This has been a bad week for the British government, in relation to two of the running sores of its foreign policy, both centered on the Overseas Territory of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.
Diego Garcia and the surrounding islands — known collectively as the Chagos Islands — were shamefully cleared of their existing population in the late 1960s, to make way for a US airbase on Diego Garcia itself. This was a manifestation of the “special relationship” between the UK and the US, which involved the old empire facilitating its successor’s global reach, in exchange for a significant discount on the UK’s nuclear missile programme.
Ever since, the exiled Chagossians have been attempting to regain access to their ancestral lands, but with limited success. Although successive British governments have toned down the racist rhetoric used at the time of the islanders’ forced removal — when official documents referred to them as “Tarzans or Men Fridays” — Diego Garcia and the Chagos Islands have remained at the forefront of a colonial mindset that has never quite been extirpated from the Foreign Office’s mentality.
Although the islanders won a stunning victory in the High Court in 2000, which ruled that their expulsion had been illegal, the government fought back in 2003, when Prime Minster Tony Blair invoked an ancient and archaic “royal prerogative” to strike down their claims once more. Although the court of appeal reversed this decision in May 2006, ruling that the islanders’ right to return was “one of the most fundamental liberties known to human beings,” it was clear that, in the struggle between a group of cruelly disposed islanders on the one hand, and the US military-industrial complex on the other, the Chagossians’ fight was far from over.
Last week, just after a party of Chagossians visited London to hear lawyers for the Foreign Office appealing in the House of Lords against the 2006 verdict and claiming, as the Guardian put it, that “[a]llowing the Chagossian islanders to go back to their Indian Ocean homes would be a ‘precarious and costly’ operation,” and that “the United States had said that it would also present an ‘unacceptable risk’ to its base on Diego Garcia,” David Miliband, the foreign secretary, delivered a short statement relating to the other scandal of Diego Garcia: its use for “extraordinary rendition” flights in the “War on Terror.”
After years of denials by the British government that rendition flights had passed through Diego Garcia, David Miliband admitted in February that he had just been informed by his US counterparts that, upon searching their records, they had discovered that two flights had stopped on Diego Garcia in 2002. “In both cases a US plane with a single detainee on board refuelled at the US facility in Diego Garcia,” Miliband said. “The detainees did not leave the plane, and the US Government has assured us that no US detainees have ever been held on Diego Garcia. US investigations show no record of any other rendition through Diego Garcia or any other Overseas Territory or through the UK itself since then.”
At the time, I noted that this appeared to be a sly form of damage limitation, as there was compelling evidence that, far from being used on just two occasions as a transit point, the island had actually housed a secret prison. Three examples will suffice for now, although it’s a safe bet that more revelations are forthcoming.
In October 2003, Time magazine ran an exclusive feature by Simon Elegant focusing on the imprisonment of Hambali, a “high-value detainee,” who spent years in various secret CIA prisons — including Diego Garcia — until he was transferred to Guantánamo in September 2006. Other evidence came from Council of Europe investigator (and Swiss senator) Dick Marty, who reported in June 2006 that, having spoken to senior CIA officers during his research, he had “received concurring confirmations that United States agencies have used Diego Garcia, which is the international legal responsibility of the UK, in the ‘processing’ of high-value detainees.’”
The final piece of evidence came from inside the US administration itself, when Barry McCaffrey, a retired four-star US general, and currently a professor of international security studies at the West Point military academy, let slip on two occasions that Diego Garcia had housed a secret prison. In May 2004, he blithely declared, “We’re probably holding around 3,000 people, you know, Bagram air field, Diego Garcia, Guantánamo, 16 camps throughout Iraq,” and in December 2006 he slipped the leash again, saying, “They’re behind bars … we’ve got them on Diego Garcia, in Bagram air field, in Guantánamo.”
David Miliband’s statement last Thursday did nothing to suggest that the British government had any intention of pushing the matter further with its US allies, even though, as the sovereign power in charge of the islands, the ministers are unable to evade responsibility for what has taken place on Diego Garcia.
Rather feebly, the foreign secretary stated that, after sending a list of possible rendition flights that may have passed through British territory to the US authorities, “The United States Government confirmed that, with the exception of two cases related to Diego Garcia in 2002, there have been no other instances in which US intelligence flights landed in the United Kingdom, our Overseas Territories, or the Crown Dependencies, with a detainee on board since 11 September 2001.”
Reprieve, the legal action charity that has spent several years investigating “extraordinary rendition” and secret prisons, responded by pointing out that the British government “intentionally failed to ask the right questions of the US, and accepted implausible US assurances at face value,” noting that the Foreign Office had declined to ask the US government for the names of the prisoners transported via Diego Garcia in 2002, that it had failed to ask if any other rendition flights had passed through Diego Garcia, even if, as the US asserted, no other planes landed there, and had also failed to ask whether any other flights passed through UK territory en route to engaging in “extraordinary rendition,” which would make the UK complicit in the crime.
The British government faced a fresh barrage of criticism just three days later, when the Foreign Affairs Select Committee published its latest report on the Overseas Territories. With reference to Diego Garcia, the Committee declared that “it is deplorable that previous US assurances about rendition flights have turned out to be false. The failure of the United States Administration to tell the truth resulted in the UK Government inadvertently misleading our Select Committee and the House of Commons. We intend to examine further the extent of UK supervision of US activities on Diego Garcia, including all flights and ships serviced from Diego Garcia.”
For good measure, the Committee also had harsh words about the government’s treatment of the Chagossians, noting, “We conclude that there is a strong moral case for the UK permitting and supporting a return … for the Chagossians. The FCO (Foreign Office) has argued that such a return would be unsustainable, but we find these arguments less than convincing.”
Under pressure on two fronts over Diego Garcia, it remains to be seen whether the government can once more worm its way out of trouble. Tory MP Andrew Tyrie, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on extraordinary rendition, is keen not to let this happen. Speaking after the report was published, he chastised the foreign secretary for dismissing his concerns about “extraordinary rendition” when he first raised the issue last October. “The Foreign Secretary persistently gave me the brush-off. He said we could rely on US assurances,” Tyrie said, adding, “My allegations were correct. The Foreign Secretary’s brush-off was not just misplaced, it was a disgrace.”
Reprieve was even more blunt, stating, “This remains a transatlantic cover-up of epic proportions. While the British government seems content to accept whatever nonsense it is fed by its US allies, the sordid truth about Diego Garcia’s central role in the unjust rendition and detention of prisoners in the so-called ‘War on Terror’ cannot be hidden forever.”
ANDY WORTHINGTON is a British historian, and the author of ‘The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison’ (published by Pluto Press). Visit his website at: www.andyworthington.co.uk
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org