the Disillusioned kid: Your Next Dose of Anti-BIOT-ics
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Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Your Next Dose of Anti-BIOT-ics

Alex Doherty is a student at York University and activist and has an interesting article on Z-Net looking at the plight of the Chagossians, an issue which has been of interest to me for sometime. Doherty begins,
This is the second time I have written about Diego Garcia. This time as with the first when I informed my friends, (many of them left-wing activists), of my subject they responded by asking ‘Who’s that?’ or, less frequently, ‘Where’s that?’ Two years ago had I been asked if I knew of Diego Garcia I would have asked similar questions, perhaps thinking that “Diego” was an Argentine footballer or a Brazilian novelist.
Two years ago my own response would probably have been similar (although it's unlikely I'd have thought of Maradona and I couldn't name a single Brazilian novelist even now). In the hope of affecting this ignorance I have blogged and written about the issue on several occasions. I have argued previously that the three prerequisites for social change are information, vision and action. In this case it is clear that much of the population is seriously lacking in information of the situation and its history. Activists in the UK would do well to focus any activities around the issue on raising people's awareness of what has been done to the Chagossians.

Doherty proceeds to outline the history of the islanders' "relocation" (a euphemism he takes to task brilliantly). The article is aimed at those new to the issue and as such there is little in it that anybody with any familiarity with it will be unaware of. Perhaps the major exception is the fact which Doherty reveals, that Diego Garcia had not been the US's original choice for the base. Instead they had initially favoured Aldabra, further to the west. That island, however, "is populated by a rare species of tortoise and the US feared that any attempt to disturb them might lead to an embarrassing confrontation with publicity savvy green activists." There fears were likely well founded, but it is damning that they did not need to fear similar levels of resistance to the removal of Diego Garcia's human population.

Doherty goes on to conclude:
That the Chagossians and Diego Garcia are not household names in Britain is, to me, testimony to the servility to power of mainstream British political culture. One would expect [the High Court case in 2000 "which ruled that the removal of the islanders was an 'abject legal failure' and that the islanders should be allowed to return to the outlying islands, (though not to Diego Garcia itself)"] to be regarded as significant. Indeed, one might expect the tragedy of the islanders’ treatment by successive government’s to be rather well known; their plight has been desperate for nearly four decades. But not so: the small flurry of press articles around the court case has been followed by the same silence that largely prevailed for the previous decades.

What is the situation four years on from the high court ruling? Essentially the same: another flurry of articles followed by the familiar reversion to silence. Given the absence of media attention coupled with the total intransigence of the British and American governments over the issue it is questionable whether writing about Diego Garcia is likely to have any beneficial effect for the islanders themselves. The silence and lack of action on this issue has prevailed for so long now that it seems that raising the issue is more useful in disabusing the general population of notions of our "ethical foreign policy" rather than in advancing the cause of the Ilois.
It is certainly true that the plight of the Chagossians is an exercise in servility to power, but I'm not convinced that his implicit dismissal of any hope of return for the Chagossian is entirely fair. While silence and lack of action have been the prevailing responses in the UK for years, this is far from universally true. There have been increasing noises around the issue in recent months emanating from official and grassroots sources. While it is important not to get carried away about the significance of these developments, it is not inconceivable that they could have an effect.

The two Orders in Council have attracted considerable controversy. There are already steps underway among the Chagossian community to bring a judicial review, questioning their legality. A Parliamentary Debate in July, examining the Orders themselves and the treatment of the Chagossians by the British Government, saw both strongly criticised by members of all three main parties as well as the SNP. Early Day Motion 1355 which covers much the same territory, has, at the time of writing, received 74 signatories.

Further afield, the Mauritian Government has suggested that it may take the UK to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) over the issue, arguing that the division of its territory prior to independence contravened international law. Commonwealth rules prevent members filing contentious claims against each other and so the government has threatened to quit the Commonwealth in order to sue. In July, Mauritian PM Paul Berenger travelled to the UK to discuss the issue with Blair and Jack Straw, but was refused a meeting, a decision which drew criticism from Don McKinnon, the Commonwealth secretary general.

Elsewhere The Chagos Refugee Group has written to the Queen, Tony Blair and Bill Rammell with various demands relating to the plight of the Chagossians, chiefly a call for the recission of the Orders in Council passed in June which ban them from their islands. They state that if there has been no progress by the end of August (a date which has obviously now passed) they "will have no choice but to go and live and sleep in front of the British High Commission in Port Louis to ask for our rights and start a hunger strike if we are not being given appropriate consideration by the UK Government." Meanwhile plans for a "peace flotilla" to the islands, calling for the closure of the military base and the return of the Chagossians, continue apace.

There is a long way to go before the Chagossians are able to return to the island from which they were forced and it is possible that they never will. Nonetheless, they haven't given up. Neither should we.

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