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  • In the 1970s, the US Government created a military base on the Indian Ocean island Diego Garcia in the British-controlled Chagos Archipelago.
  • Prior to the base’s creation, the US Government convinced and secretly paid the UK $14 million to forcibly remove the indigenous Chagossian people of Diego Garcia and the Chagos Archipelago.
  • Numbering around 2,000, the Chagossians were deported and discarded in abject poverty 1,200 miles away in the slums of the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and the Seychelles.
  • Since their expulsion, Chagossians have been barred from returning to their homeland and remain deeply impoverished.
  • Although the US Government ordered and orchestrated the expulsion and paid the UK Government to carry it out, the US Government has systematically abdicated its responsibility for the appalling conditions of the Chagossians and has repeatedly covered up its instrumental role in their exile.
  • In 2012, more than 30,000 people signed a petition to the White House demanding the US Government recognize the wrongs committed against the Chagossians. Unfortunately, the Obama administration again refused to accept US responsibility for wrongfully expelling the Chagossians from their homeland. Congress has only addressed the issue during a single hearing in 1975.
  • In late 2014, the 2-year period to renegotiate the Diego Garcia base agreement commenced with the initial 50-year term expiring in 2016. While the bilateral executive agreement is subject to an automatic 20-year renewal, the renegotiations are a pivotal moment to redress the harm done to the Chagossians.

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Congressional hearings to publicly air the US role in the Chagossians’ exile and current plight and to identify steps the US Government should take to rectify these wrongs.

Direct negotiations between Chagossian representatives and senior Obama administration officials to secure the following:
The US Government recognizes, supports, and guarantees Chagossians’ basic right to return to and live in their homeland in coexistence with the Diego Garcia base and with equal rights to work on the base.
The US Government convenes a Congressionally Mandated Commission whereby Congress could provide funding to be disbursed by the commission to reimburse Chagossians for wrongs suffered.
The US Government involves Chagossians as a fundamental stakeholder during all negotiations pertaining to the renewal of the agreement for the base; includes in the renegotiated agreement guarantees of Chagossians’ right to return and US assistance with resettlement; and respects Chagossians’ right to free, prior, and informed consent about the agreement provisions for civilian habitation and immigration to ensure the protection of Chagossians’ fundamental rights.

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EXILED FROM DIEGO GARCIA: A SHORT HISTORY OF THE CHAGOSSIANS

Shortly after the end of the American Revolution, enslaved peoples from Africa became the first settlers in the Indian Ocean’s Chagos Archipelago, when they were brought to work on the archipelago’s largest island, Diego Garcia. Followed by their free descendants and indentured labourers from India, a diverse mixture of peoples, religions, and traditions merged to create a unique society in Chagos. Today, the only people living in Chagos are soldiers and civilian contractors working on the billion-dollar U.S. military base on Diego Garcia. Between 1965 and 1973, the U.S. and U.K. governments forcibly removed the inhabitants of Chagos to create the military base. The people, known as Chagossians, were left in impoverished exile on the western Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and the Seychelles.

In a setting of idyllic white sand beaches and fertile green vegetation, the ancestors of today’s Chagossians built a society that by the 20th century included numerous villages complete with hospitals, roads, churches, and schools. The people began to speak their own language, Chagos Creole. The population grew to over 1,000. Life was not luxurious, but in exchange for their labor on Chagos’s coconut plantations, Chagossians enjoyed guaranteed employment, regular salaries in cash and food, free housing and land for gardens and animals, health care, vacations, pensions, schooling, and free access to Chagos’s abundant fishing grounds and flora. Life was peaceful and easy in Chagos. Poverty and misery were unknown, and Chagossians enjoyed good health.

In the 1960s, this life transformed. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations convinced the British to detach the Chagos Archipelago from colonial Mauritius to create a new colony solely for military use, called the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). As part of a confidential 1966 agreement, U.S. officials ordered the removal from the new territory of what were then about 1,500 Chagossians. The U.S. Government secretly paid the British $14 million to create the BIOT and remove the Chagossians.

Beginning in 1968, any Chagossians leaving Chagos for vacations or medical treatment were denied their customary return passage to their homes and left stranded—often without their families and their possessions—in Mauritius. At the turn of the decade when the British restricted the number of regular supply ships visiting Chagos, others left as food, medicines, and other necessities dwindled.

In 1971, officials of the British Government, acting on U.S. orders and with some assistance from U.S. soldiers, unlawfully forced the remaining inhabitants of Diego Garcia to board overcrowded cargo ships and leave their homes forever. The ships dumped some of the Chagossians 150 miles away in Chagos’s far-off Peros Banhos and Salomon islands and others 1,200 miles away on the docks of Mauritius and the Seychelles. In the process, British Government agents and U.S. Navy Seabees first shot, then poisoned, and finally gassed and burnt the islanders’ pet dogs in sealed sheds. By 1973, the Chagos Archipelago had no more permanent inhabitants as the last Chagossians were deported to Mauritius and the Seychelles.

In Mauritius and the Seychelles, the Chagossians received no resettlement assistance and quickly found themselves living in what the Washington Post called “abject poverty.” To this day, Chagossians living in Mauritius and the Seychelles face impoverishment and unemployment. Many live in homes of corrugated metal and wood with poor or nonexistent water and sanitation services. Many suffer from poor health and low levels of education. Many have been the victims of ethnic discrimination from Mauritians and Seychellois, and many have suffered through other forms of daily harm and humiliation accompanying life as a marginalized underclass in exile. In their own words, their life is one of sagren—the grief of being exiled from their natal lands—and lamizer—a miserable, abject poverty beyond that of low incomes alone.

But Chagossians have also resisted their treatment at the hands of the great powers. From the very moment they were deported, many demanded to be returned to Chagos or to be properly resettled. In the 1970s and

1980s, many suffered through hunger strikes and arrest to win small compensation payments from the British Government. The money totaled around $6,000 per person. For most, it was only enough to pay off substantial debts incurred since the expulsion or to get what for many was their first formal home in the slums of the Mauritian capitol, Port Louis. Chagossians in the Seychelles received nothing at all.

The Chagossian struggle was reinvigorated in 1997 when the Chagos Refugees Group launched a historic lawsuit against the U.K. In November 2000, Chagossians were victorious: The British High Court ruled the Chagossians’ removal illegal. Initially, the British Government accepted the ruling and issued laws allowing Chagossians to return to all of Chagos except Diego Garcia, although the Government provided no assistance to facilitate resettlement. Living in poverty 1,200 miles away and with their old society in ruins, the Chagossians had little means with which to return, let alone to rebuild sustainable lives there.

In 2001 and 2002, most Chagossians joined new lawsuits in U.K. and U.S. courts demanding the right to return to Chagos and compensation for their removal and to rebuild their societies. Lawyers filed a class action suit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia against the U.S. Government and several Government officials, including Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld. The suit accused the defendants of acts including forced relocation; racial discrimination; cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; and genocide. In 2005, the suit was dismissed on the grounds of the political question doctrine—or the inability of the judiciary to overrule the executive on matters of military and foreign policy. The D.C. Circuit Court upheld the ruling, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

In Britain, Chagossians were victorious twice more in suits against the U.K. On the government’s final appeal, however, Britain’s highest court, the House of Lords, upheld the Chagossians’ exile in a 3-2 decision. The ruling effectively reaffirming colonial law and concluding that the government’s military and financial interests trump the Chagossians’ right to live in their homeland. An appeal to the European Court of Human Rights was dismissed on the grounds that many Chagossians accepted compensation in the 1980s when in reality only 471 Chagossians received monies totaling around $6,000 per recipient.

Recently, support for the Chagossians has gained momentum worldwide. The European Parliament has passed a resolution calling on the EU to support a return. The African Union has also condemned the unlawful deportation of the Chagossians. At least three Nobel laureates have called for their return. In Britain, dozens of members of Parliament and other politicians have joined an all-party group supporting the Chagossians’ struggle. In 2013, more than 30,000 people signed a petition to the White House asking President Obama to redress the wrongs Chagossians have suffered. Sadly, the Obama administration refused to accept U.S. responsibility for wrongfully expelling the Chagossians.

Pressure on the U.S. and U.K. Governments is mounting as new developments have left Chagossians and their supporters believing that the right of return is imminent. In January, a British Government study found no significant legal barriers to resettling the islands (where U.S. military personnel have lived for more than four decades). In March, a UN court ruled that the U.K. Government acted illegally in creating a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the Chagos Archipelago after a State Department cable showed the U.S. and Britain saw the MPA as the best way to prevent Chagossians from ever returning home. At the same time, a 2-year period to renegotiate the Diego Garcia base agreement has just commenced, with the initial 50-year term expiring in 2016. While the bilateral agreement is subject to an automatic 20-year renewal, the renegotiations offer a pivotal moment to redress the injustices done to the Chagossians.

The plight and struggle of the Chagossians has been widely documented. The Chagossians are determined to pursue all avenues for justice to prevail and for their fundamental rights to be restored.

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THE CHAGOSSIAN PEOPLE: A TIMELINE OF THEIR EXILE AND STRUGGLE TO RETURN HOME

1783—First permanent settlement in the Chagos Archipelago, on its largest island, Diego Garcia. 1957—U.S. Navy examines Diego Garcia as a potential base site.

1960—U.S. Navy begins discussions on Diego Garcia with British naval counterparts. 1962—Formal negotiations begin between Robert McNamara and U.K. Minister of Defence. 1963—President Kennedy approves the base and orders McNamara to carry out the plan.

1964—Formal U.S./U.K. talks on Diego Garcia. U.S. indicates interest in gaining “exclusive control” of Diego Garcia “without local inhabitants.” Tentative agreement reached, with the U.K. to assume responsibility for setting up a new colony, including Diego Garcia, exclusively for military base sites, and to remove all inhabitants.

1965—U.K. pressures its colony Mauritius to cede Chagos and creates the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). McNamara authorizes secret $14 million transfer to U.K. to create the BIOT and remove its population.

1966—U.S./U.K. Exchange of Notes gives U.S. access to Diego Garcia for 50 years with an

automatic 20 year renewal of the agreement unless either government cancels it within 2 years of 2016. In unpublished, confidential minutes, U.K. agrees to remove Chagossians.

1968—Chagossians traveling to Mauritius for vacations or medical treatment prevented from returning to Chagos and stranded in Mauritius. Supplies of food, medicines, and other necessities in Chagos running low. Others coerced into leaving. Population declines.

1970—Congress appropriates first construction funds for Diego Garcia base after years of Navy

lobbying. Navy tells Congress the islands have no permanent population. State Department Legal Adviser writes internally that U.S. shares responsibility with U.K. for Chagos’s inhabitants and their welfare.

1971—Construction begins on Diego Garcia. British agents and U.S. soldiers gas and burn Chagossians’ pet dogs. Remaining inhabitants forced onto cargo ships and deported to other Chagos islands, Peros Banhos and Salomon, or to Mauritius and Seychelles.

1972—Chagossians in Salomon deported to Peros Banhos, Mauritius, or Seychelles.

1973—Chagossians in Peros Banhos deported to Mauritius. The expulsion is complete. No Chagossians remain on their islands.

1975—Washington Post breaks the expulsion story for the first time in Western press, describes Chagossians living in “abject poverty” in Mauritius. Senators Culver and Kennedy force Ford Administration to report on the inhabitants; hearings held before interest fades.

1979—Chagossians receive £650,000 compensation paid by U.K. to Mauritian Government. 1982—After hunger strikes and protests, U.K. agrees to £4 million compensation, forces mostly illiterate

Chagossians to thumbprint English contract renouncing right of return. U.S. spends hundreds of millions of dollars to expand base on Diego Garcia.

1997—Chagos Refugees Group files suit against the British Crown.

2000—British High Court rules for Chagossians that expulsion was illegal under British law.

2001—Chagossians sue the U.S. Government and officials including McNamara and Rumsfeld.

2003—Chagossians’ second U.K. suit for compensation found in favor of the Crown despite the court admitting Chagossians “treated shamefully by successive U.K. governments.”

2004—U.K. Government, in the name of the Queen, passes royal Orders in Council decreeing Chagossians barred from return to Chagos; effectively overrules 2000 victory.

2005—U.S. suit dismissed. An appeals court later upholds the ruling and the Supreme Court declines to hear the case. Challenge in British court to Orders in Council allowed. Chagossians sue U.K. in European Court of Human Rights.

2006—Chagossians win suit that rules Orders in Council unlawful; British government appeals.

2007—Chagossians win appeal over Orders in Council; British government appeals to the U.K.’s highest court, the House of Lords.

2008—Law Lords, by a 3-2 margin, overturn Chagossians’ lower court victories, upholding the exile. The ruling upholds colonial law and finds that the government’s financial and military interests trump the people’s right of abode in Chagos.

2009—European Parliament passes a resolution calling on the EU to support the Chagossians’ resettlement of the Chagos Archipelago.

2010—U.K. creates a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the Chagos Archipelago with an exemption for Diego Garcia. Later, Wikileaks releases a cable showing U.K. and U.S. officials agreed that creating the MPA was the best means of keeping the Chagossians from ever returning to Chagos.

2011—Assembly of the African Union condemns unlawful excision of the territory and MPA’s illegality.

2012—European Court of Human Rights dismisses Chagossians’ case claiming that acceptance of small amounts of compensation in 1980s by some Chagossians means the entire people have no grounds to sue.

2014—U.S./U.K. negotiations to renew the bilateral base agreement purportedly begin in December.

2015—U.K. releases study confirming the viability of Chagossians resettling their islands. In March, the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration rules the U.K. acted illegally in creating an MPA in the Chagos Archipelago, bolstering Chagossians’ movement to return.

[/su_spoiler][su_spoiler title=”Louis Olivier Bancoult Bio” style=”fancy”]

Known as the “Nelson Mandela” of the Chagossian People

Olivier Bancoult is President and co-founder of the Chagos Refugees Group (CRG). Under Bancoult’s leadership, for more than thirty years the CRG has promoted the welfare, interests, and rights of the exiled Chagossian people living in Mauritius, the Seychelles, and the UK. The Chagossians were expelled from their homeland in the 1960s and 1970s to make way for the creation of a U.S. military base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. Bancoult, a fifty-year-old electrician by training, has gained international acclaim for fighting for Chagossians’ right to return to their homeland and for leading his people to victories in three lawsuits against the British government, which controls Diego Garcia. In 2000, 2006, and 2007, the British High Court ruled that the removal of Bancoult’s people from their homeland was illegal; however, the victories were overturned in 2008 by a 3-2 decision in the House of Lords. Undeterred, Bancoult has continued to lead the Chagossians’ legal and political struggle to return to their homeland and gain proper reparations for their expulsion. Bancoult has represented the Chagossians in London and Washington, DC, at the United Nations and the Vatican, and at numerous international forums in Europe, Africa, and Asia. With a newly published British government study finding no legal barriers to a return and the renewal of US/UK negotiations over the Diego Garcia base agreement, Bancoult will visit the United States April 19-30, 2015, to call on the Obama Administration and United Nations delegations to support Chagossians’ right to return, resettlement assistance, and justice for the Chagossians.

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TO LEARN MORE

  • Chagos Refugees Group http://chagosrefugeesgroup.org/
  • Watch a “60 Minutes” report (12 min) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lxVao1Hnl1s
  • Watch John Pilger’s “Stealing a Nation” (56 min) http://johnpilger .com/videos/stealing-a-nation
  • Read Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9441.html
  • More News Articles http://www.theguardian.com/world/chagos-islands
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Fighting to return home