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In his victory speech, American President Barack Obama said the US economy was recovering; and the decade of war was over. Indeed Obama has ended the Iraq war – weapons of mass destruction were never found and Saddam Hussein is dead and the US killed Osama Bin Laden under circumstances that could be an extra-judicial killing.
It is hoped he will take some bold decisions on US foreign policy and military strategy.
Anti-US sentiment is very strong in the Muslim world, partly because of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One of the things Obama can do to repair the international reputation of the US is to allow the people of the Chagos Islands to return to their homeland after living in enforced exile for more than 40 years due to the US military base on Diego Garcia, the main island in the Chagos Archipelago.
The Chagos saga only come into the public domain as a result of court cases the Chagossians brought before British courts from 2000-2008 and in the US to litigate for their right to return to their homeland and to receive reparations arising from their forcible removals. The Chagossians have a case pending before the European Court of Human Rights. They are currently preparing a case for the International Criminal Court to declare their deportation a crime against humanity.
The Chagos question represents a case of unfinished business of de- colonisation. Amazingly, on November 8, 1965, when the decolonisation process had gained momentum and some African countries like Ghana already had independence – the UK secretly established a new mini colony they named the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) to allow the US to establish a military base on Diego Garcia.
This was to allow the US entry into the Indian Ocean to counter the influence of the Soviet Union during the Cold War. During the Mauritius constitutional conference at Lancaster House, London, in September 1965, the UK “persuaded” Mauritius to agree to the excision of the Chagos islands to establish the BIOT prior to granting Mauritius independence in 1968. The Seychelles also lost some islands that became part of the BIOT, but those islands were returned when the Seychelles gained independence in 1976.
Prior to establishing the BIOT in 1965, the UK administered the Chagos Islands as a “dependency” of Mauritius. The UN passed several resolutions between 1965 and 1972 condemning the “dismemberment” of Mauritius to establish the BIOT and the militarisation of the Indian Ocean where the Chagos Islands are situated.
Mauritius now contests sovereignty over the Chagos Islands and has received support from the African Union, which contends that the UK must return the Chagos Islands to Mauritius; that the US military base on Diego Garcia is a threat to Africa and a threat to the Indian Ocean as a Zone of Peace.
What is little known is the collusion of Mauritius in exiling the entire population of former African slaves from the Chagos Islands. Mauritius received R55 million for its consent to the Chagos islands excision without seeking the consent of the islanders.
The Chagossians only discovered that their islands had been “sold” when they were bundled on to a cargo ship and transported under deplorable conditions to Mauritius and Seychelles without any relocation plan in place.
The Cold War is over but the US is still holding on to its military base on Diego Garcia. While the US has more than 1 000 military installations, facilities and bases outside its own national borders, they regard Diego Garcia as of “unparalleled strategic importance” especially since 9/11 and the “War on Terror”.
Diego Garcia is located in the middle of the Indian Ocean, almost equidistant to India, Australia, the Arabian Gulf and Africa. It is one of the most expensive US military bases, hosting B 52 bombers and other long-range missile projecting weaponry.
There are several cases involving displacement of populations of non-self-governing territories to serve the military, economic and political interests of the US. They include Thule in Greenland; Okinawa in Japan; Vieques in Puerto Rico; Bikini and other atolls in the Marshall Islands. Diego Garcia is unique in that it is without a permanent civilian population.
This came about after the UK deported the entire permanent population of former African slaves from the Chagos Islands to Mauritius and Seychelles and passed them off as the citizens of those countries. As the WikiLeaks scandal has revealed, the US has no intention of allowing Chagossians to return home and the UK does not regret deporting the Chagossians and has now declared a Marine Protected Area over the Chagos islands as an excuse to bar the Chagossians’ return.
The US allows Cubans to co-exist at Guantanamo Bay despite its political animosity towards Cuba. Obama should allow the Chagossians to return and to co-exist with the military base on Diego Garcia in terms of their right to self-determination.
- Maureen Tong is acting head of the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute (TMALI) at Unisa. She wrote her PhD on the rights of the Chagossians to self-determination and reparations.