Diego Garcia: Rules for the powerful; bombs for the weak

In concert, the US and the UK in the 1960s seized the island of Diego Garcia, expelled its inhabitants and converted it into a massive airbase for the bombing of Middle Eastern and African targets. Both countries continue to defy a ruling by the International Court of Justice to transfer the island back to Mauritius. Compare that to Chinese action on uninhabited and adjacent islands.

The US calls for all of us to obey the rules of international order. They are good rules. If they had been around a few years earlier we would not have had the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War and a host of mini-wars ranging from Grenada, Guatemala, Panama, Syria, Chile, Columbia, Libya, Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Cambodia and Lao.

But the grand-daddy of them all is perhaps the least known – the move by the US in the 1960s in concert with the UK to seize the island of Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean, expel its inhabitants and convert it into a massive airbase for the bombing of Middle Eastern and African targets.

In the process the US managed to break or ignore the rules laid down by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, and the African Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty. Add to this denial of legal claims by former island inhabitants seeking right of return plus the illegal use of the islands for torture renditions, and the list of infractions of the rules by the US becomes fairly impressive.

It certainly makes Beijing’s alleged transgressions in the East and South China sea seem almost irrelevant – particularly since most of them are in fact Taiwan’s, not Beijing’s.

The Diego Garcia story begins with the British seizing the French colonised islands of Mauritius (the Chagos Archipelago to the south-west of India included) following its victory in the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15). In 1965 the British then split off the Chagos archipelago to create a fictitious territorial unit called the British Indian Overseas Territory (BOIT).  Soon after, from 1968 – 1973 it began the deportation of the local population to Mauritius and the Seychelles after which the US was allowed to convert the territory to the enormous air and naval bases we see today.

(If there is one thing I learned during my years in foreign affairs it is the knee jerk subservience of Perfidious Albion to the wishes of the US, no matter how evil.)

Mauritius has maintained its claim to the Chagos Archipelago ever since, claiming it was illegally separated to create the BOIT. In 2017, the United Nations General Assembly voted 94-15 to refer the dispute between Mauritius and the UK to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). 

In 2019, the ICJ in The Hague ruled that the UK must transfer the islands back to Mauritius as they were not legally separated from the latter in 1965. 

It demanded also that the United Kingdom withdraw its colonial administration from the islands and cooperate with Mauritius to facilitate the resettlement of Mauritian nationals (the original Chagos population) in the archipelago – to which the US and the UK responded by saying the current agreement between them would remain in force until 2036 and already there is talk of extending it for a further 50 years.

In its submission to the ICJ, Mauritius argued it was coerced into giving up the Chagos Islands and that the separation was in breach of UN resolution 1514, passed in 1960, which specifically banned the breakup of colonies before independence. It accused the UK of ‘trespass, intentional infliction of emotional distress, forced relocation, racial discrimination, torture and genocide’. 

The remnants of the original 1,500 Chagossian population have been left to eke out a living in Mauritius and London. 

Meanwhile, the Diego Garcia base continues its unflustered existence, happily bombing Middle Eastern, Somalian and other targets at will.