Britain is putting US interests on Diego Garcia above the right of Chagossians to return to their islands
There are people and there are unpeople. Afghan and Iraqi victims of Blair's wars count among the latter - lives expendable in the pursuit of western power. Yet there is a group of unpeople who have been even more forgotten and they were yesterday knocked for six, not by "smart" British bombs but by smart government lawyers.
The story begins in 1968, when the Chagossians were flung off their homeland islands in the Indian Ocean to make way for a US military base. Some were tricked into leaving on the promise of a free voyage; others physically removed. The Chagos islands include Diego Garcia, from which US bombers have attacked Iraq and Afghanistan, and where al-Qaida suspects are being held in circumstances even more secret than in Cuba.
The islanders have long campaigned for compensation and the right to return, but the Blair government set itself against the Chagossians, and its sustained legal campaign has just been rewarded with a high court ruling that the Chagossians' claim has "no reasonable grounds".
When Britain depopulated the islands, most of the Chagossians ended up living in the poverty-stricken slums of the Mauritian capital, Port Louis. Some died of starvation in the early years of exile and many, without livelihoods or hope, committed suicide. Many within the community, now numbering around 8,000, continue a life in poverty.
The giant lie at the heart of British policy was that the Chagossians were never permanent inhabitants of the islands but simply "contract labourers". The then foreign secretary Michael Stewart wrote a secret note to Harold Wilson in 1969 saying: "We could continue to refer to the inhabitants generally as essentially migrant contract labourers and their families," and added that it would be helpful "if we can present any move as a change of employment for contract workers ... rather than as a population resettlement." Seven successive British governments have maintained this fiction.
Until a few months ago, visitors to the Foreign Office website were told that there were "no indigenous inhabitants" on the islands. Then the wording suddenly changed and it now acknowledges that there was a "settled population". So, 35 years since the beginning of the depopulation, the truth has quietly been admitted. Yet this has not stopped the Blair government fighting the Chagossians in court and in other, more back-handed ways. In a landmark victory in November 2000, the high court ruled that "the wholesale removal" of the islanders was an "abject legal failure" and that they could return to the small outlying islands in the group but not the largest, Diego Garcia.
This was a nightmare for British and US planners, and Whitehall immediately seemed intent on defying it. The islanders cannot simply return, since some infrastructure investment is needed on what are remote islands with few resources. The government dragged out the process of studying island resettlement, and then concluded that it was "impractical and inconsistent with the existing defence facilities". It added that "our position on the future of the territory will be determined by our strategic and other interests and our treaty commitments to the USA." The memo said nothing about the government's obligations to the rights of the islanders.
A study conducted for the Chagossians refutes the idea that resettlement is "impractical" and says the government's argument is "erroneous in every assertion". It concludes that there are adequate water, fish and other supplies on the islands to make resettlement feasible, even with low levels of investment. Yet the government, it appears, has never pressed the EU to help, as they did for the Pitcairn Islands, whose four dozen inhabitants won €2m.
The government has succeeded in staving off its worst nightmare - the Chagossians' return to Diego Garcia itself. This means that access will continue to be "by permit only", and US and British navies will continue to ensure that no one gets near.