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Book Review: 'Diego Garcia - A Contrast to the Falklands'

'Diego Garcia: A Contrast to the Falklands', by John Madeley (Minority Rights Group, 1982)

Now that Falkland Islands jingoism has died down, the Minority Rights Group's Diego Garcia: A Contrast to the Falklands is a timely refutation of the hypocritical British claim to be defending the “sovereign rights" of British citizens.

In 1965 Britain offered Mauritius independence on condition that the islands of the Chagos Archipelago were excluded. The United Nations General Assembly passed resolution 2066 XX in December 1965 inviting Britain not to “dismember the Territory of the Mauritius and to violate its territorial integrity". Britain declined that invitation. Mauritius was granted independence in 1968 and Britain retained the Chagos Islands the largest of which. Diego Garcia, had a population of 1,800 — roughly equivalent to that of the Falkland Islands. The Chagos Islands, and those of Desroches, Farquhar and Aldabra became the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). In 1966 BIOT was leased to the United States for military purposes.

Diego Garcia was seen by the Pentagon as an ideal position to monitor the movements of the Russian navy in the Indian Ocean. Originally, the island was to be a communications centre but the base has gradually become a military one. The presence of an indigenous population, the Ilois, was inconsistent with the presence of a military base and. as John Madeley points out:

    "between 1965 and 1973 the British Government went about the systematic removal of its own subjects from Diego Garcia: it deposited them in exile in Mauritius without any workable settlement scheme: left them in abject poverty, gave them a tiny amount of compensation and later offered more on condition that the islanders renounce their right to ever to return home (p. 4)."

The British Government, which later gave much credibility to the words of the United Nations over the Falkands' dispute, were in this instance acting in contravention of articles 9 and 13 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which state that “no one should be subjected to arbitrary . . . exile" and that “everybody has the right to return to his country".

The removal of the Ilois took a number of forms. Ilois families who had gone to Mauritius, some 1,200 miles away, were told that they would not be allowed to return. Madeley points out that many Ilois testified that they had been “tricked into leaving Diego Garcia by being offered a free trip" (p. 5) and boats were not available for the return journey. In 1967 the BIOT took over Chagos Agalega and closed down activities on Chagos during 1968-73. This effectively meant that Diego Garcia’s largest employer had ceased to operate. Finally, in 1968 food ships did not sail to the Chagos Islands. March 1971 saw the arrival of the first American servicemen and in the following December the remaining inhabitants of Diego Garcia were ordered to leave. In 1973 the evacuation of Ilois from the smaller islands of Chagos was carried out using the BIOT's ship Norvaer.

Mauritius was offered £650.000 for relief and resettlement of the islanders in 1973. The Sunday Times of 21 September 1975 published an article stating that the United States had given Britain an $11.5 million discount on Polaris submarines to help establish BIOT and thereby pave the way for the Diego Garcia base. The £650,000 compensation was paid to the islanders in 1978 and the Mauritius government put pressure on Britain to increase the amount of compensation. By 1979 Britain agreed to pay increased compensation if the Ilois abandoned all claims to be able to return to the island: an additional £1.25 million was offered.

In June 1981 the £1.25 million offer was renewed with an additional £300,000 of technical aid. The United States meanwhile were preparing their $1,000 million expansion of Diego Garcia into a base capable of accommodating aircraft and ships. In March 1982 the British offers of compensation were increased to £3 million and then £4 million. The Mauritian government offered the islanders land to the value of £1 million, which they accepted: the British compensation was still offered, on the condition that the islanders accept “their transfer to and their resettlement in Mauritius and their preclusion from returning to the Chagos".

It is ironic that five days after the settlement with the Ilois the Falklands were invaded by Argentina. The quibbling as to how much should be spent on "defending" the Falkland islanders was drowned in a sea of patriotic fervour. The £1,000 million and the loss of both British and Argentinian workers' lives makes a striking contrast to the treatment of the Ilois. and is another example of the cynicism of capitalist politics.

Philip Bentley