The UK’s Indian Ocean Territory in the Spotlight… Again

The British Indian Ocean Territory, otherwise known as the Chagos Islands or the Chagos Archipelagos was in the spotlight today, as it featured on the front cover of The Independent. Most people will know of the Chagos Islands because of the presence of a US military base on one of the islands, Diego Garcia. This military base has been the centre of controversy over the years for two main reasons.

The first reason is how exactly the military base came to be. In 1966, the British government entered into secret discussions with the US government over the future of the Islands, and they eventually came to an agreement that the British would offer a 50 year lease to the US, so the US could build a military base on the Islands. Accordingly, between 1966 and 1971, with a last group in 1973, the natives of the Islands, known as Chagossians, were expelled. Although a series of court battles have since taken place, it is generally accepted that the natives were expelled illegally.

In 2010, the islands were designated a Marine Protected Area, and some fantastic work is undertaken there by the Chagos Trust. However, during Wikileak’s Cablegate, it was revealed in a series of diplomatic communications that the MPA was actually set up to make it harder for the natives to return, as the US were concerned that their military base was under threat by the recent court successes the Chagossians has been having. It can’t have been good when The Independent in March last year, revealed that Diego Garcia had been pouring their human waste into the coral reefs for 30 years, unregulated.

The second controversy surrounding Diego Garcia was when it was revealed that it had been used for terrorist rendition flights. When the US Senate’s intelligence report was released back in December, questions were raised over whether the UK had asked for mentions of Diego Garcia to be redacted. Earlier in 2014, the Observer revealed that British officials had met with the Senate committee members more than 20 times since the investigation had started.

Manfred Nowak, of the United Nations, told the Observer in 2008 that Diego Garcia had been used to hold detainees in 2002 and 2003, and former US General, Barry McCaffrey, had said that the US kept detainees on the island, although he later withdrew his statement. Michael Blyth, a Royal Marine who represented the Foreign Office on Diego Garcia, filed a testimony in High Court that the US had initially talked about using the Islands to hold up to 500 suspects. The request had been made within the weeks shortly after 9/11, and was written off “within about 30 minutes,” because there was “no current physical or logistical capacity.”

In February 2008, David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary at the time, revealed to Parliament “contrary to earlier explicit assurances that Diego Garcia had not been used for rendition flights, recent US investigations have now revealed two occasions, both in 2002, when this had in fact occurred.”

So, today’s revelation on the front page of The Independent doesn’t come as a complete surprise. Apparently, Lawrence Wilkinson, who was the chief aide to the former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, has revealed that the CIA did use Diego Garcia for secret terror investigations. In an interview with Vice News website, Mr Wilkinson said “What I heard was more along the lines of using it as a transit location when perhaps other places were full or other places were deemed too dangerous or insecure, or unavailable at the moment.”

Cori Crider, a director at the legal charity Reprieve, summed up the revelations, “Mr Wilkerson’s comments suggest that either they haven’t been honest with the public or the US government haven’t been honest with them,” referring, obviously, to the British government. This revelation disproves what both the US and the UK have been saying about the rendition flights, and increases the case against the base.

Many campaigners want the UK to either return the islands to the Chagossians, the main group campaigning for this being the UK Chagos Support Association, and other campaigners, mostly the Mauritian government, want the UK to return the Islands to them. As such, there is a pending case in The Hague’s Permenant Court of Arbitration between Mauritius and the UK, that is Mauritius win, could see the UK handing over the Islands to them anyway. But the question of whether or not Mauritius or the Chagossians would keep the base open, and continue leasing it to the US, remains unanswered and uncertain.