This Tiny Island Shelters a History of Human Rights Abuse

One of America’s most important military bases came at the cost of forcing out an entire local population.

Diego Garcia. (Photo: HO/U.S. Navy/Reuters)

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Mar 18, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Esha Chhabra is a journalist who covers social enterprise, technology for social impact, and development.

In the middle of the Indian Ocean lies a relatively unknown island by the name of Diego Garcia. It’s home to one of America’s most important military bases—and a history of human rights abuse. The island was confiscated in 1966 from the local population of Chagossians in secret deals between the governments of the U.S. and U.K., resulting in the forced displacement of more than 2,000.

This year, the 50-year contract between the U.S. and the U.K. is up for renewal—a pivotal moment for the Chagossian refugees who have had to relocate around the world but have long hoped to return home. Their story is captured in the latest episode of Truth and Power, a documentary series airing on TakePart’s sister network, Pivot, that’s directed by Brian Knappenberger and narrated by Maggie Gyllenhaal.

David Vine, the author of Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World, tells TakePart that Diego Garcia holds billions of dollars’ worth of military aircraft, bombers, and nuclear submarines and an “armada of pre-positioned ships with enough tanks, weaponry, ammunition, and fuel to equip an expeditionary force of tens of thousands of U.S. trips for 30 days.”

But at what cost?

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The Chagos Archipelago, whose largest island is Diego Garcia, is a British territory. In the 1960s, it was separated from Mauritius, a former British colony, for military use and turned into a British Indian Ocean Territory. In 1966, the U.S. negotiated a deal with the U.K. to set up military bases on the island. As a result, thousands of Chagossians were displaced and sent to nearby Mauritius or the Seychelles.

Sabrina Jean, chair of the U.K. Chagos Refugees Group, was one of those refugees. She grew up in Mauritius and now resides in London with her elderly father, husband, and three children. A second-generation Chagossian, she longs for the sandy beaches and clear blue waters of her homeland, she says. Jean estimates that nearly 3,000 second- and third-generation Chagossians live in the U.K.

“Everyone has the right to live on their motherland,” she tells TakePart in an email.

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David Vine, Sabrina Jean, and Olivier Bancoult on Diego Garcia in an episode of ‘Truth and Power.’(Photo: Pivot)

Ali Beydoun, a lecturer and legal expert on human rights violations at American University, says the “two governments finalized the deal with an ‘exchange of notes’ that effectively created a treaty but circumvented all congressional and parliamentary oversight.” Without any transparency, and with most of the financial documents still classified in government vaults, Beydoun says it’s hard to know how much money was exchanged—$14 million has been estimated—or the details of the transaction.

Jean’s family relocated to Mauritius and then to the U.K., where she worked back-to-back shifts at McDonald’s and 12-hour days in the U.K.’s postal system to ensure they could afford their new life in London. Most Chagossians reside in Crawley, a neighborhood on the fringes of Heathrow Airport, and work in health care or at the airport itself, she says.

Occasionally, they get a chance to visit their homeland. Jean has been able to visit her father’s place of birth only once. She’s hopeful that they will be able to return soon—permanently.

If the 50-year lease on Diego Garcia is renewed, as expected, it would allow the U.S. military to occupy the island until 2036.

The base is of strategic importance to the U.S. Aside from housing 2,000 military personnel, Vine wrote in an article for International Migration, “the base has become a key launch pad for U.S. forces in the recent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and Diego Garcia may be the site of a secret detention center holding accused terrorists.”

Can the Chagossians occupy the island alongside the U.S. military?

“It’s entirely realistic for them to move back,” Vine says. “Civilian populations live next to U.S. military bases worldwide, including in Guantánamo Bay.”

There’s one catch: The U.S. and the U.K. have made the Chagos Islands a marine protected area, a region devoted to conservation with restricted human activity. Yet Diego Garcia is not included in the MPA and has been occupied by U.S. military personnel for four decades. Beydoun says the governments are using wildlife preservation as an excuse to not bring back the local population, arguing that it would be an infringement on the environment.

There’s also new proof to indicate the governments’ wrongdoings. “A U.N. court ruled that the U.K. government acted illegally in creating a marine protected area in the Chagos Archipelago after a State Department cable showed the U.S. and Britain saw the MPA as the best way to prevent Chagossians from ever returning home,” Beydoun says.

Olivier Bancoult, chairman and leader of the Chagos Refugees Group, isn’t sold on the environmental argument either. “We Chagossians were the real guardian of the Chagos environment,” he writes in an email to TakePart. “How could we accept that others can live whereas we as natives didn’t get this chance?”

The MPA is one of many infringements on the Chagossians. Beydoun notes that the displacement of these individuals violates four articles of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights: the right to an effective remedy by national tribunals, the right to return to one’s home country, the right to nationality, and the right to one’s own property.

Despite all these hurdles, Bancoult, who is an electrician by day and fights for the Chagossian cause by night, isn’t ready to give up.

“We are very confident that justice will be provided,” he says. “It’s about our dignity and motherland.”

Truth and Power airs Fridays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Pivot, Participant Media’s television network. You can also learn about protecting your civil liberties in the digital age by exploring “Know Your Rights,” a Pivot-supported initiative from the ACLU of Southern California.