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"Chagossian Support Sign-on Letter"

 

To download the letter, click here.

 

 

XXXXX XX, 2016

 

President Barack Obama

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

Washington, DC 20500

 

The Honorable Ash Carter

Secretary of Defense

1000 Defense Pentagon

Washington, DC 20301

 

The Honorable John Kerry

Department of State

2201 C St. NW

Washington, DC 20520

 

Ambassador Susan E. Rice

National Security Advisor

The White House

1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

Washington, DC 20500

 

 

Urging a Public Statement Saying the US Government Does Not Oppose

the Exiled Chagossian People Resettling in Their Homeland

 

Dear President Obama, Secretary Carter, Secretary Kerry, and Ambassador Rice:

 

We write to urge the Administration to help correct a historic injustice suffered by the Chagossian people. More than forty years ago, the Chagossians were exiled from their homeland during the creation of the U.S. military base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. Since that time, the Chagossians have been living in impoverished exile and struggling to return home.

 

Recently, momentum has been building toward a return since the publication, earlier this year, of a British Government study showing that resettlement on Diego Garcia and the other Chagos islands is indeed feasible. The Administration could help make a return possible by taking one simple step: stating publicly that the United States does not oppose the resettlement of the Chagossian people in their homeland, including on Diego Garcia, where they could coexist peacefully with the U.S. Naval Support Facility.

 

At the outset, we must be clear: The Chagossians are not asking for the removal of the base. They are simply asking to go home. As at U.S. military installations worldwide, the presence of a local civilian population and a U.S. base are not mutually exclusive.

Below is a short history of the Chagossian people, their exile, and their movement to return. You will also find extensive evidence showing how there are no legitimate military grounds for preventing resettlement.

 

 

Settlement of the Chagos Archipelago

 

Before their removal, the Chagossians and their ancestors lived in the Chagos Archipelago since the time of the American Revolution. The first to arrive in the previously uninhabited islands were enslaved Africans who were brought by Franco-Mauritian plantation owners to work on coconut plantations. After slavery was abolished in the 1830s, the owners started importing indentured laborers from India to supplement the labor force. Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, this diverse mixture of peoples combined to create a new and unique society in Chagos. The people spoke their own language, Chagos Kreol. They initially called themselves the Ilois—the Islanders.

 

While far from luxurious and still a plantation society, the islands provided a secure life, generally free of want, and featuring universal employment and numerous social benefits, including regular if small salaries in cash and food, land, free housing, education, pensions, burial services, and basic health care on islands described by many to this day as idyllic.

 

 

The Creation of the Base on Diego Garcia 

 

Beginning in the late 1950s, the U.S. Navy began searching for small, strategically located islands on which the United States might build military bases. Navy officials identified Diego Garcia as a prime candidate. They approached the British Government, which controlled Diego Garcia and the Chagos Archipelago as part of colonial Mauritius, about basing rights.[1]

 

During secret negotiations, Pentagon and State Department officials insisted that Diego Garcia and the other Chagos islands come under their “exclusive control (without local inhabitants).”[2] The Navy insisted “emphatically” that the new base have “no dependents.”[3] To prepare the islands for base construction, Pentagon and State Department officials encouraged Britain to detach the Chagos Archipelago from colonial Mauritius and create a new colony (contravening UN resolutions and established principles of international law forbidding the division of colonies during the decolonization process). The purpose of this redrawing of borders was the establishment of one or more military bases. British officials agreed to the plan and, in 1965, created the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).[4]

 

U.S. and British officials signed an official agreement granting the United States base access with a 1966 “Exchange of Notes.”[5] In confidential minutes accompanying the Notes, the United States agreed to secretly transfer $14 million to Britain by wiping out a British military debt. In exchange for the funds, Britain also agreed to take those “administrative measures” necessary for “resettling the inhabitants.”[6]

 

 

Removing the Chagossians

 

Beginning in 1967, Chagossians leaving Chagos for medical treatment or regular vacations in Mauritius were denied the right to return to Chagos. Pursuant to this policy, Chagossians who left the islands were effectively marooned over 1,200 miles from their homes, often without family members or any of their possessions. The British also began restricting the importation of supplies to Chagos, and by the turn of the decade more Chagossians were forced to leave as food and medicines became scarce.

 

In 1971, the U.S. Navy began construction of a base on Diego Garcia, the largest island of the Chagos archipelago and home to the majority of Chagossians. Anxious to speed construction, U.S. officials urged their British counterparts to proceed with the removal process. British agents and U.S. naval personnel started by herding up the Chagossians’ pet dogs and gassing them to death in sealed factory sheds while their traumatized owners looked on.[7]

 

Between 1971 and 1973, British agents forced the remaining islanders, first on Diego Garcia and then on the rest of the Chagos islands, to board overcrowded cargo ships and deported them to Mauritius and the Seychelles against their will. There, the Chagossians were unloaded and left with no resettlement assistance. When a Washington Post reporter became the first in the Western press to investigate the Chagossians’ fate in 1975, he found them living in “abject poverty.”[8]

 

In 1978 and 1982, five and ten years after the last group of Chagossians were expelled, some Chagossians in Mauritius received compensation payments from the British government. The compensation, in land, housing, and cash, totaled around $6,000 per adult recipient.[9] Chagossians living in the Seychelles received no compensation. Many used the money to pay off debts accrued since the expulsion, and for most Chagossians, conditions improved only marginally.[10]

 

In 1997, a World Health Organization-funded report found that most Chagossians were “still housed in tin shacks in the disadvantaged slums” of the Mauritian capital, Port Louis, “without regular incomes and without real access to education or health care.”[11] A 2002-2003 survey of Chagossians in Mauritius and the Seychelles found that Chagossians’ daily per capita income was around $2.50 (2008 international dollars). Less than 40 percent of the generation born in Chagos was working. The community had a self-reported substance abuse rate of about 20 percent.[12]

 

 

Asking to Return

Since their expulsion, Chagossians have repeatedly asked the United States and Britain to return them to their homeland and redress this wrong. Unfortunately, previous U.S. and U.K. administrations have callously ignored these pleas. After Chagossians won a historic court ruling in 2000 that found their expulsion illegal under British law, Britain briefly revoked the ban on Chagossians returning to their homeland, only to reinstate it shortly thereafter.[13] Encouragingly, indications suggest that U.S. officials, at the time, consented to Chagossians returning to Chagos[14] thereby reinforcing the assertion that the mere presence of the military base tenders no justification to the continued blanket ban on the right of abode.

Earlier this year, a British Government-commissioned study found no significant legal barriers to Chagossians resettling their islands. The KPMG study outlined three potential pilot resettlement plans, including a plan for resettlement on the eastern (unused) half of Diego Garcia.[15] Chagossians hope to begin such a pilot resettlement soon and are now asking the U.S. Government for one simple thing: to state publicly that it does not oppose resettlement on Diego Garcia and in the rest of the Chagos Archipelago.

Again, Chagossians are not calling for the removal of the base on Diego Garcia. In fact, many desire to work on the base, where for decades they were prevented from working.[16] The right to return and the presence of the military base are in no way mutually exclusive.

 

No Military Grounds to Bar Return

 

Lastly but fundamentally, there are no legitimate military reasons to prevent Chagossians from returning. Local civilians, of course, live near and work on U.S. bases worldwide. In many cases, civilians live near some of the world’s most sensitive military bases—including bases housing nuclear weapons, other advanced weapons systems, and intelligence gathering facilities. The U.S. naval station at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba has existed for decades with an unfriendly Cuban regime and Cuban civilians living on the other side of the fence.

 

Among hundreds of other cases, the U.S. Air Force and Navy bases on Guam play similar military roles as Diego Garcia. Tens of thousands of civilians live in close proximity to the bases. At the U.S. missile-testing base in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, indigenous Marshallese civilians live on nearby islands and commute to the base for work. The same is true of the U.S. base on Britain’s Ascension Island, in the Atlantic Ocean. These and other examples, alone, make it hard to sustain any argument that Chagossians should be prohibited from living in their homeland for military reasons.

 

On Diego Garcia, there have indeed been civilian employees living and working on the base for more than 30 years. Unlike most Chagossians, who are British citizens, the vast majority of these civilians are neither British nor U.S. citizens and clearly have not posed a threat to the base.

 

For many years, civilians sailing yachts have also visited and lived on the northern Chagos islands for days and weeks at a time with the permission of the British Indian Ocean Territory administration. These visitors, as well as fishing vessels trawling Chagos’s waters with British authorization before the creation of a marine protected area in Chagos in 2010, have apparently posed no security threat.

 

Multiple military and national security experts have also concluded that there are no military grounds for preventing Chagossians from returning. For example, Lawrence Korb, former Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration, concluded in an October 2010 letter:

 

“Based upon my experience as an Assistant Secretary of Defense with responsibility for, among other areas, installations and logistics and my 23 years of service in the United States Naval reserve…I can see no good national security reason for not allowing the Native Chagossians to return to all of Chagos, including Diego Garcia. In fact, after reviewing the situation, I cannot understand why they were evicted in the 1960s and 1970s. While there is no doubt that Diego Garcia is a critical base for projecting U.S. power throughout the greater Middle East, there is no good reason why allowing the Chagossians to return would undermine the mission in any way. There are many U.S. bases around the globe that not only have the indigenous population living nearby but actually employ some of these people on the base.”[17]

 

No less of an authority than the author of the original plan for the base on Diego Garcia came to the same conclusion. The U.S. Navy’s Stuart Barber wrote before his death, “there was never any good reason for evicting the Chagossians from the Northern Chagos [islands], 100 miles or more from Diego Garcia. Probably the natives could even have been allowed to remain on the east side of Diego Garcia.” He concluded the removal “wasn’t necessary militarily.”[18]

 

 

Conclusion

 

The Administration has the power to help correct the historic injustice that Chagossians have suffered for more than forty years. There are no military grounds for preventing Chagossians from going home. The Chagossians simply want to return to their homeland to live in the land of their ancestors in coexistence with the U.S. military. Allowing Chagossians to return home would be especially meaningful for elderly Chagossians who want to be able to live again in their birthplace and die where their ancestors are buried, while also restoring the inherent right of younger generations of Chagossians to live in their homeland as well.

 

We urge you to state publicly that the United States is not opposed to a return. By doing so, the Administration would make a powerful statement to the world about the United States’s commitment to upholding human rights.   

 

 

Sincerely,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] David Vine, Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), chap. 3. See also, Vytautas Bandjunis, Diego Garcia: Creation of the Indian Ocean Base (San Jose, CA: Writer’s Showcase, 2001).

 

[2] U.S. Embassy London, “telegram to Secretary of State, February 27, 1964,” 1-2.

 

[3] Stuart B. Barber, letter to Paul Ryan, April 26, 1982. See Vine, 4-5.

 

[4] See Vine, chap. 4.

 

[5] United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, “Availability of Certain Indian Ocean Islands for Defense Purposes,” exchange of notes, December 30, 1966.

 

[6] Letter from Alun Gwynne Jones Chalfont to David K. E. Bruce (Dec. 30, 1966) (on file with National Archives and Records Administration, II, RG 59/150/64-65, Subject-Numeric Files 1964-1966, Box 1552); Bandjunis; Vine, 87-88.

 

[7] Vine, 113-114.

 

[8] David Ottaway, “Islanders Were Evicted for U.S. Base,” Washington Post, September 9, 1975, A1.

 

[9] Mauritius Legislative Assembly, “Report of the Select Committee on the Excision of the Chagos Archipelago,” report, Port Louis, Mauritius, June 1983, 3-5; David Vine, Philip Harvey, and S. Wojciech Sokolowski, “Compensating a People for the Loss of Their Homeland: Diego Garcia, the Chagossians, and the Human Rights Standards Damages Model,” Northwestern Journal of International Human Rights 11, no. 1 (2012): 152-185.

 

[10] Vine, 136.

 

[11] Tania Dræbel, “Evaluation des besoins sociaux de la communauté déplacée de l’Archipel de Chagos, volet un: santé et education,” World Health Organization report for Le Ministère de la Sécurité Sociale et de la Solidarité Nationale, Mauritius, December 1997, 4.

 

[12] David Vine, S. Wojciech Sokolowski, and Philip Harvey, “Dérasiné: The Expulsion and Impoverishment of the Chagossian People [Diego Garcia],” expert report for American University Law School, Washington, DC, and Sheridans Solicitors, London, April 11, 2005.

 

[13] See Vine, chap. 11.

 

[14] In the UK House of Lords, Lord Mance found this was “clear from the terms of Mr. Robin Cook’s press statement and the BIOT Ordinance issued on 3 November 2000 after the decision in Bancoult 1. The United States authorities themselves also appear to have recognised a reality in somewhat different terms to that indicated in their letter of 21 June 2000, in view of the affirmative answer given (subject to correction, but none occurred) by Mr. John Battle, Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, on 9 January 2001 to the Parliamentary question: ‘has the US agreed that the islanders may return to any of the outlying islands? The letter of 21 June stated that that could imperil the base’s status. Has that now changed?’” Regina (on the Application of Bancoult) v. Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (2008) UKHL 61, para. 166.

 

[15] KPMG, “Feasibility Study for the Resettlement of the British Indian Ocean Territory,” report for UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, January 31, 2015, sect. 3.3. 

 

[16] Larry W. Bowman & Jeffrey A. Lefebvre, The Indian Ocean: U.S. Military and Strategic Perspectives, in The Indian Ocean: Perspectives on a Strategic Arena n.28 (William L. Dowdy & Russell B. Trood, eds., 1985); 60 Minutes, Diego Garcia (CBS television broadcast June 15, 2003). In the past few years, a handful of Chagossians have worked on the island.

 

[17] Lawrence J. Korb, letter to Richard Gifford, October 25, 2010.

 

[18] Stuart B. Barber, unpublished letter to the editor of the Washington Post, March 9, 1991; Barber, letter to Senator Ted Stevens, October 3, 1975. See Vine, 197-198.