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Human Rights, The Expelled Chagos Islanders, and Britain’s Hypocrisy

On May 20 the United Kingdom appointed its first human rights ambassador to the United Nations and two days later the General Assembly of the United Nations overwhelmingly condemned the UK for its continuing colonial treatment of the Chagos Islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose inhabitants it expelled fifty years ago.

The irony escaped the UK’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who announced that the new ambassador “will be central to our work in defending human rights across the globe.” 

Hunt was spouting some of the most hypocritical garbage ever uttered by a representative of the present British government, which says a mouthful (as it were), because Britain’s conduct when it evicted the Chagos Islanders from their homes was brutal, and its continuing denial of their human rights is despicable.

The Chagos Archipelago of some sixty islets was “depopulated” in the 1960s because Britain had agreed with America that there should be a US military airfield on the main island, Diego Garcia. As revealed in 2004, the head of Britain’s Colonial Office in 1966 wrote that “The object of the exercise is to get some rocks which will remain ours; there will be no indigenous population except seagulls who have not yet got a committee. Unfortunately along with the Birds go some few Tarzans or Men Fridays whose origins are obscure, and who are being hopefully wished on to Mauritius etc.”

The sneering condescension so evident in that display of racist bigotry encapsulated the attitude of the British government which had refused to contribute troops to America’s war in Vietnam and was seeking to make up for this in some fashion. Prime Minister Harold Wilson, knew that sending British troops to Vietnam would be politically suicidal — but nobody cared about the fate of a couple of thousand “Tarzans or Men Fridays”, so he curried favor with Washington by handing over Diego Garcia.

By various subterfuges, the people of the entire Chagos Archipelago were expelled, in the course of which the colonial governor Sir Bruce Greatbatch, “ordered all pet dogs on Diego Garcia to be killed. Almost 1,000 pets were rounded up and gassed, using the exhaust fumes from American military vehicles.” As one evicted Islander, Lizette Tallatte, said in a 2004 documentary “when their dogs were taken away in front of them, our children screamed and cried,” and then the remaining islanders “were loaded on to ships, allowed to take only one suitcase. They left behind their homes and furniture, and their lives.”

Boris Johnson, the likely next prime minister of Britain, could relate to all this, as he too has a condescending attitude to the colored peoples of Britain’s former empire, having written that “It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies.”  In his column in Britain’s ultra-right wing Daily Telegraph he also mentioned that the then prime minister Tony Blair was “shortly off to the Congo. No doubt the AK47s will fall silent, and the pangas will stop their hacking of human flesh, and the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird.”

This is the probable next prime minister of Britain, folks!  Don’t be a piccaninny with a watermelon smile!   

When he was foreign secretary Johnson was notorious for his blunders, insensitivity and arrogant rudeness. In 2017, when visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar, the country’s most sacred Buddhist site, he attempted to recite a colonial era poem by Rudyard Kipling that includes the lines “the temple-bells they say: Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!” The British ambassador stopped him in mid-verse, which was just as well, because watermelons are a major product in Mandalay, and who knows what Johnson might have said or sung if he had seen some.

His boorishness and vulgarity extend to Russia, which he frequently berates, and he especially objects to the status of Crimea. As reported by the Daily Telegraph (which gives him£275,000 ($350,000) a year for a weekly column) he likened the situation “to the occupation of the Sudetenland by Hitler’s forces in 1938.”  (The statement is ludicrous, but it is notable that thousands of people were expelled from Sudetenland, albeit it more brutally than the citizens of the Chagos Islands were thrown out of their lifelong homes.)

Even the New York Times reported that “an overwhelming majority of Crimeans voted on Sunday [March 16, 2014] to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, resolutely carrying out a public referendum that Western leaders had declared illegal and vowed to punish with economic sanctions . . . The outcome, in a region that shares a language and centuries of history with Russia, was a foregone conclusion.”

But the Chagos islanders were not given an opportunity to vote in a referendum before being expelled from their homes, and continue to be denied any voice in their future.

At the UN General Assembly on May 22 there was an overwhelming vote for a resolution requiring that Britain should withdraw its “colonial administration” from the Chagos Islands. 121 countries voted in favor, against the US, Australia, Hungary, Israel, Australia and the Maldives which joined Britain in defending its manifestly illegal conduct, which it was judged to be by the International Court of Justice in the Hague.

One of Boris Johnson’s lucrative Daily Telegraph pieces is carried on a British Government website (one wonders if he received any further cash for what the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society defines as “secondary uses of work”), and in it he refers to the Crimea referendum as “bogus”.  He then declares that Britain must “redouble our determination to stand up for our values and uphold international law”.

In May 2018, when Johnson was foreign secretary, he was asked in Parliament “Will the Foreign Office review its current position on the plight of the Chagos islanders, who should be granted immediately the right to repatriation in their home in the Indian ocean territories?”  He replied :  “we are currently in dispute with Mauritius about the Chagossian islanders and Diego Garcia. I have personally met the representative of the Chagossian community here in this country, and we are doing our absolute best to deal with its justified complaints and to ensure that we are as humane as we can possibly be.”

The people who deny the Islanders their rights are poisonous scum, as is made clear in aBritish 2009 diplomatic cable revealed by Wikileaks (no wonder the Brit establishment detests Julian Assange) which noted that the government “would like to establish a ‘marine park’ or ‘reserve’ providing comprehensive environmental protection to the reefs and waters of the British Indian Ocean Territory . . . [which]  would in no way impinge on US use of the BIOT, including Diego Garcia, for military purposes . . . [and ensure] that former inhabitants would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos Archipelago were a marine reserve.”  What a great idea!

The particular piece of perambulating filth who thought up this dinky little piece of devious malevolence was the Director, Overseas Territories in the Foreign Office, Mr Colin Roberts, who was duly rewarded by the granting of honours and governorship of the Falkland Islands.

Politicians and mandarins in London consider the Chagos Islanders to be inconsequential pawns and will never allow them to have a vote about their future, as took place in Crimea.  The Tarzans and Man Fridays of Chagos will never be able to display one of Mr Johnson’s watermelon smiles.

The Chagos saga is a despicable charade of double-talk, spite and downright evil and makes mockery of Britain’s new-found desire to “defend human rights across the globe.” The only sure thing about hypocrites is that they’ll continue to be hypocritical.

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Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.

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