Official accounts of wars and military operations are replete with euphemistic terminology intended by their perpetrators and apologists to numb our consciousness of the horrors involved. Thus, for example, targets annihilated by bombardment are ‘taken out’; civilians blown to pieces in the process are considered ‘collateral damage’. The practice of kidnapping those suspected of being terrorists, transporting them to destinations outside the jurisdiction of the state responsible for their detention and subjecting them to maltreatment or torture, is known as ‘extraordinary rendition.’ That such practices are illegal and a blatant abuse of human rights goes without saying.
The British government has consistently denied that any suspects ‘rendered’ by the US have been transported to, or held on, any territory belonging to the UK. It has recently come to light that detainees have been flown to the US naval base on the British territory of Diego Garcia, part of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, midway between Africa and Asia. The US base – one of the biggest in the world – has existed since 1971 and is of vital importance for operations in the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2004 the then Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, admitted when questioned in parliament, that the US operated a detention centre on the island. Despite this admission, the government has always denied that ‘rendered’ detainees have ever been held there. This denial is no longer sustainable. In view of evidence that is now emerging, the only question is whether the government has been lied to by the Bush administration or – more likely – that they have lied about illegal activities they were privy to all along.
A representative of the United Nations responsible for investigating human rights abuses and torture has claimed that suspects were detained on Diego Garcia in 2002 and 2003. According to Manfred Novak the detainees were not treated as inhumanely as those at Guantanamo and were not held for very long, but the revelation that British territory has been used for ‘extraordinary rendition’ exposes the government to the charge of complicity with the US government in human rights abuses. The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, has admitted, under pressure, that two US planes containing ‘rendered’ suspects landed on the island in 2002. When the truth began to emerge about ‘extraordinary rendition’ the British government initially denied all knowledge of the practice and strongly rejected the accusations that British military air bases had been used in the transmission of ‘rendered’ suspects. When it became clear that CIA planes had refuelled on bases in Britain, the government said that it had happened without their knowledge. It is becoming increasingly clear that the government has lied about this from the start. They are still denying that US prisoners have been held on Diego Garcia. When asked how they can be sure of this they say that they have the assurance of the US government that it has not happened! This, we are expected to believe, constitutes solid proof that no detainees have been held. No doubt, when the evidence possessed by Novak becomes impossible to deny, they will say that it happened without their knowledge. This has been the pattern of deceit since the lead-up to the Iraq war.
Novak bases his claim on depositions from ‘well-placed sources familiar with the situation on the island whose identities he is not able to reveal without their permission. His claims are supported by a former US general, Barry McCaffrey, who also claimed that detainees had been held on Diego Garcia. This source has subsequently retracted his claim. We may speculate about his reasons for so doing. He apparently refuses all requests for interviews.
The human rights group, Reprieve, suspects that the US is also using the seas around the archipelago for rendition. US naval vessels such as the USS Bataan and Stockham operate in this part of the Indian Ocean and it is believed they function as prison ships. Even if they remain outside the three mile zone of British territorial waters (which, to say the least is doubtful) they are almost certainly serviced from British territory, which renders the British government complicit in their activities. There are reports by former prisoners at Guantanamo of suspects being beaten while in detention on US ships ‘even more severely than in Guantanamo.’
Diego Garcia: the story that shames Britain.
When the US naval base on Diego Garcia is mentioned in news reports, the island is frequently referred to as ‘uninhabited.’ The story of how it came to be uninhabited is not widely known, either in Britain or the United States, the two countries involved in its depopulation forty years ago. It is a shameful story.
Until the late 1960s Diego Garcia, a British colonial territory, had a population of some 2000 who worked as subsistence farmers. The Chagos Islands, of which Diego Garcia is one, had passed to Britain following the defeat of France in the Napoleonic wars. Some time in the mid 1960s the US petitioned the Wilson (Labour) government for the lease of an Indian Ocean island for a strategic military base and refuelling facility. A secret arrangement was made without reference to the US Congress or the British Parliament, involving the transfer of Diego Garcia to the US. The island would continue to be British owned but would be run by the US. The US government stipulated that it must be depopulated. When, in 1968 Mauritius gained its independence from Britain, the Chagos islands fell under Mauritian jurisdiction. The Labour government arranged the purchase of Diego Garcia from Mauritius for £3 million and concocted the fiction that the inhabitants of the island who had lived there for generations, were actually itinerants because their livelihood required some of them to journey to Mauritius to sell their produce. It was decided to expel the whole population, first by means of trickery, by denying the right of return to those who happened at the time to be temporarily in Mauritius to pursue their livelihood. Many of those remaining, who, alarmed at the failure of their families to return home, went to Mauritius to enquire after them, were then themselves prevented from returning. By 1970 most of the population had been removed. The condition of the islanders stranded in Mauritius was desperate. They were an unwelcome, totally dislocated, homeless people. In the years that followed many committed suicide. Those remaining on Diego Garcia when the US naval personnel began to arrive in 1971 were helpless to resist the final brutal expulsion. The naval base was built on an unpopulated island.
Any doubts one may have about this account of events are immediately dispelled on reading the documentary evidence from the time. The legal department of the Foreign Office gave this advice:
‘The purpose of the Immigration Ordinance is to maintain the fiction that the inhabitants of the Chagos are not a permanent or semi-permanent population. The Ordinance would be published in the BIOT (British Indian Ocean Territories) Gazette which has only a very limited circulation. Publicity would therefore be minimised.’
Eleanor Emery, head of the Indian Ocean department of the FCO wrote:
‘We shall continue to say as little as possible to avoid embarrassing the US administration. We would not wish it to become general knowledge that some of the inhabitants have lived on Diego Garcia for generations and would be regarded as “belongers” .’
For nearly forty years every effort has been made by both British and US governments to cover this story up. But many of the islanders and their descendants, now numbering 4.500, have continued to fight for their right to return to their homes. For decades their demand to be heard was met with stony silence by those who had expelled them. Then, in 2000, they took their case to the British High Court which ruled that they had the right to return to the Archipelago. In 2004, the Blair government resorted to the archaic constitutional device of an Order in Council to reverse the High Court decision. It ruled that the islanders were forever banned from returning.
In 2006 the High Court ruled that the 2004 Orders were unlawful, declaring that the islanders were entitled to return. The government appealed against this ruling. In May 2007 their appeal was dismissed. This is how things stand at present in this David and Goliath saga.
Both the US and British governments claim to be committed to the defence of human rights, justice and the rule of law. According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court ‘deportation or forcible transfer of population constitutes a crime against humanity if it is committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against any wider population, with knowledge of the attack.’ In their judicial review of the case the British High Court found the use of the Royal Prerogative to be an ‘unlawful abuse of power.’
The US government has made it clear that it will ignore any ruling of the British High Court in this case. In this stance it clearly enjoys the full support of the British government.
It is interesting to note that the name of the US naval base on Diego Garcia is ‘Camp Justice.’
TPJ is not subject to copyright. Anyone is welcome to freely quote and use material from TPJ. In reproducing or using material from the TPJ proper attribution is appreciated.