A US embassy cable, released by WikiLeaks last week, revealed the real reason why a British territory in the Indian Ocean was designated a “marine-protected area” (MPA) earlier this year.
The leaked documents show that the MPA had been dreamt up by Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials to preserve the Chagos Archipelago – officially part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) and and home to one of the world’s most abundant coral reefs – as a military outpost, and prevent the native Chagossians from returning.
The indigenous population of the archipelago was deported in the late 1960s and early 1970s to enable the US to build a military base on Diego Garcia, the largest of the islands and home to most of their inhabitants. Britain paid £3m to the Mauritian government in compensation after excising the archipelago, with the proviso that the territories would be returned when they were “no longer needed for defence purposes”.
After pointing out that the islands’ strategic usefulness would not be hampered by the establishment of a marine reserve, the cable goes on to state that “the BIOT’s former inhabitants would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands”.
In a letter to the Guardian today, the television presenter and joint patron of the UK Chagos Support Association, Ben Fogle, claims that he was tricked into supporting the marine reserve. He writes:
As a long-term advocate of conservation, I am horrified that the UK government has used this to keep the islanders from returning to their rightful home, and that I was duped into supporting the creation of the marine sanctuary under false pretences.
Meanwhile, the Mauritian prime minister, Dr Navin Ramgoolam, told fellow parliamentarians yesterday that his government was carefully considering its options to counter the unilateral declaration of the marine-protected area. The MPA was instituted on 1 April – despite an undertaking from the then British prime minister, Gordon Brown, and his foreign secretary, David Miliband, that the Mauritian government would be consulted.
Ramgoolam said this was particularly important, given that the UK’s coalition government has shown no sign of deviating from the course set by the previous government “about the MPA and the sovereignty of Mauritius over the Chagos Archipelago”.
He continued: “With regard to the marine-protected area, it is now clear, in light of what WikiLeaks revealed last week, that there is a Machiavellian agenda behind this project, to prevent the Chagossians [from returning] to their homeland and to defer discussion on the sovereignty of Mauritius indefinitely, as I have always maintained. Ce qui prouve, à ce stade, que notre position était justifiée!“
Nick Leake, the new British high commissioner to Mauritius, probably thought he had got a posting to paradise when he took up the position in June. He must have other thoughts after being summoned to appear at the ministry of foreign affairs in Port Louis this week to explain the duplicitous behaviour of the British government. He won’t get a comfortable ride from the foreign minister, Dr Arvin Boolell.
These revelations did not come as a surprise to Olivier Bancoult. One of a lost generation of Chagossians, born on Peros Banhos, an island in the archipelago, to a family of refugees, Bancoult grew up to become the most prominent activist on behalf of this forgotten people. He was one of the founders of the Chagos Refugees Group, and eventually he took the British government to court.
He began legal proceedings against the UK government in 1998 and won a series of judgments at the high court and Court of Appeal before losing his case by a narrow 3-2 majority in the House of Lords in 2008.
“It’s all very consistent with the way British officials have behaved towards us in the past,” he told me, speaking from his home in the Mauritian capital. “Our fundamental rights have been trampled upon for years.”
Nevertheless, he thinks that the WikiLeaks cable might be the smoking gun the Chagossians need. The new evidence of the real reasoning behind the establishment of the MPA has significant implications for the Chagossians’ case, which is before the European Court of Human Rights.
“This is very important for our cause and we have instructed our lawyers to submit the new evidence contained in the WikiLeak to the court in Strasbourg,” he continued.
Bancoult also revealed that he and other Chagossians has been inundated with messages of support from well-wishers, both in Mauritius and elsewhere, since the WikiLeak was released. And like many others, including no doubt the 42 members of the Chagos all-party parliamentary group in Britain, he is particularly keen to know more about the clearly racist reference to the Chagos Islanders as “Man Fridays” used by Colin Roberts, commissioner for the BIOT.
“This is very shameful for the British government,” says Bancoult. “I am going to ask Henry Bellingham [the Foreign Office minister responsible for Africa and British overseas territories], who I met a few months back when I came to London, whether he approves of the use of this sort of language.
“This is not a way to treat people. We are human beings – we should not be insulted in this way.”
Dr Sean Carey is research fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM), Roehampton University.