obama for anything.

As LALIT has always maintained, through thick and thin, it is really only political struggle that can bring victory. This political struggle will involve the mobilization of the people displaced from Chagos, Mauritians whose country was illegally ripped apart, the anti-war movement that opposes military bases abroad, the anti-colonial movement world-wide, and people from all over the world, including in the UK and USA, who fight for peace, justice, decolonization and human rights. It is only this kind of united peoples’ power that can win against powerful forces like the State apparatus of the USA and UK combined: this means principled opposition to the military base, which was the motive for the cruel expulsions; it means getting the base closed down once and for all. It also means opposition to the ridiculous ploy of creating a new colony called BIOT when granted Mauritius independence, and it means fighting to get the entire figment of a colony closed down, too. It means denouncing the Marine Protected Area that Britain has set up under its control (contested by the Mauritian State under the mechanisms of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) with the dumb collusion of many groups of environmentalists, including even Greenpeace. It means a principled fight for the right of all Chagossians to return and to be paid proper reparations, despite their signatures in exchange for the minimal compensation in 1982.

And all these issues must, if we intend to win, be kept linked together.

Times are propitious, in a way, because the USA is under pressure to decrease its military spending as its economy spirals into more and more serious difficulty.

15 January 2013.