Jacques Duplouich / Le Figaro http://www.lefigaro.fr/ – 2004-06-24 14:52:04
(June 22, 2004) — The Diego Garcia atoll “Ilois” are overwhelmed. A legal decree discreetly promulgated by the Foreign Office on June 10 while Iraq and the European elections held the news, prohibits the natives of the largest island in the Chagos archipelago, right in the middle of the Indian Ocean, from ever returning to the territory from which they were expelled 35 years ago by the British authorities.
In November 2000, however, the London High Court had ruled that their “transfer” was “illegal” and recognized the grounds for their “right of return” to their ancestral land.
Tony Blair’s government hasn’t understood it that way, however. Arguing an exhaustive feasibility study on the reestablishment of the community of some 8500 “Chagossians”, it has dragged out the inquiry. The government experts concluded today that the population would be exposed “to natural events of a nature to make their survival difficult.” Longer term, global warming and its consequences on sea levels would make their life impossible. End of story? Read on.
US Rumored behind this ‘Barbarous Law’
“It’s unacceptable,” inveighs Alan Vincatassin, leader of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) Movement, which contests the ministerial decision. “It’s the most barbarous law I have ever seen adopted in the Queen’s name,” he adds. “The real reason for it? The American demand that there be no witnesses on this island they’ve transformed into a military base,” he insists.
Alan Vincatassin has good reason to believe that American demands prevail over Ilois rights. The Diego Garcia atoll certainly belongs to Great Britain, but a secret agreement between Harold McMillan and John F. Kennedy, signed in 1961, designated it as an Anglo-American “point of strategic support” against the Soviet Union in the Indian Ocean.
Washington offered to establish a communications and refueling center for its fleet there on the double condition that the Chagos archipelago be excluded from the decolonization process London was then engaged in and that its inhabitants be evacuated “for security reasons”. In exchange, the US offered a $14 million reduction in the price of Polaris missiles the United Kingdom was buying to equip its nuclear submarines.
Native Rights Sold Out for Polaris Missiles
The Ilois’ “transfer” began in the beginning of the 1970s in the greatest secrecy with Mauritius and the Seychelles as their destination. At the time, London asserted to the “deportees” that they had no territorial claim on the islands to which their parents had come from other African countries or Indian Ocean islands as “contract workers”.
The 426 families who lived from vegetable farming, coastal fishing, and coconut oil culture found themselves stripped of their possessions and without any assistance in the slums of Port-Louis in Mauritius and Victoria in the Seychelles.
Alcoholism, drug use, and misery ravaged their community, while the United States, armed with a 50-year lease renewable for an additional 20-year period, transformed Diego Garcia into a fortress.
Isolated from the rest of the Indian Ocean, the atoll, with its harbors and airports, welcomes many American Navy “forward positioned” ships and serves as a long distance departure base for B-52 and B-1 bombers. In 2001, the horseshoe-shaped 44-acre platform established on the reef played an essential role in Afghanistan bombing missions. Today, the base holds a decisive position in the support of other US bases in Africa, the Middle East, and South-East Asia. It also serves as a sort of Guantánamo annex. Prisoners suspected of belonging to al-Qaeda are incarcerated there in the most complete secrecy. Returning the territory to the natives is consequently out of the question.
US-UK Role a ‘National Disgrace’
The Ilois, overwhelmed by the government’s “stab in the back” are not planning on allowing the issue to rest here, however. They have fought for 35 years to recover their atoll- a fight that has won them, in passing, recognition as separate subjects of the crown in 2000. They intend to pursue their case in British and American courts.
“Their treatment by our governments is a national disgrace,” comments Mark Curtis, author of a book on the “United Kingdom’s real role in the world.” “While they wait for reparations, it is appropriate to meditate on Tony Blair’s speeches in favor of human rights…”
© : t r u t h o u t 2004 Translation: t r u t h o u t French language correspondent Leslie Thatcher.
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