Bruce Kent

Island of Shame

The Secret History of the US Military Base at Diego Garcia

David Vine

Princeton University Press 2008 259pp maps, photos

no price given

I got angrier and angrier as I read this book. It is a story of ruthless military and economic imperialism, Cold War driven, and underpinned by servile British governments. Diego Garcia is today only one of a thousand military bases which the United States has in other countries. No wonder the Russians and the Chinese see themselves as encircled.

Diego Garcia is a large island military base which dominates the South Asian region and played a major part in both the Iraq wars. It first came to the attention of US military planners because they were looking for locations for air and naval bases which would not be subject to opposition later on from hostile populations or nationalistic governments. Unoccupied islands were ideal for that purpose.

So Diego Garcia came into focus. There were however two problems. It was part of Mauritius, a British colony, and it certainly was populated if by only a few thousand inhabitants - but they had been there at least for two centuries.

The colonial problem was solved, on behalf of the Americans, by the British who made a major financial grant to the future leaders of Mauritius with the promise that independence would be speeded up. The price tag was that the islands, of which Diego Garcia was one, would be cut off from Mauritius. This involved ignoring the spirit if not the letter of article 73 of the UN Charter which said that, in the transition period from colonialism to independence, the interests of the inhabitants are paramount. The division was effected and a new administrative structure was set up in 1965: the British Indian Ocean Territory.

At least one British Secretary of State for the Colonies, Francis Pakenham (the author does not know that he is naming our Lord Longford) was quite honest. He suggested that we should just tell the UN that in this case we did not intend to accept that Article 73 was binding. Other civil servants and government officials were more devious. Said one: The legal position of the inhabitants would be greatly simplified from our point of view- though not necessarily from theirs if we decided to treat them as a floating population.

Another, Alan Brook Taylor, suggested turning them into residents of Mauritius. This device, though rather transparent, would at least give us a defensible position. Worse comments came from Sir Paul Gore-Booth and D.A. Greenhill (later Baron) whose racist and sexist comments have to be seen to be believed. The aim was clear: empty the islands and prepare for US occupation.

That is exactly what happened. The first some Chagossians knew about it was when they were told, when trying to return from a hospital visit to Mauritius, that there was to be no return. So it went on, until in 1971 an entire ship-full were dispatched, in disgraceful conditions, away from their homes for good. In a disgusting piece of brutality their pet dogs were gassed in a shed as the inhabitants were leaving. An empty island means just that.

The future of those expelled has been hard. They have been given minor compensation grants but for the most part they have lived in poverty. Unemployment has been the norm. Their efforts to get the legal right to return at one stage looked hopeful, but this was eventually blocked by the House of Lords.

Meanwhile the base now employs other imported workers and the harbour has become a yacht haven for tourists as well as a military location. There are strong indications also that the island has been used for "rendition" flights.

Ironically the American who promoted the whole idea of safe US island bases had a change of heart at the end of his days. Too late, Stuart Barber came to understand how his schemes had ruined the lives of innocent people far away and wanted justice to be done. His pleas were not heeded and his letters ignored.

There is one gap in the story. What were international human rights NGOs doing at the time, both in the UK and on Mauritius to protect these victims? Bishop Trevor Huddleston, whose name does not appear in this book, was actually Bishop of Mauritius for some years immediately after the expulsion. Did he, with his anti-apartheid record, not speak out? We are not told.

This moving and very informative book is not well served by its maps. They are quite inadequate. If there is to be a second edition, as I hope and recommend, then let there be more detailed maps of the Indian Ocean area. For instance where are the Seychelles, another set of islands which might also have been turned into a base?

1 Oct 2009