Britain’s Chagos Shame

Britain's continued occupation of the Chagos Islands, and refusal to allow its exiled natives a right of return, is a scandal. While it continues, the government can claim no moral authority on the international stage.

Credit: Getty Images

At the end of May, in a humiliating diplomatic debacle, the UN General Assembly called upon Britain to hand over its British Indian Ocean Territories, the Chagos Islands, to Mauritius in accordance with earlier ruling of the International Court of Justice. Britain could only muster six votes to oppose the demand, relying on such paragons of global virtue as the US, Israel, Australia, Viktor Orban’s Hungary and the Maldives.

At stake in this debacle is the British opportunity to show just how grovelingly special its relationship with Washington is. In the 1960s and ’70s the British government forcibly evicted the Chagos’ native population, the Chagossians, in order to allow the United States to build a military base on Diego Garcia, which its government described as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” To this day, departing the Chagos would be a largely cost-free deal for Britain; it has only a token representation on what is known to its American occupiers as “Freedom’s Footprint.” 

American press coverage of the defeat concentrated on the potential threat to US ability to combat terrorism and Iran in the region with little or no discussion of the four thousand islanders who were exiled from their homeland to make way for bombers and CIA rendition flights. The Territory has its own flag, its own postage stamps, its own British Commissioner based in London (who also administers the equally empty British Antarctic Territories in an equally hands-off fashion). 

It is no doubt with unintended irony that the Territory’s song is Holst’s anthem I Vow to Thee My Country, whose wistful lyrics about “another country I’ve heard of long ago” almost seem to mock its former inhabitants. British governments, until the present day, have defied domestic and international courts to keep them from coming back, most recently using the feudal relic of the Privy Council to over-ride the High Court. New Labour has its own disgraceful record in this. One of the last acts of the last Labour government saw then-Foreign Secretary David Miliband attempt to copper fasten the Chagossians’ dispossession by turning the islands into a Marine Protection Area.

Britain’s proxy occupation is sordidly reminiscent of Israel’s defiance of ICJ opinion and UN resolutions, but in truth even Netanyahu could only dream of such complete ethnic cleansing of a population. A British bureaucrat recorded in a memo that prepared for their expulsion, “Unfortunately along with the birds go some few Tarzans or Man Fridays whose origins are obscure, and who are hopefully being wished on to Mauritius etc. When this has been done, I agree we must be very tough, and a submission is being done accordingly.” It was indeed done, and toughness is a mild word to describe the process.

The sordid deal, sadly, has its origins with Harold Wilson’s Labour government. Wilson shrewdly assessed that Britain was in no financial or military condition to keep a significant presence East of Suez. By then, Washington no longer saw the vestigial British Empire as a rival to be pushed aside, but rather as a useful auxiliary tool. 

The independent nuclear deterrent that Atlee and Bevan’s post war Labour government had engineered to maintain Britain’s seat at the top table, had become just another shackle to keep the country in close US orbit. Britain had given up its own ICBM project, Blue Streak, in return for a US missile, Skybolt, which Washington promptly cancelled. As a consolation prize, Britain was offered the Polaris missile system, the precursor of Trident but under conditions that Harold Wilson damned at the time as neither independent, British nor a deterrent. 

That did not stop him continuing with the agreement when he took office shortly afterwards, and in 1966 he delivered a fifty-year lease with a renewal option on Diego Garcia in a package that reduced the price the British paid on Polaris. In exchange, his government effectively agreed to carry out the ethnic cleansing of the native population. 

The deal epitomised all the worst features of the so-called special relationship. It allowed the UK to pretend to be an independent nuclear power, but in a relationship so one-sided that French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed Britain’s admission to the proto-EU as tantamount to giving Washington a vote in European affairs. He had a point, as successive British governments demonstrated up to the Iraq war and beyond. 

The UN vote on the ICJ opinion was a progress report on the efficacy of the special relationship. In the past, the UK’s reputation for relative respect for international law carried some weight with member states and British diplomats could act as bridge between unilateralist US positions and those of the rest of the world, often helping the US draft its resolutions to encompass concepts such as international law that oftentimes seemed alien to Washington. 

However, British diplomatic prestige has never really recovered from the Iraq War. Faced with the General Assembly vote threatening its interests, it was left to the US to marshall diplomatic pressure on UN members. They could only muster six votes against the resolution, an even worse than it scored in its previous attempt to thwart a referral to the ICJ. And the only EU member that could be inveigled into supporting the sordid UK and US position was Hungary, almost a pariah state in its own right. Germany and France, out of politeness or self-interest, abstained – but others like Spain and Sweden supported the court and UN consensus.

Sadly for British soft power, that is probably four more votes than London could have delivered in its own. The Chagos dispute, while it lasts, undermines pretensions to what Robin Cook as Foreign Secretary called an “ethical dimension” to our foreign policy. It undermines consistency, too. If a few thousand Chagossians could be deported for foreign policy purposes, then why not a comparable number of Falkland Islanders? That would be the Argentinean case. British policy makers might make a distinction between departing “kith and kin” and booting out sundry “Man Fridays and Tarzans,” but even the likes of Boris Johnson are unlikely to be stupid enough to say this out loud at the UN.

There are obvious solutions. Mauritius would be happy to accept sovereignty in return for granting a longer lease when the current one expires in 2036. It all comes down to the dispossessed islanders. The Pentagon wants vacant possession and is of course happy for the UK to be the proxy to bear all the international obloquy for such an outstanding violation of human rights. Especially after Brexit, Britain can only have as independent a foreign policy as Washington and the Pentagon deem bearable.

Of course, like many in Britain, the Chagossians see hope in Jeremy Corbyn, whose long-standing commitment to human rights has included their case. An ethical dimension to foreign policy might be on the horizon–but it looks a very long way off from Diego Garcia.

About the Author

Ian Williams is a United Nations correspondent and the author of UNtold: The Real Story of the United Nations. He is an associate professor at the Bard Center for Globalization and International Affairs, where he lectures on the UN and the Responsibility to Protect.