The UK's role in Diego Garcia: green fingers or red faces?

Sean Carey talks to Peter H Sand about his new book, United States and Britain in Diego Garcia.

Can you tell me more about the Marine Protection Area that the UK government is considering setting up around the Chagos islands?

Over the past six years, there has been an extraordinary scramble for ocean space by several big powers, all claiming jurisdiction far beyond their national territorial waters under the noble pretext of nature conservation. In April 2003, French President Chirac declared a 60-mile "ecological protection zone" in the Mediterranean, followed in September 2003 by the British Prime Minister Blair's proclamation of a 200-mile "environment protection and preservation zone" in the Chagos Archipelago, only to be outdone in June 2006 and January 2009 by US President Bush proclaiming several even larger "national marine monuments" around US atolls in the Pacific Ocean.

When I started to do research on all those new "green" ocean reserves, it turned out that most of them happened to enclose or adjoin some strategically important military bases - such as Guam, Wake, Johnston and Midway in the Pacific, or Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. That's what aroused my curiosity about the real motives behind this sudden wave of big-power environmentalism.

I'm still amazed by the number of otherwise politically literate people in the UK and the US who have little or no idea about the whereabouts of Diego Garcia, the fate that befell the people who once lived there, or know anything about the marathon legal process involved in trying to get at least some of them back to their homeland. Earlier this year, for example, Vince Cable told me that awareness of issues related to the Chagos Archipelago among his fellow parliamentarians was, as he put it, "close to zero". Was this one of the reasons that you decided to write a book on the subject?

Absolutely - public awareness is the prerequisite for democratic control of governments in any country. Mind you, ignorance is even more widespread in the United States: according to Noam Chomsky of MIT, Diego Garcia, arguably one of the most important and certainly one of the most expensive American bases overseas, is virtually "unknown in the US". Hopefully, that may change after publication of the new book by David Vine, Island of Shame: The Secret History of the US Military Base on Diego Garcia (Princeton University Press 2009), which has already made it onto the front page of the New York Review of Books.

How easy was it to obtain research material for your book?

Quite difficult because of the cloak of secrecy hanging over those bases. After several formal appeals under the US Freedom of Information Act, I did obtain a number of unpublished reports on Diego Garcia from the legal office of the US Navy, but was denied access to others. By contrast, the Administration of the British Indian Ocean Territory informed me that "the UK Freedom of Information Act has not been extended to the overseas territories".

Are there still significant questions which need to be answered?

Lots, I'm afraid. For example, the US navy has for many years now conducted low-to-medium-frequency underwater sound operations for submarine monitoring at Diego Garcia, which are proven to have harmful and possibly lethal effects on marine mammals such as whales and dolphins. Yet, even though the Chagos Archipelago is part of the International Whaling Commission's Indian Ocean Sanctuary, there has never been an investigation of those environmental impacts by either British or American scientists.

You write that 550 tons of low-grade uranium was transported from Iraq to Diego Garcia in 2008, which posed a considerable risk of nuclear contamination. This is in addition to the routine movement of nuclear-tipped missiles to and from the island. Yet neither the US nor the UK carries out any monitoring of radiation in the area. Why?

For more than 20 years now, the Diego Garcia lagoon has accommodated US nuclear-powered submarines. It is well-recorded that submarines of the same class have experienced radiation leakages, for example, in Japanese ports, as recently as 2006-2008. To undertake measurements now would obviously raise embarrassing questions about the origin of any radioactive contamination in the lagoon and about the operational safety of those subs.

You also highlight the disturbance to Diego Garcia's ecosystem by several oil spills made by the US military. Can you say something about the implications of this?

There was a series of major jet fuel spills from the huge storage tanks at Diego in 1984, 1991 (160,000 gallons lost), 1997 and 1998, which were not widely publicised. Some 70,000 gallons of fuel were later pumped back from the ground for direct re-use in the power plant of the base; but as of 2004, the spills had still not been fully cleared up. Since then no further information on fuel spills or their remediation has been disclosed.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and organisations such as the Chagos Conservation Trust are keen to stress the connection between the "pristine qualities" of the British Indian Ocean Territory and the absence of large numbers of people in the region as an important part of their argument that it should become part of a relatively unpopulated Marine Protection Area. Should we buy into this?

Most conservationists would of course prefer a nature protection site to be wholly unpopulated, which explains the reluctance of the British Chagos Conservation Trust to support any permanent resettlement of the outer islands. Yet there are detailed sensible proposals on record that would allow for environmentally sustainable settlements on those islands, and that have indeed been endorsed by the exiled Chagos islanders wishing to return.

What are the implications of global warming and rising sea levels for the US base on Diego Garcia as well as the long-term health of the Chagos Archipelago?

According to a 2007 Washington think-tank report (by a blue-chip panel of 11 retired US admirals and generals), the Diego Garcia base - because of its low average elevation of 1.3 metres above sea-level - is considered the prime example of a "losing place" in the face of global sea-level rise over the next 30 to 40 years. The other major threat for the Chagos is the long-term prospect of coral extinction, due to the rising temperature and acidity of the archipelago's seawater.

The Chagos islanders lost their case against the British government when it was heard before the House of Lords last year by a narrow 3:2 majority which means that they are still banned from returning to their homeland. The case is now before the European Court of Human Rights although, interestingly, the British government announced a few weeks ago that it would contest the case rather than coming to a "friendly settlement" as the court suggested. How do you interpret this?

The majority decision in 2008 was a narrow one indeed; and the dissenting opinions were powerful, if ultimately unsuccessful. There is a reasonable chance, however, that the Chagos islanders will prevail against Whitehall before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Nobody really expected the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to make a U-turn at this stage, after having already spent more than £2.5m of tax-payers' money on legal costs for fighting the Chagos islanders in British courts. By the way, the US Government spent a similar amount to refuse compensation to the islanders in US judicial proceedings right up to the Supreme Court from 2001 to 2007. Litigation before the Strasbourg Court may well take years, and the bill will inevitably go up again, though this time with an open outcome beyond their Lordships' control.

The UK has conceded that the Chagos Islands will be "ceded" to Mauritius at some point in the future "when they are no longer needed for defence purposes". However, one is tempted to say that without a specific date this is simply an empty verbal formula devoid of any substantive meaning. Certainly the Americans don't look as if they're leaving Diego Garcia any time soon. How do you see it?

It is encouraging to see that a number of people, both in the UK and the US, are now asking the question whether at least the "outer" Chagos islands (all of which are more than 200 kilometres north of Diego Garcia) are actually needed for UK/US defence purposes at all.

The US says that the issue of sovereignty of the Chagos Archipelago is a matter for Britain and Mauritius to sort out. Do you think that this policy is likely to change under the Obama administration?

While I sincerely hope that President Obama will eventually recognise the plight of the Chagos Islanders and not stand in the way of their return to the outer islands, it would be naive to assume that the US will accept cohabitation with the Chagossians on its most valuable strategic base on Diego Garcia, at the very moment when confrontations in the region continue or - God forbid - escalate vis-à-vis Iran. And whoever occupies the White House will be Machiavellian enough to secure that base by dealing with whoever can rightfully hold the Chagos, be it Britain or Mauritius.

United States and Britain in Diego Garcia: The Future of a Controversial Base by Peter H Sand is published by Palgrave Macmillan, £50.

Peter H Sand is lecturer in international environmental law at the University of Munich, Germany. He is a former legal adviser for the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.

Sean Carey is research fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM) at Roehampton University.

A version of this piece originally appeared in the Mauritius Times