The Universal Declaration of Human Rights Is 70 This Year — but Where’s the Justice for Chagos?

People like to talk about “conspiracy theories,” but now-declassified records show that in the 1960s there was a literal conspiracy instigated by the British Foreign Office, at the behest of the US, to cleanse the population of the Chagos archipelago so that the US could build a military base there. The islands are located in the Indian Ocean, south of India and east of Africa. The largest of the islands is Diego Garcia. From there, the US has bombed Afghanistan and Iraq without needing further refuelling bases.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is 70 this year. Not only should it protect the people of Chagos, the survivors and their offspring who now live in the UK and Mauritius, but in addition, the tragic case of the islanders reveals that Britons are citizens on paper but de facto royal subjects. It was the queen who, in 2004, overturned a High Court decision allowing the islanders to return.

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 1 of the new book, Human Wrongs: British Social Policy and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Iff Books).

The Status of Britons

Article 1 of the UDHR says in full: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Britain’s national status is Constitutional Monarchy and Parliamentary Democracy. One may assume, then, that British citizens are actually subjects of the crown, not “free and equal” citizens, as the UDHR demands. The case of Chagos bears that out.

Part 1(1) of the British Nationality Act 1948 states: “Every person who under this Act is a citizen of the British United Kingdom and Colonies or … [has] the status of a British subject” for persons living in the Commonwealth. In other words, English, Welsh and Scots as former subjects were granted formal citizenship, but Irish and Commonwealth subjects remained subjects (until 1983, more below).

All of this is irrelevant in a Constitutional Monarchy by virtue of an obscure veto the reigning monarch holds over all legislation, known as the Royal Prerogative (also known as the Crown Prerogative).

Subsection 2 of the British Nationality Act 1948 states: “the expression ‘British subject’ and the expression ‘Commonwealth citizen’ shall have the same meaning.” This is important for the people of Chagos, which makes for a tragic test-case because future Acts granted them citizenship, yet the Royal Prerogative reduced them to the status of subjects. Her Majesty’s Government website states that if one of numerous criteria were met, “You became a British overseas territories citizen on 1 January 1983 if both of these apply [1] you were a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies on 31 December 1982 [2] you had connections with a British overseas territory because you, your parents or your grandparents were born, registered or naturalised in that British overseas territory.”

This should apply to the people of Chagos.

A History of the Islands

Diego Garcians were known as Ilois, French Creole for “islanders,” now as Chagossians. They inhabited the island(s) from the late-18th century to the early-1970s, when they were expelled by the British military. The Chagossians descended from slaves, plantation workers and managers. During the 19th century, they developed a unique democratic culture. “No one was involuntarily unemployed. Most of the Chagossians were illiterate and their skills were confined to those needed for the activities on the islands. But they had a rich community life,” says the British House of Lords. “[T]he Roman Catholic religion and their own distinctive dialect derived (like those of Mauritius and the Seychelles) from the French. Into this innocent world there intruded, in the 1960s, the brutal realities of global politics.”

The brutal realities were the shift from British to US global domination.

Diego Garcia was ceded to Britain by France with the Treaty of Paris 1814, after the Napoleonic Wars. Its formal status was a Dependency of Mauritius, the latter being a British crown colony, also taken from France. Diego Garcia’s unique position protects islanders from floods, hurricanes and earthquakes, making it an ideal site for military operations, hence the establishment of a Royal Air Force base on the island during Second World War.

In 1965, Britain created the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), Diego Garcia being the main island. The purpose was to regain control of Diego Garcia after Mauritius was decolonized so that the United States, under a 50-year lease, renewable in 20-year periods, could use it as a military base. The excision of Diego Garcia from Mauritius through the Lancaster House Agreement — a violation of UN laws on decolonization and an issue still disputed with Mauritius — was formalized by an Order in Council; a monarchic legal ritual in which government appointees read legislation to the monarch, who approves or rejects the given Order. The Lords confirm that “by an exception in the Mauritius Independence Act 1968, [the Chagossians] did not lose their UK citizenship.”

So, the Lords confirm that they are citizens but the monarch’s vetoing of their rights makes them de facto subjects.

Legal specialist Maureen Tong writes: “The UN General Assembly Resolution 2066 (XX) of 16 December 1965 prohibited the dismemberment of Mauritius to establish the US military base in Diego Garcia.” She continues: “The excision of the Chagos archipelago to establish the BIOT in 1965 contravened Resolution 1514 (XV).” The original Order in Council establishing Diego Garcia as British Indian Ocean Territory was arguably the first royal act that sought to deprive the Chagossians of their rights. It is also worth noting that as part of the 1966 agreement with the US, Britain received a £14 million reduction in its sea-based Polaris nuclear system, which it purchased from the US.

Getting the People Off

From 1968 to 1973, the islanders were forcibly removed by the British military and deported to the slums of the Seychelles, Mauritius and London, where they have remained ever since. Depopulation was necessitated by UN regulations regarding decolonization. It would have been contrary to international law for the US to take over a populated territory (colonialism), so the solution was to depopulate. Britain’s act of forcible exile prevented the US from being scrutinized by the UN Special Committee on the Situation with Regard to the Implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.

The British Colonial Office made this perfectly clear in secret, internal records:

“…to recognise that there are any permanent inhabitants will imply that there is a population whose democratic rights will have to be safeguarded and which will therefore be deemed by the UN to come within its purlieu. The solution proposed is to issue them with documents making it clear that they are ‘belongers’ of Mauritius and the Seychelles and only temporary residents of BIOT. This devise, although rather transparent, would at least give us a defensible position to take up [at the UN].”

Denis (later Lord) Greenhill, head of the Colonial Office, explained the UK’s position in a memorandum to the British Delegation at the UN: “The object of the exercise is to get some rocks which will remain ours; there will be no indigenous population except seagulls who have not yet got a committee. Unfortunately, along with the seagulls go some few [sic] Tarzans and Men Fridays that are hopefully being wished on Mauritius.”

When Members of Parliament began asking questions, the Foreign Office strategy was to administer briefing papers to MPs. Eleanor Emery, head of the Foreign Office’s Indian Ocean department outlined the strategy in a secret paper: “We would not wish it to become general knowledge that some of the inhabitants have lived on Diego Garcia for several generations and could, therefore, be regarded as ‘belongers’.” She went on to say that: “We shall advise ministers in handling supplementary questions to say that there is only a small number of contract workers from the Seychelles and Mauritius, engaged to work on the copra plantations.”

In 1967, the British Commissioner declared an Acquisition of Land for Public Purposes (Private Treaty) Ordinance, preventing the Chagos Agalega Company from operating on the islands. This meant that temporary workers had to leave, draining the economy with the possible intended effect of impelling the indigenous islanders to leave. This was phase two of the expulsion preparations. Phase three was the issuance of an Immigration Ordinance to clear the island of its inhabitants. In another secret memo, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office explained: “The purpose of the Immigration Ordinance is to maintain the fiction that the inhabitants of the Chagos [sic] are not a permanent or semi-permanent population.” These were secret admissions that the population had a right to stay.

Phase one of the physical expulsion of approximately 1,700 Chagossians began in 1969, when the working contracts were terminated. This left those working in Mauritius stranded. When relatives travelled to Mauritius to assist their families, they too became stranded.

As for phase two: “British officials began restricting supplies to the islands and more Chagossians left as food and medicines dwindled … U.K. officials forced the remaining islanders to board overcrowded cargo ships and left them on the docks in Mauritius and the Seychelles,” says researcher David Vine. “Just before the last deportations, British agents and US troops on Diego Garcia herded the Chagossians’ pet dogs into sealed sheds and gassed and burned them in front of their traumatized owners awaiting deportation.”

Survivor and exile Rita Bancoult, who has suffered further personal tragedies in the slums of Mauritius, says: “It’s as if I was pulled from my paradise to put me in hell. Everything here you need to buy. I don’t have the means to buy them. My children go without eating. How am I supposed to bear this life?” Rita’s son, Olivier, formed the Chagos Refugees Group. Olivier and others continued to struggle for repatriation, becoming official citizens in 1981. In 2000, Olivier brought a case against then-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Robin Cook) to the High Court.

The Right of Return?

The High Court granted the islanders the right to return to Diego Garcia. They had not the means to return and legislated for compensation in 2004. In June of that year, the queen overruled the High Court decision with two Orders in Council, banning the islanders from their home in perpetuity. One of the Orders was the British Indian Ocean Territory (Constitution) Order 2004, which states: “no person has the right of abode in the Territory.”

But that doesn’t stop US service people from living there.

In May 2006, the High Court declared the government’s decision unlawful, stating: “The suggestion that a minister can, through the means of an order in council, exile a whole population from a British overseas territory and claim that he is doing so for the ‘peace, order and good government’ of the territory is, to us, repugnant.”

The Court of Appeal dismissed the government’s 2007 action against the High Court. In 2008, the government brought the matter to the Appellate Committee House of Lords, which overturned the High Court’s ruling by a judgement of three to two: Lords Carwell, Hoffman and Rodger voting in the government’s favour, that the Royal Prerogative was appropriate. This tells us much about the nature of British democracy, particularly that the Lords can overrule High Court decisions and that the monarch has “full power to establish such executive, legislative, and judicial arrangements as this Crown thinks fit,” particularly in relation to colonies, to quote Halsbury’s Laws of England.

In 2009, the British government sought to make the BIOT a “marine nature reserve,” with exceptions for US military purposes. A leaked memo written by Political Counsel Richard Mills states: “the BIOT’s former inhabitants would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos Archipelago were a marine reserve.”

Mills quotes and paraphrases Colin Roberts, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Commissioner of the BIOT: “‘there are proposals (for a marine park) that could provide the Chagossians warden jobs’ within the BIOT. However, Roberts stated that, according to the HGM’s [Her Majesty’s Government’s] current thinking on a reserve, there would be ‘no human footprints’ or ‘Man Fridays’ on the BIOT’s uninhabited island” — note the same language and attitude fifty years on. “He asserted that establishing a marine park would, in effect, put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago’s former residents … [Roberts said] ‘We do not regret the removal of the population.'”

Conclusion: Struggle Continues

In 2015, Mauritius took Britain to the International Court of Justice over its obligation, agreed in 1965, to decolonise the Chagos archipelago, including Diego Garcia. Mauritius’s specific complaint was that the UK had illegally drawn a Marine Protection Area (MPA) in 2010, restricting operations (including fishing) around the British Indian Ocean Territory. The Permanent Council for Arbitration ruled “that the creation of the MPA violated international law.” The UK has ignored the ruling and the islanders are left to wonder where the decision puts them, legally speaking.

The Chagossians continue their struggle and can be assisted in Britain via the UK Chagos Support Association.