ICE Case Studies
Number 120, December, 2003
U.S. Military Presence in Diego Garcia: National Interests vs. Human Rights
JOSHUA L. HARRIS
Few people have ever heard of Diego Garcia. Even fewer understand the circumstances around and consequences of the U.S. military base on the small Indian Ocean island. Leased from the British, Diego Garcia is principally occupied by U.S. military personnel and has been of great strategic interest for decades. The indigenous population was relocated and are currently fighting a court battle to return to the island chain. However, they are still exiled from the largest and only inhabited island in the chain, Diego Garcia. Even if repatriation is completely successful and islanders are eventually allowed to return, the island is drastically different than the one of their ancestors. The impact of continued U.S. military activity on the island has not only stopped the native population from returning to their homeland, but has drastically altered the island's environment and the culture of the indigenous people. If allowed to return, the islanders would likely find it impossible to sustain themselves as their previous generations had.
Early Island History
Diego Garcia was initially discovered by Portuguese explorers in the early 1500s marking the first human presence on the island. Located in the middle of the Indian Ocean, approximately half way between Africa and Indonesia , the island is the largest in the Chagos Archipelago chain. Diego Garcia has an area of 6720 acres (approx. 10.5 miles) making it the largest island in the chain, and presently the only inhabited one. Diego Garcia is a living coral atoll. Once an ancient volcano, all that is left is the atoll surrounding a central lagoon. For nearly two centuries, there was little Western interest in the island.
In the early 1700s, the French stumbled upon the chain and claimed it as their territory. Held by France until after the Napoleonic Wars, Diego Garcia was ceded to the British in the early 1800s after the fall of Napoleon as France was trying to minimize its presence in the region. With the formation of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) in 1965, Diego Garcia fell under the administrative control of the British government of the Seychelles . The next year, the United Kingdom and the United States signed a formal agreement making the island available to meet defense requirements for both nations.
Early U.S. Involvement
There was, however, one problem for the U.S. government – indigenous inhabitants. The United States Joint Chief-of-Staff first sought Diego Garcia as a base as early as 1959 to improve U.S. monitoring capability of Soviet activity in the Indian Ocean, but was concerned over native population. U.S. policy makers initially asked Britain to find an uninhabited island in the Indian Ocean to further their strategic interests insofar as monitoring the Soviet Union and gaining a foothold in the region. Given U.S. anxiety over locals, the British began a systematic relocation of local inhabitants during the late 1960s and early 1970s. “The British didn't see that as a problem, they simply moved all the inhabitants 1,200 miles away to other tropical islands, Mauritius and the Seychelles (CBS).” For years, few outside of the region knew of this, including U.S. policymakers. In 2001, amidst a court battle, the indigenous population was granted UK citizenship and the right to repatriation since eviction.
However, this is complicated by a U.S. lease on Diego Garcia that is valid until 2016. In essence, the indigenous population may return to the Chagos Archipelago, but not to Diego Garcia, the largest island and the only one with any infrastructure. In August 2002, the islanders appealed directly to President Bush to be allowed to return to Diego Garcia notwithstanding the military installation. According to the Bush Administration, it is Britain 's call not the United States ', claiming that “because of the vital role the facility plays in the global war on terrorism, British authorities have denied permission to visit Diego Garcia. We concur and support the decision (CBS).” While initially “the origins of this uprooting [were] mired in Cold War politics and superpower angst,” it is currently continuing under the pretext of battling terrorism and the need for a ‘secret' unapproachable facility in the region (Bamford 3).
If allowed to return in 2016 or before, the islanders will find their homeland to be dramatically different than once remembered. Indeed it is questionable as to whether their survivability on the island is even possible given the environmental and geographical changes that have occurred in the last thirty plus years. Life on Diego Garcia was based on two primary factors for centuries. First, coconut plantations, and second, fishing of the surrounding coral reefs. Both of which may no longer be possible at any sustainable level. However, in all likelihood they will never get a chance to return and find out.
U.S. Military Basing
Initial U.S. presence began on January 23, 1971, followed rapidly by an exponential growth over the following decades.
Until 1971, Diego Garcia's main source of income was from the profitable copra oil plantation. At one time, copra oil from here and the other ‘ Oil Islands ' provided fine machine oil and fuel to light European lamps. During the roughly 170 years of plantation life, coconut harvests on Diego Garcia remained fairly constant, at about four million nuts annually. The plantation years ended with the arrival of the U.S. military construction (Global Security).
On March 20, 1973 , U.S. Naval Communication Station, Diego Garcia was commissioned. Work commenced on the second construction increment, a $6.1 million project which involved the construction of a ship channel and turning basin in the lagoon. Shortly following this, construction of a runway and supporting facilities commenced.
World events in 1979 and 1980 (the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan), however, forced a reevaluation of the U.S. defense posture in the Indian Ocean area which indicated the need for prepositioned materials to support a rapid deployment force and a more active U.S. presence in the area. It was decided to further expand the facilities at Diego Garcia in order to provide support for several prepositioned ships, loaded with critical supplies (Global Security).
By the end of 1980 the Naval Facilities Engineering Command had advertised a $100 million contract for initial dredging at Diego Garcia to expand the berthing facilities. Likewise, further development of the mainland continued to support the ever increasing air assets positioned in the region.
The fall of the Soviet Union and subsequent end to the Cold war did not diminish the strategic interest the U.S. had in the atoll to the dismay of many previous residents. Indeed, interest increased. From the late 1980s to present, the U.S. has played an increasing role (primarily militarily) in the Islamic world. Diego Garcia has and will continue to be seen as crucial to furthering perceived national interests in the region. Starting in the early 1990s, workload at this installation has increased from 300-2000% (NAVSUPPFACDG). Facility construction has also increased, further depleting the natural resources of the small island. Starting in 2002, construction on new hangers for B-2 bombers and subsequent extensions of the runway was initiated. Likewise, the construction of ‘Camp Justice,' a facility designed to hold soldiers involved in the 'war on terrorism' and suspected terrorists was approved and completed.
1971 - Present
Region: Indian Ocean
Country: United Kingdom; British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT)
Archipelago situated in the middle of the Indian Ocean, midway between Africa and Indonesia. Diego Garcia is the southernmost island in the Chagos chain, approximately 1,000 miles south of the southern Indian coast.
Primary: United States, United Kingdom, the Ilois people
Secondary: Seychelles, Mauritius
Indirect: Afghanistan, Iraq, former Soviet Union
In the 18 th century, the French enticed and forced hundreds of impoverished individuals from their Northwest African colonies to leave their homelands only to be enslaved and placed on the islands of the Chagos Archipelagos to work the coconut plantations. Permanently displaced, as memories of their homeland faded as did their culture. Slowly the newly formed Chagossian people began to form a new culture centered around the islands of the archipelago. Nearly two hundred years later, the descendents of these slaves found themselves in a similar position of losing their culture and homeland.
A Story Like So Many Others
Jeannette Alexis, now in her early forties, vividly recalls being forced to leave the very home that her ancestors were forced to adopt. Her life story is one of injustice and little hope for the future. Alexis' family was one of the very last families to be forced from the largest island in the Chagos chain, Diego Garcia by the British in the early 1970s. She recalls “her father was told that [they] had to leave the island because the Americans were moving in and it wasn't safe to remain on the island anymore (CBSNEWS.com).” Many have commented that use of pressure and fear tactics were common practice by the British in this ‘resettlement.' Surely still traumatized by these events after all these years, Alexis says of the day she left Diego Garcia:
"We were crying, we were hanging onto our mothers' skirts crying, because although we were very young we understood that we were leaving something very valuable behind, and that was our homes (Ibid.)."
Unfortunately for Alexis, this was only the beginning of a nightmarish journey that has yet to end. The people who were forced to leave could only take a bag of clothes with them. With no possessions, no money, and no marketable skills, Alexis' family and many others like hers were dumped on two islands, Mauritius and Seychelles , over a thousand miles away. Abandoned to their own fate, Alexis' family did not prosper. Her family, like many others of the Chagos, has two historical trades, fishing and growing coconuts. With no education and few opportunities for this type of work in their new home, Alexis and her family barely scrape by. To this day she still lives in the same slum outside of the capital as she did when her family first arrived in Mauritius . No prospects, no way to live the life of her forefathers, she is ostracized, a cultural outcast from the society she was forced to adopt. Thirty year old dreams of returning to her homeland are all she has left.
The Human Side of the Equation
Jeannette Alexis' story is not unique. Between 1965 and 1973, approximately 2000 people were exiled from the island atolls leaving the native population at zero. What brought this about is clear. At the height of the cold war, the United States found its force projection and intelligence gathering capabilities to be limited in the Indian Ocean area. The Chagos Archipelagos were both strategically located and isolated enough to provide an ideal basing area in the region. There were obviously a few problems to overcome before Diego Garcia could be transformed into a military fortification. First, the island was owned by the British. Negotiations on the U.S. use of the island concluded with a treaty, the Exchange of Notes, ratified by Britain in 1968. It was put forth that the entire island chain would be used for the mutual defense of Britain and the United States . The main island, Diego Garcia, would be leased to the U.S. for basing until 2016, when presumable it could be renewed. Another problem was evident; the U.S. wanted an uninhabited island for their purposes. There were many hurdles to overcome in this regard. For one, to ‘evict' a native population would violate the UN Charter which Britain took serious at the time. Britain set out to deceive the world in this regard, claiming that there was no native population and that the Chagossians were merely an imported labor pool. This allowed the British to contend that the Archipelagos were an uninhabited territory thereby beyond the reach of Chapter XI of the UN Charter. The British then set out on the systematic relocation of the entire native population.
First, people were enticed under false promises to go on holiday to Mauritius . Those who went were told on their arrival in Mauritius that they could not return to the Chagos. Secondly, in an attempt to induce an exodus the British bought over, and then closed, the copra plantations that provided jobs to many Chagossians. The hoped-for exodus did not materialize. Thirdly, the British grounded the boat that normally supplied the islands with food and other necessaries of life from Mauritius . The people were then told to go to Mauritius where there was plenty of food, shelter, work and money waiting for them. The were dismayed to find upon their arrival that this was in fact not true. Some were taken in, but the majority of the population was not. Fourthly, the people were terrorized. They were told they would be shot or bombed by the no-nonsense 900-strong American SEABEES contingent that had just arrived. Soldiers then rounded up the Chagossians and confiscated their civil status papers (HRO).
The Chagossians, who did not initially leave under the ‘holiday' pretext or on their own fruition, were rounded up in the early 1970s. These nearly 800 people were forcibly evicted in the worst manner. The British took them to a nearby island, the Peros Banhos atoll, which was to be used as an assembly point. They were then abandoned to their own fate on this crowded atoll, and many did not survive. After two years of living in unbearably cramped and desolate conditions, a U.S. surveillance plane noticed the distressed people and sent a boat (Ibid.). The surviving Chagossians were then sent to Mauritius and Seychelles as were the ones who went earlier.
So what did the three interested parties gain from these event? The U.S. gained a military installation that proves to be just as valuable today as it did when construction began. Britain gained increased security from the U.S. presence as well as a price reduction of $14 million for Polaris missiles for their submarines which they would be hard pressed to afford otherwise (CBSNEWS.com). The native population's gains do not exist. Compensation has been sought on numerous accounts by the Chagossians, but clearly any monetary payment could not make up for the lives that these individuals have been forced to endure for over three decades.
What Britain eventually paid as compensation was grossly inadequate. But Chagossians were constrained by destitution and homelessness to accept it. Initially, approximately $1,000,000 was paid to the Mauritius government in 1972 but the money was not immediately made available to the Chagossians. After years of sustained petitioning and public agitation, Chagossians were paid in 1978. Each person got about twenty pounds. Once more Chagossians took to the streets, asking to be returned to their native Chagos. They went on hunger strikes. Opposition political parties joined the struggle. In 1982, Britain paid a further compensation of four million pounds. But there was a catch. Any Chagossian accessing the money signed as having received full and final payment and as having accepted never to return to the Chagos. Many signed out of ignorance, poverty or sheer exhaustion after so many years of continuing struggle (HRO).
Trying to Return
Besides monetary compensation, the Chagossians obviously want to return to their homeland. A court case brought to the High Court of London in 1998 by Louis Olivier Bancoult, a former resident of Diego Garcia, resulted in a victory, at least on paper, for the uprooted people. The British court ruled that the Chagossians had the right to repatriation and could return to the Chagos. However, the U.S. land lease presents a problem. The U.S. military is clearly not going to just step away from their strategic location and everyone realizes this. In August 2002, the displaced people appealed directly to the Bush administration to be allowed to return to their home (likewise asserting that they had no problem with the continued us of Diego Garcia base by the U.S.). Unfortunately for the Chagossian people, it is the U.S. position that they would ultimately prefer to keep the Chagos the way they are. Furthermore, they assert that the Chagossians claims are between them and Britain, and that the U.S. has no culpability for it only has a land lease on the island, not administrative control.
Development and Environmental Impact
When or more accurately if the Chagossians are allowed to return, it is unlikely that their lives would improve on any substantive level. The land they seek to reclaim is drastically different than the one that supported their lives for centuries. As already stated, these people historically have two trades, fishing and growing coconuts. Military development, while environmentally conscience due to British administrative control, still has had a considerable impact on the environment. Half of Diego Garcia is protected under British authority; the other half is extensively developed with military infrastructure. This very much limits the ability to reinitialize a plantation lifestyle due to the limited remaining arable land (approximately 2000 acres). Even more problematic is the degradation of the atoll itself. The Chagos rest on a large coral reef. This reef is rapidly disappearing due to a combination of rising ocean temperatures along side military development such as the creation of a harbour and berthing facilities which required the destruction of much of the reef.
1999 comparisons between the present situation and that found by earlier surveys, particularly during 1996, showed that only about 12% of the substrate on the seaward reefs is live coral today. Up to 40% was identified as dead coral, and 40% as unidentifiable dead substrate, much of which is almost certainly severely eroded, dead coral. In 1996, an average of about 75% of the substrate was living corals and soft corals (Sheppard).
This cannot be entirely correlated to the military presence; many relate the disappearance of coral to raising sea temperatures. However, the U.S. military has dredged the reefs to accommodate the naval presence, which surely exacerbate the problem. Likewise, unintended pollution by the military is obviously present as in most cases, i.e. oil and lubricant seepage, accidents, etc. As the reefs disappear so to does the sea life that depends on it for survival, thereby severely limiting the ability of a native population to be self-sustaining in providing food. On top of this is the simple fact that if the islanders return, the military will likely leave and take with them the only industry in the region with them. This would put the Chagossians in the situation of regaining their homelands only to realize that they can no longer survive there. Their lifestyle and culture was forcibly taken from them and it appears that it cannot be regained.
Tropical island atoll
8. Act and Harm Sites
A. Legal Aspect
Legal aspects of the U.S. base on Diego Garcia are quite complex. There are two principal issues at hand in this situation; first, the legality of the act and process surrounding U.S. military basing there, and secondly, the legal rights of the indigenous population. While these issues are clearly heavily interconnected, the distinction is drawn in that the latter derives itself from the first, i.e. without the first, the second does not exist, but not vice versa. With that, the issue of how this came to be must first be addressed.
When, in the early 1960s, the U.S. military decided it needed a base in the Indian Ocean, it looked towards the British, who had a substantial presence in the region. Diego Garcia proved to be the ideal location for such a prepositioned force. In 1966, the first treaty, the Anglo-American Exchange of Notes, was put into force. This legal bidding ‘contract’ stipulated that the entire Chagos Archipelago would be available to meet the defense needs of both nations. Four years later after the completed exile of the native population, a second US-UK treaty was signed, sanctioning a ‘limited naval communications facility.’ In 1976, a third treaty was enacted. This treaty allowed for the construction and development of an ‘anchorage, airfield, support and supply elements and ancillary services.’ This is how the island of Diego Garcia came to be a U.S. military base.
Treaties are clearly recognized under international law as binding and legally sound. With that said, the central issues of legality that arise from this case are not in these US-UK agreements, but in the unwritten details that surround the formation of these treaty obligations. Prior to the first treaty, heavy negotiations were obviously conducted. At the forefront of American desires, was the wish for an unpopulated island. The British were ready to ‘depopulate’ the island, but did not want the issue of uprooting a native population (a point which the British contended) to be brought in front of the United Nations. The UN as an organization would have likely condemned this act as well as brought international attention to the region, which was clearly not desired by either the UK or US. So the British “pretended to the world that the Archipelago was uninhabited territory and so beyond the reach of Chapter XI of the UN Charter (HRO).” The British claimed that the Chagossians that resided on the islands, were not a native population, but merely immigrants brought there as a labor pool. This would appear sound reasoning for the French did originally populate the island chain with colonists and slaves. However, this was two hundred years prior to the beginning of the current scenario. Had this calculated conduct not been preformed, the issue would have been legally unacceptable in the international community as a violation of the UN charter and subsequent resolutions.
The ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ (United Nations General Assembly, resolution 217 A (III), Dec. 10, 1948) is in direct contrast to the British actions in the Chagos Archipelago. Article 2 of this resolution states:
No distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.
Therefore, the native population was covered under this international agreement,
irregardless of sovereign status. Article 9 of the same document claims that
‘No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile,’
which was clearly the case.
This scenario is also in contradiction with the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. While the time frame of the concerned acts falls well outside of the jurisdiction of the ICC, it is important to note that this statute just solidifies the international accepted norms that were in existence before, during, and after the concerned era. Article 7, section 1 states that ‘For the purpose of this Statute, ‘crimes against humanity’ means…(d) Deportation or forcible transfer of population;… Clearly this was accepted as a norm since the foundation of the UN. While these legal aspects are the most easily recognizable, there are numerous sections intertwined in international law that claim the same thing – the UK is legally culpable, and barring court hearings, ostensibly guilty for its acts.
These are issues debated by nations and the elite who represent them. But the individuals affected should not be overlooked. Mr. Louis Olivier Bancoult, chairman and leader of the Grup Refizie Chagos (GRC), sued the British government under British common law on behalf of the native population. In November 2000, the High Court ruled that the concerned individual had a right to return to there homeland. The court overturned a 1971 ordinance that barred any return to the islands. This seemingly opened up the chance of return as well as compensation for the indigenous population. However, on October 9, 2003, in a contradictory ruling,
Judge Duncan Ouseley at London’s High Court ruled that the islanders and their families – now numbering more than 5,000 – had no reasonable grounds for bringing the compensation claim and seeking restoration of their property (McDonough). The basic premise of his ruling was that there was little chance of return or compensation, so given that, the case should be dropped. Quoted by the AP, Ouseley said, “Ill-treatment does not require a hopeless case to be allowed to continue. Indeed, to raise false hopes would not be fair (McDonough).”
Clearly the islanders have reasonable grounds for a legal claim under both international and British law. So why is this cause ‘hopeless’? The answer is the US military. Under the aforementioned US-UK treaties, the base (island) is leased to the US for a period of fifty years ending in 2016. This can be renewed on an ad hoc basis as needed for the defense of both nations. Given that the US considers Diego Garcia one of its most strategically important pieces of real estate coupled with the current issues in the Middle East, it is highly likely that the land lease will be extended indefinitely. This in essence negates any near term chance of return to Diego Garcia.
Question will surely arise as to the US legal culpability in this situation. The US claims no responsibility, asserting that the issue is between the UK and the islanders. Indeed given the previous and arguably current British ownership of the Chagos Archipelago and subsequent legally binding treaty encompassing a land lease, the US appears to have a sound litigation umbrella. The US position is unequivocal as the Bush administration said: “Because of the vital role the facility plays in the global war on terrorism, British authorities have denied permission to visit [or return to] Diego Garcia. We concur and support the decision (CBS).”
B. Economic Aspect
Trade and economic activity are not usually associated with Diego Garcia. There is a very good reason for this – ostensibly it is nonexistent. This has not always been the case, but clearly economic activity on the atoll has always been negligible to all except those who have resided there.
Completely uninhabited until the mid 18th century, Diego Garcia’s first ‘owner’ was the French. In 1776, shortly after taking possession of the island chain, the French encouraged its colonists in the region to open up the islands and make them productive. What the French wanted was simple – copra (dried coconut meat used to make oil). “As incentives to start copra plantations the colons were provided with seeds and animals and allowed to bring in African slaves.” Imported slave labor came in a steady pace over the ensuing decades to work the recently established copra plantations. All products were sent back to France via Mauritius which was also a French colony at the time. The same went for everything coming into the island, though this was minimal for the colonists were in essence self-sustaining.
In 1814, Diego Garcia and the majority of French Indian Ocean territories including Mauritius were ceded to Britain. The British changed very little about the set up on the islands. Mauritius acted as the hub as it did during the French occupation. All British economic activity in the region went through Mauritius. Shortly after gaining control of the island and its inhabitants, emancipation was given to the slave labor pool in 1835. The greatest majority of these individuals stayed, becoming plantation contract workers. This is all that they knew, and were very good at it.
Until 1971, Diego Garcia’s main source of income was from the profitable copra oil plantation. At one time, copra oil from here and the other ‘Oil Islands’ provided fine machine oil and fuel to light European lamps. During the roughly 170 years of plantation life, coconut harvests on Diego Garcia remained fairly constant, at about four million nuts annually. The plantation years ended with the arrival of the U.S. military construction (‘Camp Justice,’ 7°20’S 72°25’E) .
The four million coconuts were not directly exported back to Europe; they were made into copra. As much as sixty percent of copra is composed of valuable oil that has a multitude of applications from heating to eating. But how much does four million coconuts annually really matter. First, it takes approximately six thousand nuts to make one ton of copra. This gave the island an approximate production of 700 tons of copra a year over the life of the plantations. The price that can be gained from this is variable. Worldwide copra prices remained fairly stable for over a century of the concerned time frame. In recent years, the price has fallen off due to a synergy of lack of demand and increased production.
Source: World Bank Development Prospects – Commodity Price Data Pinksheet – Oct. 2003
Even with current figures, revenues would be nearly $200,000 (U.S.) annually if sold on the world market, though clearly this is on the bottom end of the spectrum.
While obviously there was other ‘economic activity’ such as fishing, principally copra production was the only openly traded commodity. The islanders proved to be very capable fishermen, but only on a subsistence level. In recent times, numerous countries in south-central and south-east Asia regularly fish the area but little quantitative figures exist due primarily to a lack of need for such data in the concerned nations as well as legal concerns over fishing in the area due to tight security.
N o economy exists. It is important to note that considerable infrastructure has been built on the atoll by the U.S. military. Modern housing, a port, runways, military and civilian phone lines, radio stations, internet connection, a satellite link-up and electricity has all been provided. The benefit of this is principally military, but is the U.S. base leaves, a considerable amount of this can be easily converted to civilian uses. Half of the island can still be used to resume copra production although at a diminished level compared to pre-1971 figures. The other half is where the military has developed.
This is the area were future economic prospects are the highest. With the
lack of land area and economic infrastructure, tourism seems a likely possibility
to ensure a sound economic future on the island. Many have proposed that the
military stay but allow former residents to return and work on the island.
Unlike U.S. bases in other regions, Diego Garcia is simply not going to house
both military and strictly civilian populations for a multitude of reasons
not the least of which is current security concerns. It is not clear if the
island will ever again contain any substantive economic activity, but what
is very evident is that copra plantations can no longer sustain a modern civilian
population on the island.
13. Level of Strategic Interest
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|COCONUT||Nata de Coco Boom and the Philippines||Jan.-99|
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Michael McDonough, “Former Diego Garcia Residents Lose Claim,” Associated Press, 9 October 2003.