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25 February 2008

The truth about rendition

An apology by David Miliband over the use of UK territory in US rendition flights leaves questions a

By Sean Carey

At any one time, there are three or four British policemen on the island of Diego Garcia. Ostensibly they are there to maintain law and order in this tropical, palm-fringed part of the British Indian Ocean Territory.

In reality, they confine themselves to confiscating pornographic DVDs and drugs from the island’s population of 3,500 which is made up of 1,000 US military personnel and 2,500 civilian workers – all but three of whom come from the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

What the members of the Royal Overseas Police certainly haven’t been doing is collecting evidence about the use of the island’s military base for the CIA’s practice of extraordinary rendition.

Last week David Miliband was obliged to make a humiliating apology to MPs after it emerged that – contrary to previous government statements from Tony Blair, Jack Straw, Kim Howells and Lord Malloch-Brown – two CIA flights carrying rendition suspects did, in fact, land at Diego Garcia in 2002.

Miliband stated that the two detainees remained on board the planes while refuelling took place and neither was subject to torture by “waterboarding” or any other method.

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US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice who had previously issued a denial on British TV in 2005 about the use of British facilities for rendition contacted the foreign secretary to apologise for the “administrative error”.

In the Commons, Miliband denied that there was any sort of cover up and stated that he believed that the US had acted “in good faith”. But Gordon Brown on a visit to an EU summit in Brussels expressed his disapproval stating he viewed the matter as “a very serious issue”.

Relations between London and Washington are now said to be strained.

But the big surprise is that the news of the CIA flights came as a surprise to the prime minister and his foreign secretary. It certainly shouldn’t have done. As long ago as 2004, retired four-star General Barry McCaffrey – a veteran of the first Gulf War and now a professor at the West Point military academy – made a claim on US national public radio which he repeated in 2006 that there was a prison facility for “high value” terrorist suspects on Diego Garcia.

The allegations were also the subject of discussion at a session of the Foreign Affairs Committee investigating the British Indian Ocean Territory in January.

Two obvious questions then: if this wasn’t true why would someone of McCaffrey’s history and status make it up? And why didn’t the British government conduct an in-depth investigation when the general made his first (and second) statement?

Diego Garcia, a horseshoe-shaped coral atoll running 35 miles from tip to tip, is home to one of the most strategically important US bases and along with those on the American mainland and the Pacific island of Guam provides a world-wide security umbrella.

The 60 plus islands in the Chagos archipelago were illegally detached from the colony of Mauritius in 1965 before the country’s independence in 1968 under a deal struck between the US and Harold Wilson’s Labour government at the height of the Cold War.

The islands were then made the subject of a compulsory purchase order and the freehold passed to the Crown. The 2000 or so islanders who lived in the archipelago were forcibly removed by the British authorities between 1968 and 1971 and dumped in Mauritius and the Seychelles.
Once this process was completed, the largest and southernmost island in the group, Diego Garcia, was made available rent-free by the British authorities to the US military for its military base.

Successive British governments, both Labour and Conservative, then attempted to cover their tracks by pretending that the islanders whose ancestors had originally arrived on the islands in the late eighteenth century were merely “temporary workers” who had been repatriated to their places of origin.

The plight of the Chagossians was ignored for many years until news of what had happened was first reported in the Washington Post in 1975. The story was then picked up by other sections of the world’s media.

The British government worried about the increasing amount of adverse publicity felt obliged to act and, after a series of paltry offers which were rejected, eventually paid adults £2500 in compensation with minors receiving £1500 to the Chagossians in Mauritius (although not those in the Seychelles) in “full and final settlement of all claims… with no admission of responsibility” in 1982.

The settlement was not a success. Many Chagossians had run up big debts and were exploited by local moneylenders who pocketed most of the available compensation.

And it has now become evident that the Creole-speaking islanders, many of whom were illiterate, did not realise that by signing the agreement, which had been drawn up in English and framed in a highly legalistic language, they were giving up their right of return to their homeland.

In recent years, there has been considerable embarrassment in government circles about the treatment of the Chagossians which is widely acknowledged as one of the most shameful episodes in recent British colonial history.

Indeed, at one time, it looked like the islanders might be allowed back to some of the outer islands which lie around 120 miles north of Diego Garcia. Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State in the Clinton administration, was known to be sympathetic to the islanders’ return.

In 2000, the then Foreign Secretary, the late Robin Cook, commissioned a study looking at the feasibility of resettlement. The first draft of the report stated that up to 1000 islanders could go back immediately without encountering too many problems.

But with Cook’s departure from the foreign office and his replacement by Jack Straw there was a distinct change of mood and policy. This was influenced by changes on the other side of the Atlantic after President George W. Bush took charge in 2001, especially with heightened security fears after the 9/11 attacks.

This effect was compounded by Tony Blair’s decision to “stand shoulder-to-shoulder” with the US in the so-called War on Terror.

In 2002, an official report from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office stated that resettlement was no longer feasible – the financial costs and rising sea levels were two factors cited.

Interestingly, lawyers representing the Chagossians who had asked to see the original draft of the report under the Freedom of Information Act were shocked to be told that all copies had been destroyed by Foreign Office officials.

Members of the Foreign Affairs Committee have been told there are “no physical, economic or environmental reasons” why resettlement on two of the larger, outer islands, Peros Banhos and Salomon, could not take place. They were told that an initial settlement of 150 families – around 750 people – could make a decent living from the coconut plantations, ecotourism and fishing.

Shortly after the select committee hearing, it was announced by John Murton, the British High Commissioner in Mauritius, that a small group of stonemasons and labourers would visit some of the outer islands of the archipelago to restore and repair the graves of the Chagossians’ ancestors. The group is due to travel to Singapore before flying to Diego Garcia before completing the journey by boat some time in the next few weeks. The trip will be paid for by the British government.

Since 2000 the Chagossians have won twice in the High Court and again in the Court of Appeal last year allowing them the right of return. In all, seven senior judges have found in their favour. Despite this, the government has petitioned the House of Lords claiming that it is obliged to clarify the legal status of all British overseas territories including the British Indian Ocean Territory. The case will be heard in June.

But the political momentum is definitely now with the exiled islanders. This month a PR campaign – “Let Them Return” – was launched at the House of Lords.

Gordon Brown and David Miliband must now be crossing their fingers and hoping for two things. The first is that the Law Lords will find in favour of the Chagossians’ right of return. This may seem like an odd thing to say but a decisive judgement would allow the British government to present the decision to allow the islanders to go back home to the US administration as a legal rather than a political one. The other is that whoever is elected as the next US President has a more enlightened attitude to foreign policy and the UN Convention Against Torture than George W. Bush.

In the meantime, this still leaves open the accuracy of the claims of General McCaffrey that there was or is a secret prison facility on Diego Garcia. Perhaps the prime minister and his foreign secretary should find out, preferably sooner rather than later.

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

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