Objectivity and neutrality in the Chagos Islands debate

The idea that Chagos Islanders have human rights stirs up a hornets’ nest in some quarters. However, neutrality on this topic is impossible, so here is more grist to the mill of objectivity.

Here’s what happened according to an unbiased and entirely impartial Standard Note on file at the UK Parliament’s House of Commons Library.

  • In 1965 the UK detached the Chagos Archipelago from the then British colony of Mauritius to create a separate colony called the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). Mauritius received a payment of £3 million and the UK undertook to return the Archipelago to Mauritius when it was no longer needed for defence purposes.
  • In December 1966 the UK leased the biggest island, Diego Garcia, to the US for an initial period of 50 years. The arrangement will remain in force for a further 20 years beyond 2016 unless either side gives notice to terminate it in the two years before its expiry.
  • Between 1968 and 1973 the entire Chagos Archipelago was forcibly cleared of its inhabitants as part of moves to build a US military base on Diego Garcia.
  • In 1971 an Immigration Ordinance was enacted that made it unlawful for a person to enter or remain in BIOT without a permit. This formalised in law the removal of the whole of the existing civilian population to Mauritius and established a prohibition on their return.
  • Most of the 2,000 Islanders, whose slave ancestors are believed to have been transported to the Archipelago from Madagascar and Mozambique by the French in the late 18th century to work on the coconut plantations, ended up in the slums of Mauritius.
  • In the 1970s and early 1980s the UK offered the Chagos Islanders compensation. £650,000 was paid to the Government of Mauritius for the benefit of the Chagossians, in particular to assist their resettlement there.
  • In 1982 a further £4 million was paid by the UK Government into a Trust Fund for the benefit of registered Chagossians.
  • In 2002, under the British Overseas Territory Act, Chagossians were granted British citizenship if they were born after April 1969 and before January 1983 to a woman who at that time was a citizen of the UK and Colonies by virtue of her birth in BIOT. Third generation Chagossians born outside BIOT were denied this privilege, splitting families whose older members are British citizens but whose younger members are not.
  • The two main outstanding disputes arising from these events remain the one between the Chagos Islanders and the UK Government over the legality of their removal and whether they have any rights of return; and the dispute between the UK and Mauritius about the UK’s claim to sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago.

How can we characterize these events? Bribery, deception and betrayal leap to mind. In the 1960s the US wanted a base in the Indian Ocean to counter Soviet expansion, so the US offered the UK an $11 million subsidy on the Polaris submarine nuclear deterrent. The payment was kept secret from both the UK Parliament and the US Congress. There have been lies and cover-ups ever since.

Racism also rears its ugly head. British politicians, diplomats and civil servants pretended there were no permanent inhabitants on the island so that their human rights could be ignored. The official record of the period notes the following by no means isolated exchange between a senior official at the Foreign Office and a British diplomat. “The object of the exercise is to get some rocks which will remain ours… There will be no indigenous population except seagulls…” To which the reply was, “Unfortunately along with the birds go some few Tarzans or Man Fridays whose origins are obscure and who are hopefully being wished on to Mauritius.”

Today, the controversy remains unresolved, as anyone can find out by Googling “Chagos Islands”. In 1992 Kevin Bales published his book Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy. In it he wrote:

“Slavery is a booming business and the number of slaves is increasing. People get rich by using slaves. And when they’ve finished with their slaves, they just throw these people away. This is the new slavery, which focuses on big profits and cheap lives. It is not about owning people in the traditional sense of the old slavery, but about controlling them completely. People become completely disposable tools for making money” (p. 4).

Political and economic expediency rides roughshod over human rights and human dignity. Discovering such stories, one realises that journalistic objectivity is one thing, neutrality quite another. One can be objective about the facts, but never neutral about the damage inflicted. This deeply shameful episode in the history of empire demands restitution and redress.

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