Arrested in Diego Garcia

Sean Carey talks to Pete Bouquet about his arrest for entering the waters around Diego Garcia - the

Veteran human rights and environmental campaigners, Pete Bouquet, 59, and Jon Castle, 56, part of the People's Navy, were arrested in the waters around Diego Garcia, the largest and southernmost island in the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), on board their boat , Musichana, on the morning of Saturday, March 8. 

They were protesting about the forced exile of some 2000 people from the Chagos Archipelago between 1968 and 1971 to make way for the US military base. They were deported to Singapore on March 15 before returning to Britain. Here Pete Bouquet, the one-time skipper of Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior, tells Sean Carey what happened.

Q. Was it always your plan to try and land on Diego Garcia?

A. It wasn't in the original plan to get onto Diego - but we never ruled anything out either. The initial idea was to go there and "bear witness" to the mistreatment of the Chagossian people and to the murderous bombing of the Middle East which has taken place from the island. We didn't have any firm plan of exactly how we would do that, to be honest. The deciding factor was the admission (which came co-incidentally towards the end of February as we approached the Chagos islands) by the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, that two so-called "rendition" flights by the US had used the military base on Diego Garcia in 2002. At that point, we felt it was important to travel to the island and tell the British authorities that what they had been involved with was morally wrong - torture is something that can never be justified. We also wanted to let our elected representatives know that we were paying attention to their misdemeanours.

Q. Since 2000, the Chagos islanders have already won twice in the High Court and again last year in the Court of Appeal allowing them the right of return to their homeland. Despite this the British government has insisted on taking the case to the House of Lords later this year. Was the direct action employed by the People’s Navy born out of frustration at the amount of time taken up with the legal process which has effectively blocked the islanders' right of return?

A. Yes, the People’s Navy was born out of frustration. But direct action isn't a lot of use on its own - if there was no legal process or anything else going on it wouldn't work. David McTaggart, a leading figure in the evolution of Greenpeace in Europe who had a huge influence on my thinking, used to say: "Direct action is for people who have got fed up writing to their MP". Direct action often works because it contributes to shaping public opinion and helps to put pressure on politicians. Jon and I both know a lot about this kind of thing because we were both involved in the early days of Greenpeace and sailed on the original Rainbow Warrior. We both firmly believe that it is an individual's responsibility to speak out against wrong-doing and to take action in the Quaker tradition of “bearing witness". A lot of individuals within Greenpeace and elsewhere have helped us - in fact, that's how the People's Navy came into being. Jon and I both know how to sail boats and so we figured we would go to Chagos and see what would happen.

Q. Who arrested you in the waters of Diego Garcia?

A. We never tried to hide what we were doing and so we were arrested by the British authorities less than three miles off the coast of Diego Garcia as we approached the main entrance into the lagoon - it was about 11 o'clock in the morning. The port operations people told us to turn around and exit the area while all the time an American Navy supply ship was keeping an eye on us. We told the authorities that we intended to enter the lagoon as part of a peaceful protest. So they sent out an RHIB (rigid hull inflatable boat) with a BIOT customs officer and a policeman together with an armed Royal Marines escort. We were told we were being arrested by the policeman for being inside the waters of Diego Garcia without permission. We were then put in the cells at the main police station in "Downtown" (that's the name of the bus stop) Diego Garcia. But they treated us really well – everything was very correct and by the book and no one showed us any animosity. They even notified my sister that I had been arrested.

Q. What were you charged with?

A. We went to the Magistrates Court on the following Thursday at 1630 Diego time. Only Jon, as the Captain of the Musichana, was charged. Everyone wore their Sunday best - the magistrate was the base commander and the prosecutor, an army major, was, I would guess, his second-in-command. The prosecutor said his bit - it was all the usual stuff: "Flagrant disregard of the law ...calculated…premeditated lawbreaking ...without integrity ... contempt...cost to the UK taxpayer…etc" - you can fill in the blanks yourself. But the result was that Jon was duly found guilty of "violation of the BIOT Visitors and Visiting Vessels Ordinance 2006" and that that as "master of the vessel named Musichana, which did on the 8th day of March 2008, enter the territorial sea of Diego Garcia" was given a fine of £3000 and ordered to pay costs of £200, to be paid within 7 days. He was also sentenced to 6 months in jail, suspended for one year.

Q. Why did you and Jon decide not to pay the fine and forfeit Musichana? Was it a hard decision to make?

A. We did not want to pay the fine because we felt that to do so would just be like "rolling over". By pleading "not guilty", Jon had the opportunity to address the court and make his point. It was not really a hard decision although, of course, it's disappointing to lose Musichana. But we intend to pursue this.

Q. Did you get the chance to look around Diego Garcia?

A. We were kept under very close supervision and, therefore, could only see a fairly limited amount. But the base and the rest of the military facilities are located on the far north-west corner of the atoll - north of the airfield which has a runway about 3 miles in length. We didn't see any bombers but the lagoon had half a dozen or so anchored military supply vessels. Our general impression was that Diego Garcia wasn't a very busy place. But there's a veritable army of Filipino civilian workers and it's all very tidy. And there are loads of facilities - there is a swimming pool and places where you can go paintballing and play tennis, basketball and baseball as well as take-away pizza and burger places. There is also an open-air cinema and various clubs and bars. It’s all a bit like Disneyland, really. There are not that many British personnel in evidence - maybe 50 or so at a guess.

Q. You also visited some of the outer islands of the Archipelago like Peros Banhos and Salomon which coincided with a recent visit by some Chagossian stonemasons who had been allowed in by the British authorities to make repairs to their ancestors’ graveyards. Did you meet any of them?

A. Yes, we met up with them on both the islands. Jon helped the Chagossians with some of the work on Salomon - I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t join in because I was feeling a bit lazy at the time. They were clearing the graveyard and repairing the stonework on the more badly damaged graves. The Chagossians also built and erected a cross on Peros Banhos. Their Creole and our English were a bit incompatible so we couldn't communicate all that much but they seemed really pleased to be getting on with things.

Q. Some of the Chagossian exiles in Mauritius and the Seychelles would like to return to these outer islands. How feasible do you think this is?

A. The original settlements on both these islands have been totally neglected and ruined. Peros Banhos in particular is totally overgrown. But it's certainly feasible for the islanders to return -- it just needs some money although the British government seems very reluctant to come up with the necessary funds to allow resettlement. The contrast between the state and condition of the outer islands like Peros Banhos and Salomon and Diego Garcia was striking. There's never much a problem finding money for military spending, is there?

Q. You originally intended to present a report to the Chagossians in Mauritius - you didn't get to sail to Port Louis so is there a sense that there is still unfinished business on your side?

As far as Jon and I are concerned there will always be unfinished business until the Chagossians are allowed to return to their homeland and the military leave the islands for good. If we feel that there is anything we can do in a practical way then we'll go back. The People's Navy is also working on plans for more boats to go to the islands. Let’s just see how things develop.

Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM), Surrey University

ALEXEI FATEEV/ALAMY
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The Catalan cauldron

The prospect of the break-up of Spain poses yet another challenge to Europe.

As Britain prepares to mark the centenary of the bloodiest battle in the First World War, the Somme, in July, Spain is bracing itself for an even more traumatic anniversary. In July 2016 it will be 80 years since the start of a civil war that tore the country apart and continues to divide it today. In the four decades since the return of democracy in the mid-1970s, Spaniards slowly inched towards rejecting the extreme violence of the Francoist right (and elements of the opposing left) as well as acceptance of various federal arrangements to accommodate the national sentiments of the Basques and Catalans, whose aspirations Franco had so brutally suppressed. In recent years, however, this consensus has been called fundamentally into question, with severe potential consequences not only for the unity of Spain, but the cohesion of the European Union.

On 27 October 2015, after the Catalan elections, the new parliament in Barcelona passed a declaration requesting the start of a formal secession process from Spain, to be in place in 18 months. The immediate reaction of Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, was to announce that the state was entitled “to use any available judicial and political mechanism contained in the constitution and in the laws to defend the sovereignty of the Spanish people and of the general interest of Spain”. The preamble to the constitution proclaims the Spanish nation’s desire to “protect all Spaniards and the peoples of Spain in exercising their ­human rights, their cultures and traditions, languages and institutions”. Probably the most disputed articles are 2 and 8, which state, respectively, that “the constitution is based upon the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation, common and indivisible patria of all Spaniards” and that “the army’s mission is to guarantee the sovereignty and independence of Spain, to defend its territorial integrity and the constitutional set-up”. Rajoy’s implication was clear: the unity of the country would be maintained, if necessary by military means.

It was Madrid, however, that broke with the federal consensus some years ago and thus boosted secessionist sentiment in Catalonia. José María Aznar’s government (1996-2004) failed to respond to demands for greater autonomy for Catalonia, at a time when secession was not even mentioned. This led to an increasing awareness among Catalans that the federal transfer system within Spain left them with an annual deficit of 8 per cent of Catalonia’s GDP because of the financial arrangements established by the Spanish state, an issue aggravated by the effect of the global financial crisis. Catalan nationalism thus became a matter of not only the heart, but also the pocket. Even more important was the Spanish legal challenge to the Statute of Autonomy of Catalonia 2006 and its subsequent dilution, after it had been sanctioned by the Catalan parliament, and by both the Spanish congress of deputies and the senate, not to mention the Catalan people in a legally binding referendum.

According to the Spanish high court of justice, some of the statute’s content did not comply with the Spanish constitution. This outraged many Catalans, who could not understand how the newly approved statute – after following all the procedures and modifications requested by Spain’s political institutions and constitution – could still be challenged. Four years later, the Spanish high court finally delivered its verdict on 28 June 2010. It removed vital points from the Statute of Autonomy 2006 and declared them non-constitutional. All this led to a revival of Catalan nationalism, culminating in a symbolic, non-binding referendum in November 2014, which was boycotted by opponents and produced a majority of 80 per cent in favour of independence.

The roots of this antagonism go deep, to the civil war that broke out on 17-18 July 1936 when some sectors of the army rebelled against the legitimate government of the Second Republic. The rebels rejected democracy, the party system, separation between church and state, and the autonomy of Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia. Their primary objective was to re-establish “order” by eliminating all vestiges of communism and anarchism, then quite strong in some parts of Spain.

High on the list of General Franco’s targets was Catalan nationalism, which had been growing since the late 19th century. The industrialisation of Catalonia and the Basque Country left the most economically developed parts of the Spanish state politically subject to the less prosperous Castile. By the end of the 19th century and influenced by German Romanticism, la Renaixença – a movement for national and cultural renaissance – prompted demands for Catalan autonomy, first in the form of regionalism
and later in demands for a federal state.

Catalan nationalism did not emerge as a unified phenomenon. Diverse political ideologies and cultural influences gave rise to various types of nationalism, from the conservative nationalism of Jaime Balmes to the federalism of Francesc Pi i Margall, to the Catholic nationalism of Bishop Torres i Bages and the Catalan Marxism of Andreu Nin, among others. Catalonia enjoyed some autonomy under the administrative government of the Mancomunitat or “commonwealth” from 1913 onwards. This was halted by the 1923 coup d’état of the dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera. Autonomy was granted again during the Second Spanish Republic from 1931-39 – but abolished by Francisco Franco’s decree of 5 April 1938.

Franco’s victory led to the suppression of Catalan political institutions, the banning of the Catalan language and proscription of all the symbolic elements of Catalan identity, from the national flag (the Senyera) to the national anthem (“Els Segadors”). In February 1939, the institutions of the autonomous Generalitat went into exile in France. In 1940 the Gestapo arrested the president of the Generalitat, Lluís Companys, and handed him over to Spanish officials. He was interrogated and tortured in Madrid, then sent to Barcelona, where he was court-martialled and executed at Montjuïc Castle on 15 October 1940. The most important representatives of the democratic parties banned by the regime went into exile, or were imprisoned or executed. The authoritarian state designed by Franco crushed dissent and used brute power to suppress the historical nations included within its territory. The regime’s aim was to annihilate the Catalans and the Basques as nations.

***

After almost 40 years of Franco’s dictatorship, Catalonia recovered its government, the Generalitat, in 1977 – before the drafting of the Spanish constitution in 1978 – and sanctioned a new statute of autonomy in 1979. The 2006 statute was expected, at the time, to update and expand Catalans’ aspiration for further devolution within Spain: never secession.

At present, a renewed nostalgia and enthusiasm for Francoism can be found among some sections of the Spanish right. One of the main challenges of the newly democratic government from the mid-1970s onwards was to get rid of the symbols of Francoism that had divided Spaniards between “winners” and “losers” in the civil war. It was only in 2007 that the then prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, guided the Law of Historic Memory through parliament with the aim of removing hundreds of Fascist symbols reminiscent of the Franco era from public buildings. It also sought to make reparations to victims of the civil war and the ensuing dictatorship.

There still exist hundreds of other references to the Fascist regime, however, with streets, colleges and roads named after Franco and his generals. The most controversial of these is the Valle de los Caídos (“Valley of the Fallen”), near Madrid, commissioned by Franco as his final resting place. It supposedly honours the civil war dead, but is primarily a monument to the general and his regime, housing the graves of Franco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the fascist Falange political party. Roughly 450,000 people visit it every year, and while most of them are foreign tourists, groups of Falangists and supporters of the old regime who come to pay tribute to the dictator have frequented it. Nostalgics for Francoism, though still a small minority within modern Spain, are becoming vociferous. They find common ground with far-right-wing conservatism, particularly in their shared aversion to federalism.

On 3 August last year Artur Mas, the then president of Catalonia, called an extraordinary parliamentary election after all attempts to negotiate and agree on a legally binding referendum with the Spanish government failed. Supporters of independence immediately announced that the forthcoming Catalan elections would be regarded as a plebiscite on independence.

On a turnout of more than three-quarters of the electorate, supporters of outright independence gained 48 per cent of the vote, while those backing a unitary state secured 39 per cent. On 9 November 2015 the Catalan parliament formally declared the start of the process leading to building an independent Catalan state in the form of a republic. It also proclaimed the beginning of a participative, open, integrating and active citizens’ constituent process to lay the foundations for a future Catalan constitution. The Catalan government vowed to move forward with its secession process. Immediately, the Spanish Constitutional Court suspended the Catalan law setting out a path to independence and warned that defiance could lead to criminal charges.

Worse still for Madrid, secessionism is gaining strength not only in Catalonia but also in the Basque Country, whose premier, Iñigo Urkullu, demands a “legal consultation” on the northern region’s future in Spain. He supports a new statute for the Basque Country and defends its status as a nation in the EU. Similarly to Catalonia, the Basque Country has a distinct language and culture, and benefits from the so-called concierto económico, an advantageous financial deal with the Spanish state.

***

The Spanish government’s refusal to engage constructively with Catalan nationalism contrasts markedly with London’s more relaxed and ultimately more successful response to Scottish nationalist aspirations. The “Edinburgh Agreement” between the British Prime Minister and the then first minister of Scotland to allow a binding referendum on Scottish independence stands in sharp contrast to the Spanish government’s outright opposition to a similar vote in Catalonia. Basques and Catalans find deaf ears regarding further devolution and binding referendums on self-determination. This highlights the distance between various conceptions of democracy that coexist inside the European Union, rooted in the diverse political cultures of nations with varying historical backgrounds.

All this matters, not only to Spain but to the EU, because it is part of a broad trend across the continent. In mainland Europe, demands for self-determination are running strong in Flanders as well as parts of Spain. In turn, tensions between Italy and Austria over control of South Tyrol (Trentino Alto Adige, to the Italians) remain high, as do demands advanced by the South Tyrol­ean secessionist movement. Bavarian regionalism is critical of the present German (and European) political order. Further to that, modern Venetian nationalism and its long-standing demands for independence have prompted a renewal of Venetian as a language taught in schools and spoken by almost four million people.

Matters are now coming to a head. Catalonia and Spain are in flux following two inconclusive elections. In January, after a prolonged stand-off, the sitting Catalan president, Artur Mas, made way for a fellow nationalist, Carles Puigdemont. He was the first to take the oath of office without making the traditional oath of loyalty to the Spanish constitution and the king. Felipe VI, in turn, did not congratulate Puigdemont.

The new president has announced that he plans to draw up a constitution, to be voted on in a referendum “to constitute the Catalan Republic” at the end of an 18-month consultation process. Puigdemont’s strategy envisages not a dramatic unilateral declaration
of independence, but a more gradual process of disconnection in constant dialogue with the Spanish government and Catalan political parties. Let no one be deceived by this “softly-softly” approach: it is designed to culminate, in a year and a half, perhaps sooner, in a vote on establishing a separate, sovereign state of Catalonia.

Meanwhile, Spanish politics are in flux. The elections to the Cortes on 20 December 2015 resulted in a victory for Conservatism, but also the most fragmented Spanish parliament ever and, as yet, no government. Almost the only thing the Spanish parties can agree on is opposition to Catalan independence, yet even here there are divisions over whether more autonomy should be granted and what response to make to unilateral moves by the Catalans.

The stakes are high for both sides. By pressing too hard, too early, Catalan nationalists may provoke Madrid. This would be a mistake. Strategy is important and recent events in Catalonia will weaken the Catalans’ democratic, peaceful and legitimate desire to hold a referendum on independence. Likewise, a heavy-handed response from Madrid will not only destroy the residual bonds between centre and periphery in Spain, but put the central government in the dock internationally. A confrontation will also cut across the only possible solution to this and all other national conflicts within the eurozone, which is full continental political union. Full union would render the separation of Catalonia from Spain as irrelevant to the functioning of the EU, and the inhabitants of both areas, as the separation of West Virginia from Virginia proper in the United States today.

In a nightmare scenario, radicalisation and unrest could emerge in Catalonia, with division between Catalans and memories of the Spanish Civil War coming to the fore. In this context, it might become very difficult to prevent violence.

This is the last thing that Brussels wants to hear as it grapples with the euro crisis, Russian territorial revisionism, Islamist terror, the migrant question and the prospect of Brexit. A meltdown in Catalonia will create dilemmas for Europe, starting from problems with Schengen, and raise questions about continued membership of the EU. It will also work against Catalans’ expectations of receiving EU support in their quest for independence, as turmoil in Europe will prompt nation states to close ranks. The EU will not be expected to intervene, because this scenario would – at least initially – be defined as an “internal affair of Spain”. Conflict between Barcelona and Madrid would shatter one of Europe’s biggest member states.

In that event, the peninsula will become the hottest point in an emerging “arc of crisis” across the southern flank of the EU, stretching from Portugal across Spain, an Italy struggling along with everything else to cope with the flow of migrants, the troubled Balkans, to Greece, which is perpetually perturbed. This highlights yet another flaw in the EU. It has no institutional framework for dealing with Catalan demands to become a nation within the Union, or those of other populations. Merely insisting on Spanish state sovereignty will not make the problem go away for Brussels, or for Europe as a whole. This is a potential matter of life and death not only for Spaniards and Catalans, but perhaps for the EU itself.

Brendan Simms is the director of the Forum on Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge and president of the Project for Democratic Union Montserrat Guibernau is a visiting scholar in the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge and a member of the Forum on Geopolitics

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater