Friday, December 31, 2004

Diego Garcia: The Right to Return

Many of the reports on the tsunami that killed more than 120,000 people briefly mention Diego Garcia, an island of the Chagos archipelago. Diego Garcia "suffered no damage" due to its favorable undersea topography (Leo Shane III, "Diego Garcia Navy Base Reports No Damage from Quake, Tsunamis," Stars and Stripes, December 28, 2004). It is also one of the few places in the Indian Ocean region that received a warning from American officials at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center.

None of the reports on the tsunami, however, reminds us that Diego Garcia is one of the locations where the CIA has been hiding its secret detainees, torturing them through such "stress and duress" measures as sleep deprivation and painful shackling, and "rendering" the uncooperative among them to foreign intelligence services (e.g., in Jordan, Morocco, and Syria) to which Washington outsources its harshest tortures:
The off-limits patch of ground at Bagram is one of a number of secret detention centers overseas where U.S. due process does not apply, according to several U.S. and European national security officials, where the CIA undertakes or manages the interrogation of suspected terrorists. Another is Diego Garcia, a somewhat horseshoe-shaped island in the Indian Ocean that the United States leases from Britain.

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In contrast to the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, where military lawyers, news reporters and the Red Cross received occasional access to monitor prisoner conditions and treatment, the CIA's overseas interrogation facilities are off-limits to outsiders, and often even to other government agencies. In addition to Bagram and Diego Garcia, the CIA has other secret detention centers overseas, and often uses the facilities of foreign intelligence services. (Dana Priest and Barton Gellman, "U.S. Decries Abuse but Defends Interrogations: 'Stress and Duress' Tactics Used on Terrorism Suspects Held in Secret Overseas Facilities," Washington Post, December 26, 2002, p. A1)
The circumstances under which Washington obtained leases to Diego Garcia -- eventually turning it into a satellite spy station, a staging ground for air strikes against Iraq, and a secret detention facility -- are little known in the United States. John Pilger calls the expulsion of the Chagos islanders from Diego Garcia to make way for the US military a "crime [that] tells us how a whole system works behind its democratic facade":
During the 1960s, in high secrecy, the Labour government of Harold Wilson conspired with two American administrations to "sweep" and "sanitise" the islands: the words used in American documents. Files found in the National Archives in Washington and the Public Record Office in London provide an astonishing narrative of official lying all too familiar to those who have chronicled the lies over Iraq.

To get rid of the population, the Foreign Office invented the fiction that the islanders were merely transient contract workers who could be "returned" to Mauritius, 1,000 miles away. In fact, many islanders traced their ancestry back five generations, as their cemeteries bore witness. The aim, wrote a Foreign Office official in January 1966, "is to convert all the existing residents ... into short-term, temporary residents."

What the files also reveal is an imperious attitude of brutality. In August 1966, Sir Paul Gore-Booth, permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, wrote: "We must surely be very tough about this. The object of the exercise was to get some rocks that will remain ours. There will be no indigenous population except seagulls." At the end of this is a handwritten note by DH Greenhill, later Baron Greenhill: "Along with the Birds go some Tarzans or Men Fridays ..." Under the heading, "Maintaining the fiction", another official urges his colleagues to reclassify the islanders as "a floating population" and to "make up the rules as we go along".

There is not a word of concern for their victims. Only one official appeared to worry about being caught, writing that it was "fairly unsatisfactory" that "we propose to certify the people, more or less fraudulently, as belonging somewhere else". The documents leave no doubt that the cover-up was approved by the prime minister and at least three cabinet ministers. ("Paradiese Cleansed," The Guardian, October 2, 2004)

Charlézia Alexis
Charlézia Alexis and thousands of other exiles may never be able to return to the land Britain stole from them. (Photo courtesy of L'Express newspaper, Mauritius)

In 2000, the High Court ruled the eviction illegal, but the same court denied the islanders compensation in 2003. Worst of all, last June, the British government invoked a "orders in council, a remnant of the once all-powerful royal prerogative" (Ewen MacAskill, "Return of Diego Garcia Islanders Blocked," The Guardian, June 17, 2004) to ban the islanders "forever from returning home" (Pilger, October 2, 2004).

It says much about the relation of imperialism and social democracy that it is the Labour Party that is responsible for both expelling the Chagos islanders in the 1960s and early 1970s and blocking the islanders' right to return today.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i've taken up your post and linked to it at: Tsunma Tragedy Blog.
Earlier posting takes up Diego Garcia thus: