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Diego Garcia revisited

Veteran human rights and environmental campaigners, Pete Bouquet, 60, and Jon Castle, 57, part of the People's Navy, were arrested on their boat, Musichana, in the waters around Diego Garcia, the largest and southernmost island in the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), on 8 March 2008. 

They were protesting about the forced exile by the British authorities of some 2000 people from the Chagos Archipelago between 1968 and 1971 to make way for the US military base. They were fined £3000 for "a flagrant disregard for the law" and had their boat confiscated before being deported on a US military flight to Singapore on 15 March 2008.

Do you know where your boat, Musichana, is now?

As far as I know Musichana is still in Diego Garcia. When we arrived back to the UK solicitor Richard Harvey very kindly offered his advice and help and so we appealed to the BIOT Commissioner to grant us a pardon as we would have liked to have given the boat to the Chagossians to use as they saw fit. However, the request for a pardon was refused and as always it comes down to money so we haven't been able to pursue it.

Since your expulsion from Diego Garcia have you ever had any face-to-face meetings with personnel from the BIOT section of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office or have all your communications been conducted through the Royal Mail?

I have never met anyone from the BIOT face-to-face although I would certainly like to. In fact, that was an important aspect of our trip to Diego Garcia -- we were able to meet some of the people involved and talk to them informally. I've always found that once you are able to talk to people face-to-face the dynamic of communication changes. I met some very honest and thoughtful (and, indeed, sympathetic) human beings on Diego Garcia, whereas the BIOT people in London remain faceless and anonymous hiding behind emails, faxes and formal letters. Sad to say that there’s no way to reach them, to really communicate with them.

Did this experience give you any insight about how the Foreign & Commonwealth Office works?

Yes, sadly it did. I can see how and why institutions such as the FCO are able to act the way they do. No one really takes responsibility for what they have done or what they are doing. The hierarchy and structure (as in all large organisations and bureaucracy) takes care of its own and what you must never do (to survive) is to think for yourself. This is how governments are able to commit great crimes and get away with it.

What does your experience reveal about the politics and effectiveness of direct action?

A person bearing witness must accept responsibility for being aware of an injustice. You can choose to do something or stand by – but you cannot turn away in ignorance. We have to keep trying. Every "victory" for human rights, the environment, and real justice is hard won and difficult to achieve. History shows us that it has to be dragged like blood out of a stone from political elites.

Are you satisfied with what you achieved with the People's Navy?

I’m satisfied that our voyage went as planned and we were able to get to Diego Garcia – to stand on the soil of the island and to tell the authorities there that they have and are continuing to break UK and International law. I was also very pleased about the amount of help and support we had from people from all over the world and from all walks of life.

But we had also hoped that our voyage might attract the notice of a rich benefactor or rich organisation that would come forward and lend or give us a ship for the Chagossians. This has not happened yet – although there’s still time! We would use a ship for the islanders in whatever way they wanted really to make trips back to the Chagos Islands or for the beginnings of resettlement. It would be relatively easy to manage a vessel like that if it was based in Mauritius.

But I am bitterly disappointed that the Law Lords ruled, albeit by a narrow margin, in favour of the Government and, therefore, we (collectively) failed the Chagossians yet again.

If you could do it all again would you employ the same tactics, or would you do it differently?

There is not a lot of choice in tactics of direct action -- it’s not rocket science! But we are always so restricted by finance. For instance, Musichana was very generously signed over to me by the previous owner specifically for a voyage to Chagos in order to bear witness. I also very much regret that I had to break my undertaking to the Foreign & Commonwealth Office about not visiting Diego Garcia - but I am even more regretful and ashamed by the UK Government admission in February last year about the use of Diego Garcia for rendition flights which prompted me to do that.

I understand that you have decided to wind up the People's Navy.

It was a difficult decision to make. But during the trip back from Aden to Turkey with my son Sam on Cindik (which only got as far as the southern Red Sea last year) a few weeks ago we discussed the issue at great length. We decided that none of us who were involved in the voyages last year have the skills or time to devote the attention to the issue that it really requires. But we should be able to resurrect the People's Navy if it's necessary.

Apart from those in the military and employment on the US base you're one of the very few people to have set foot on Diego Garcia in recent years. Has the experience left any lasting impression on you?

Of course, it’s an amazing place. For instance I was so unprepared for the clarity of the sea water, that when we were first anchored off Peros Banhos, one of the other islands in the Chagos Archiplelago, I actually had the optical allusion that we were aground! But my overall impression and conviction is that the US base on Diego Garcia is wrong and that similar militaristic ventures are totally and absolutely wrong too. The presence of the military in large numbers anywhere despoils and degrades the environment as a whole-- look even at Plymouth as an example – and that’s quite apart from the destruction and havoc which their very existence is designed to perpetrate. The Diego Garcia base is alien and horrible. The quisling-like British complicity in it, from the red telephone kiosk in the airport arrival area to the fact that UK personnel have to cadge flights off the Americans, is shameful and degrading. The Chagossians should be allowed to return and the base should be closed.

Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow at CRONEM, Roehampton University.