Saturday, June 16, 2012

Britain the US and the ethnic cleansing of Diego Garcia

The island, or more accurately, atoll of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean doesn't get much air time in the highly censored US media.  The island, part of the Chagos group, is actually owned by the British government and was part of Mauritius which was ceded to Britain by the French after the Treaty of Paris in 1814. Geoffrey Robertson, the noted human rights lawyer gives an example of life in these islands under French rule:

Mauritius is 800 miles southwest of the Chagos Archipelago, but is nonetheless the nearest state to these islands. (The Seychelles is 1,000 miles to the west, and
India 1,000 miles to the north). The island of Mauritius was first settled by the Dutch, who were replaced by the French in 1721 (when it was renamed Ile de France). The French had previously colonized Reunion Island, to the west, and then settled Rodrigues to the east and by 1742 the Seychelles, much further to the North. For France, these islands had not only strategic value but commercial potential: sugar cane and slaves, the story of the Caribbean, was soon re-enacted in this part of the Indian Ocean with a viciousness that even today provokes resentment. (Under the Code Noir (The Slave Code) runaways were branded and had their ears lopped off: if they had evaded capture for more than a month, their hamstring muscle was cut as well. A second escape meant execution.) *

 In 1960, under the UN's "decolonization" order, these colonial possessions were supposed to gain independence.

In this period however, US imperialism was looking for bases in the region to counter the Soviet presence and to protect the interests of the energy companies in the Middle East, in particular against efforts by Iran or any of these producers to control their own economies.  The US had successfully orchestrated a coup that overthrew the secular democratic government of Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953 and installed in its place, the murderous Shah.  But with allies like the Shah, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, who are useful plunder partners but unreliable allies hated by the workers in these countries, US imperialism needs to ensure its military is close by.

So US capitalism and the remnants of dying British colonialism made a secret deal.  The US could use the island as a base of operations and in return the British would get a discount of the then very fashionable Polaris missiles.  The US wanted an island without people and Britain agreed to get rid of the Chagossians, lying to the UN claiming the island had no inhabitants: "The 2000 Chagossians settled there for almost 200 years were described as 'itinerant laborers" Geoffrey Robertson writes.

So the British rid the archipelago of inhabitants as the US wanted and shipped them to Mauritius and other places against their wishes. The British and US spin machine refers to this as "ethnic cleansing" when other nations or peoples do it. But when it comes to ethnic cleansing, the capitalist class of these two world powers carry the torch: native people, in Africa, Latin America, the US, not to mention the slaughter and forced emigration of the Irish population. There is also the savage removal of English peasants from their land; the list is a long one.

Britain maintained it was the rightful owner of the area and and leased all the Islands to the US until 2016 allowing the construction of a huge naval base and large runway on the island.  In 1914, an "optional" 20 year extension can be exercised if both the US and Britain agree.  This will depend on Britain's defense needs which means US imperialism's "offense" needs. There is mounting pressure for the islands to revert back to Mauritian ownership including legal challenges over Britain's claim of ownership by the original inhabitants as well the view held by many in the region that the US presence there is a source of destabilization and an obstacle to peace in the region.

The US launched attacks on Baghdad and Afghanistan from the Island and there is now credible evidence that suspected terrorists and anyone else Washington and the Pentagon feels is a threat to US corporate interests being taken there and tortured. "Additionally, Diego Garcia was used as a storage section for US cluster bombs as a detour from UK parliamentary oversight."

Former British foreign secretary Robin Cook called the British government's ethnic cleansing of the island "one of the most sordid and morally indefensible " in post war colonial history. Geoffrey Robertson in his legal argument for the return of the island to its original owners and the return of the expelled inhabitants writes:

"It would, therefore, follow that the fifty-year lease granted to the US for Diego Garcia is invalid, and legal title to the islands remains in the State of Mauritius. In any event, this lease violates the right of self-determination of the Chagossian people, and is void for that additional reason since this right has attained the binding status of jus cogens in international law. It follows that the UK bears international responsibility for the wrongs it has committed and/or permitted in violation of Mauritian sovereignty, and has an international obligation to terminate the US lease and to hand the islands back to Mauritius. That lease expires in any event in 2016, which is the time when the islands’ return has been promised by the UK, although this promise is conditional upon the UK’s view of its defence needs, which, under American pressure, will certainly lead to a long extension of US domination. The condition is entirely subjective and impermissibly vague. Even if the UK could claim to have “defence needs” in the middle of the Indian Ocean such as to justify the lease of Diego Garcia to the US for a further period, these could not stretch to include the other, now uninhabited islands that are over 100 miles distant from the US base."

I remember being at work after the planes hit the World Trade Center and the mood in the aftermath of these attacks.  Iraq was behind it according to the US media convinced more than 50% of the US population such therefore justifying the brutal invasion of that country and murder of its people.  I told one co-worker that the the question we need to ask ourselves is
"what on earth has our government done to warrant such an attack?"  I repeatedly argued, in a hostile climate that the lesson we must draw from this is that we cannot continue to ignore the world around us, cannot continue to ignore what our government is doing.  For a nation that hates government, we certainly allow it to act on our behalf without question.  The idea that people hate us because we are "free" and they are not is ridiculous and we know it.  The people responsible for the actions that occurred that fateful day live here at home.  We must separate ourselves from their murderous policies.  In my country of origin, England, I learned to do that with regard to the British presence in Northern Ireland.  Though I opposed the tactic of individual terrorism, it was the state terrorism of the British government and a centuries old occupation that is at the heart of the matter.

I found it not uncommon in my recent visit to Australia that association with US foreign policy many people thought would mean being dragged in to unwanted conflict and would derail efforts by Australia to live in relative peace with neighbors (listen to the comments of one person here).

In my travels throughout the world I have found that Americans are popular.  We are considered generous and friendly people in the main; this is a good thing.  But there is no doubt that the US capitalist class and its foreign policy aimed at maintaining its ruthless and violent quest for profits and global domination is being seen more and more as an obstacle to peace and relations between other nations.  It is not Iran that the vast majority of people worry about; it is where the US is going to invade next.  Where will the US provoke a war next?  US domestic policy is savaging workers and the middle class here at home and as an extension of this domestic policy, foreign policy is brutalizing workers abroad.

Just as we do not apply the "United We Stand" policy when are on strike, we clearly differentiate ourselves and out interests from the bosses.  We know in our gut that the Team Concept, the idea that workers and bosses have the same interests is wrong despite our Union leaders pushing it.  Those that argue we unite with the boss in a strike are looked down upon, called scabs, seen as collaborators.  So the same when it comes to workers of different nations.  Whether its striking miners in Costa Rica, garbage collectors in Ireland or factory workers in China, we must unite with them against our own bosses who try to drag us in to that trap that we are all "Americans". So we are, but we are first and foremost workers, people who live through wage labor and that is the strongest bond of all no matter what we nationally we are. It is in our interests to oppose US capitalism's predatory wars abroad under the guise of fighting terrorism.

* You can read Geoffrey Robertson's detailed legal commentary on Diego Garcia here or hopefully download it as a pdf at
Extensive legal opinion on the Diego Garcia question - as published in Volume 36, No.1 of the University of Western Australia Law Review (June 2012)

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