A confidential cable released by Wikileaks demonstrates that despite U.S. and U.K. claims, little has changed over the four decades since the two governments conspired to exile the people of the Chagos Archipelago and build a major U.S. military base on the people’s largest island, Diego Garcia.
The U.S. Embassy in London’s May 2009 cable summarizing Anglo-American talks reveals policymakers using a racial slur to refer to the Chagos islanders and planning to create a an allegedly environmentally-friendly “Marine Protection Area” in Chagos as a way to prevent the exiled islanders from ever returning to their homeland.
The history of the 2009 meeting dates to the 1960s when U.S. and British officials secretly orchestrated the expulsion of the people known as Chagossians to make way for a base on Diego Garcia. Following years of secret negotiations with Britain, U.S. officials secured an agreement in 1966 to make $14 million in hidden payments in exchange for the base and British action to remove the Chagossians. Between 1968 and 1973, British agents used trickery, starvation, and ultimately deportations to dump the Chagossians on the western Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and the Seychelles. In the process, British agents and U.S. sailors on Diego Garcia herded up the Chagossians’ pet dogs and gassed and burned them in front of their traumatized owners awaiting deportation. Upon arrival, the people received no resettlement assistance and found themselves homeless, jobless, and soon living in what the Washington Post called “abject poverty.”
During planning for the removals, as previously released documents have shown, British and U.S. officials designed a policy to “maintain the fiction” that the Chagossians were not native to the islands when in fact their African and Indian ancestors had lived there since the late 18th century. Officials agreed in secret memos to represent the Chagossians to Congress, Parliament, the United Nations, and the world, “more or less fraudulently,” as “a floating population” of “transient contract workers” with no connection to the islands. One British official reflected the racism underlying the entire history when, in one dispatch, he described the islanders as “some few Tarzans or Men Fridays.”
In recent years, British officials, in particular, have repeatedly distanced themselves from the actions of their predecessors. “We do not seek to justify those actions,” wrote former Foreign Secretary David Miliband in 2008, “and do not seek to excuse the conduct of an earlier generation.”
But now, a Wikileaks cable shows how little has changed: During 2009 discussions about a British proposal to create a Marine Protection Area (MPA) in the islands, Foreign and Commonwealth Office official Colin Roberts is quoted as saying the MPA would allow “no human footprints” or—repeating the Robinson Crusoe-derived name that has caused so much pain for Chagossians—“Man Fridays.”
Tellingly, Roberts admitted, “We do not regret the removal of the population.”
The cable provides additional revelations in showing that the MPA was explicitly designed to prevent Chagossians from returning to their islands as Chagossians have demanded since the expulsion. According to the cable, “a senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) official” said the “former inhabitants would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos Archipelago were a marine reserve.”
While Colin Roberts acknowledged “there are proposals (for a marine park) that could provide the Chagossians warden jobs,” creating an MPA with the help of “a public relations campaign” funded by the influential Pew Charitable Trust “would, in effect, put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago’s former residents.”
U.S. officials seemed to agree immediately, commenting, “Establishing a marine reserve might, indeed, as the FCO’s Roberts stated, be the most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands’ former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling.”
Not surprisingly, U.S. officials’ main concern revolved around the MPA’s impact on military operations. In response, British officials repeatedly assured the Embassy that there would be “‘no constraints on military operations’ as a result of the establishment of a marine park.” The MPA, they said, would “not impact the base on Diego Garcia in any way.”
U.S. officials’ only other worry was the possibility that someone, some day, might find something a wee bit incongruous about having a massive military base (which has inflicted serious environmental damage on Diego Garcia in the form of jet fuel leaks, the blasting of coral reefs, and other daily harm) in the middle of a marine protection zone. “We are concerned,” the Embassy wrote, “that, long-term, both the British public and policy makers would come to see the existence of a marine reserve as inherently inconsistent with the military use of Diego Garcia.”
Given that the British Government ultimately established the MPA this year, with U.S. approval, over the protests of Chagossians and other environmentalists, the Pew-funded public relations campaign appears to have worked wonders. Gone was the racism and cynical manipulation now revealed by Wikileaks, and in its place, only “a historic victory for global ocean conservation.”