Does the UK really Care about Human Rights? Do You?
My first political hero was Angel Davis. It was she that first made me aware that black people were engaged in a political struggle in the USA, and I’m proud to say that the first time I was excluded from school it was because I refused to take off a Free Angela Davis badge from my school uniform. Soon I became aware of Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela and CLR James, all of who taught that you should not see your struggle in isolation, but understand how your struggle connects to others around the world.
As a black man I have always been both fascinated and horrified by the way that mainstream media deal with elements of the struggles of black people. I have felt the same about the way many black people deal with, or even think about the struggles of their own people. I’m afraid I can remember clearly both the media and many of my own people questioning my support for the then imprisoned Nelson Mandela, calling me a supporter of a communistic terrorist. How things change. But the question remains, what does it take to make us aware of the struggles of our people.
This year the British government will make a historic decision. It will either perpetuate an outrageous human rights violation or it will finally give justice to an indigenous population over whom they have trampled for decades. The Chagossian people lived on their islands for centuries, until 1973. Now only Diego Garica, the largest Chagos Island has any inhabitants, and these are not Chagossians, these are US military officers and their support staff.
It really is no exaggeration to say that these islands were the closest you could get to paradise islands on Earth. The people were self-sufficient and they were at peace with their environment and themselves. But then, very quickly they lost it all. Chagossians were British citizens and Diego Garcia was UK territory. Through a 50 year old agreement, however, it is used pretty much exclusively by the US military. That agreement expires this year and Chagossians want to go back to their land. How did such an agreement come to be and why did it lead to half a century of enforced exile and suffering for Chagossians? Well the answer is rooted in an unsavoury and little known episode of British colonial history dating back to the 1960s. Prompted by Cold War anxiety and events in Vietnam, the USA wanted a strategically important base between Europe and the far-east. The US insisted that the people were removed from Diego Garcia, and the UK Government obliged, dumping its own citizens on the docks of Mauritius and the Seychelles.
Formerly classified documents confirm that UK officials knowingly mis-characterised Chagossians as migrant workers, whilst in fact knowing perfectly well they had lived there for centuries. This helped avoid global scrutiny, and maybe this is why so few people are aware of the suffering of these people. Chagossians were British subjects, but there is little evidence of patriotic solidarity from Foreign Office officials. If fact one referred to Chagossians as “Tarzans” and “Man Fridays.” Chagossians have always tried to avoid playing the race card, but I will. Just ask yourself if you could imagine the people of the Falkland Islands being referred to in this way. Not only do the government champion the right of ‘self-determination’ for the people of the Falkland Island, they go to war for them. Evidently the Chagossian people were not considered worthy of those same rights. The UK held up its part of this evil deal with the US: the islands would be ‘swept and sanitised.’ Chagossians were forced to leave their homes, some with no more than they could carry.
Prior to their removal, food supplies were restricted and those attempting to return to the islands, some after medical treatment in Mauritius, were denied permission to do so. Chagossians were known for the special relationship that had with their pet dogs, so a potent symbol of the disregard shown to the islanders was the gassing of hundreds of these much loved dogs. The last remaining Chagossians were eventually forced from their homes in 1973. They were crowded into boats and dumped on the shores of Mauritius and the Seychelles. Promised compensation took years to arrive or never did.
Life in the slums of Port Louis, where many Chagossians ended up, was tough and a world away from life on Chagos. Chagossians still recall today how they were self sufficient in food and rarely needed to purchase anything beyond clothing on the Islands. But in exile, destitute and psychologically tormented, the community has suffered a sadly high proportion of suicides, alcohol and drug abuse. Others have died simply from what Chagossians called ‘Sagren,’ a Creole term difficult to fully translate but essentially meaning ‘sadness.’
In spite of these difficulties, they have never ceased to fight for their right to return home. Speaking to Chagossians now reminds of speaking to South Africans in the 70s,and 80s. They are tenacious, steadfast, and they know that truth is on their side. Following a feasibility study, Ministers last year finally accepted that the return of the Chagossian people to their homes was “practically feasible.” The original agreement for the use of Diego Garcia by the US expires this year, and the UK could make US support for Chagossian return a condition of any renewal of the deal. For many Chagossians, this may be their last chance to return. Second and even third generation Chagossians are also determined to go back to what they still consider their homeland and help rebuild Chagossian society.
The British Government has long accepted that their treatment of the Chagossian people was ‘wrong’ and yet there has been little progress in delivering any measure of justice although there has been plenty of opportunity to do so. The High Court ruled in 2000 that the banning of the Chagossian people from returning was illegal. This was effectively annulled, however, in 2004 by use of Royal Prerogative. This is an antiquated, undemocratic ritual that allows government ministers to ask the queen to overrule judges’ decisions. Judges have called the British Government’s behaviour ‘repugnant’ and an ‘abuse of power’. In spite of all this, successive Governments – Labour, Conservative and Coalition – have failed to show genuine determination to answer this international call for justice.
When I started writing this my main target audience was the black community, it was first published in The Voice newspaper, but when it comes to the Human Rights, (or Animal rights for that matter), I’m not a black guy or a white guy, I’m not a Asian or an Hispanic guy, I’m a human guy. This is about the humanity and dignity of a people.
The Chagossian community is a small group of a few thousand people with high levels of deprivation, and yet they have not shirked the task of challenging two of the most powerful Governments in the world. We should not shirk our responsibility to back our fellow citizens in their struggle for something as simple as their homeland. Personally I think that we of the black communities, (and all communities for that matter), should shout louder to defend our Chagossians sister and brothers. They desperately need us. In times like these when we are bombarded with images of refugees and asylum seekers running away from home, here we have refugees and exiles desperately wanting to go home. Ending Chagossians UK-enforced exile is the only just end to decades of human rights violation. It would not only give a future to this stricken community; it would also be a chance for Britain as a nation to do the right thing. 2016 must be the year we stand together and act to end their exile.
Benjamin Zephaniah is Patron of the UK Chagos Support Association but the views in this article are his own.