Labour’s New Internationalism: Chagos and Western Sahara

There are a number of issues pertaining to UK foreign policy which campaigners and activists have long believed will forever reside at the margins. Never to be taught in schools or discussed on panel shows, these sidelined issues affecting the ‘unpeople’ wordlessly trampled by consecutive British governments were assumed to remain hidden in little-reported legal cases, written about only in dusty volumes undisturbed on library shelves. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party manifesto, unveiled last week, changes this considerably. Vowing to end the ‘bomb first, talk later’ approach to ‘security’ (a term of propaganda referrring typically to state-corporate interests, not the welfare of the UK public), Labour intends to place human rights, international law and tackling climate change at the forefront of international policies.

Labour aims to introduce a War Powers Act, ensuring that ‘no prime minister can bypass Parliament to commit to conventional military action’. In addition, it aims to ‘[c]onduct an audit of the impact of Britain’s colonial legacy to understand our contribution to the dynamics of violence and insecurity across regions previously under British colonial rule’.

A clear example of this latter goal is illustrated in the case of the Chagos Islanders. Labour intends to ‘[a]llow the people of the Chagos Islands and their descendants the right to return to the lands from which they should never have been removed’. Commencing in 1968, the UK removed the entire population of 1,500 Illois people from the Chagos Islands, part of the British Indian Ocean Territory. Strictly prohibited under international law, the UK proceeded to covertly and forcibly remove the Illois people onto boats and dump them, without aid or support, on the shores of Mauritius (which received a gift of £4m for the favour, in addition to independence). Consecutive UK governments denied this ever took place, and attempted to cover it up.

This forcible expulsion was conducted to make way for a US military base on the largest Chagos island, Diego Garcia, which has regularly been used as a nuclear base and a launch pad for Middle East military intervention (such as B52 bombers over Afghanistan). With its standard levels of high indifference, the UK Foreign Office noted in 1966, discussing its intentions for the islands, that ‘[t]he object of the exercise was to get some rocks which will remain ours; there will be no indigenous population except seagulls who have not yet got a Committee (the Status of Women does not cover the rights of Birds)’. Adding a note of compassion for balance, they wrote that ‘[u]nfortunately 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’.

With a wink from Harold Wilson, the Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart proposed in a secret minute sent to the prime minister on July 25th 1968 that the government lie to the world, claiming that there is ‘no indigenous population’ on the islands, which had been inhabited since the eighteenth century. The Governor of the Seychelles reminded those concerned that the Chagossians are ‘extremely unsophisticated, illiterate, untrainable and unsuitable for any work other than the simplest labour tasks of a copra plantation’. Most left without being given time to pack their belongings, and the Chagossians were forced to move amidst the pressure of Britain closing their copra plantations. On board the ship which carried them to Mauritius, the women and children were made to sleep in the hold surrounded by its cargo: bird fertiliser. They were taken to a derelict housing estate overrun by stray animals, with no water, electricity, doors or windows. The children, most without clothes or food and baked in mud, began to die of what they called ‘sadness’. They were given very little financial support and no residence, forcing the homeless Chagossians to starve to death, prostitute themselves or commit suicide in the impoverished districts of Port Louis, the Mauritian capital.

When it does (rarely) report on the issue, the BBC concentrates on the brighter side, sidelining grimmer details and noting rather whimsically that Chagossians in Mauritius ‘often gather to cook coconut and fish curry and to sing songs about the life they left behind’ (‘Chagos Islands dispute’, BBC News, 25 February 2019).

In October 2008, Lizette Talatte, a member of the Chagos Refugees Group, gave John Pilger the following account (John Pilger, ‘Plight of the unpeople,’ New Statesman, 27 November 2008):

‘To get us out of our homes,’ Lizette told me, ‘they spread rumours we would be bombed, then they turned on our dogs. The American soldiers who had arrived to build the base backed several of their big vehicles against a brick shed, and hundreds of dogs were rounded up and imprisoned there, and they gassed them through a tube from the trucks’ exhaust. You could hear them crying. Then they burned them on a pyre, many still alive.’

This is in sharp contrast to what the popular historian Tristram Hunt contends about British obedience to the US: ‘Nestling in the slipstream of American hegemony served us well in the 20th century. The bonds of culture, religion, language and ideology ensured Britain a postwar economic bailout, a nuclear deterrent and the continuing ability to ‘punch above our weight’ on the world stage. Thanks to US patronage, our story of decolonisation was for us a relatively painless affair’ (Observer, 23 November 2008). For ‘them,’ on the other hand, history’s brush paints redder memories.

In the case of Diego Garcia, Britain was in clear violation of articles 9 and 13 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, in which ‘no one should be subjected to arbitrary exile’ and ‘everybody has the right to return to his country’. Though a court case was ruled in November 2000, it allowed the right of return only to the outer islands and not to Diego Garcia itself.

Documents from WikiLeaks provided a series of cables outlining the goal of UK officials to convert the Chagos Islands into a marine park or reserve (in name only), a move which would form a legal barrier to Chagossians taking up claims of return, including unacknowledged fishing rights. In a discussion conducted by US political counsellor Richard Mills at the Foreign Office, it was noted that this move would make it ‘difficult if not impossible [for the Chagossians] to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos Archipelago were a marine reserve’. This would uphold what the UK referred to as the ‘strategic value’ of the British Indian Ocean Territory (‘HMG FLOATS PROPOSAL FOR MARINE RESERVE COVERING THE CHAGOS ARCHIPELAGO’, 15 May 2009, wikileaks.org).

The release of these cables was one of the motivations for the UK being referred to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) via a vote in the United Nations in June 2017. The Brexit climate ensured that many would-be European allies abstained rather than voting in Britain’s favour. The ICJ declared that ‘the process of decolonization of Mauritius was not lawfully completed when that country acceded to independence in 1968, following the separation of the Chagos Archipelago’. Therefore, the UK was ‘under an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible’. In February 2019, the ICJ ruled that the UK must transfer the islands back to Mauritius.

The Conservative government has continued to dismiss the declaration, seeing it as ‘advisory’ at best, despite it having a stronger legal grounding than the advisory Brexit referendum, which it takes more seriously. Meanwhile, the US government wrote to the ICJ in 2018 affirming that it had no intention of discontinuing military use of the islands.

In contrast, Labour’s manifesto aims to respect the UN vote and hand the archipelago back to Mauritius. In doing so, it would ‘right one of the wrongs of history’, as Corbyn announced on Friday: ‘The right of return to those islands is absolutely important as a symbol of the way in which we wish to behave in international law’.

Also addressed in Labour’s manifesto is the intention to ‘recognise the rights of the people of Western Sahara’. Morocco’s continuing occupation of Western Sahara, in direct violation of international law, and its indiscriminate killings of the Sahrawi people (in particular during the Arab Spring, when the world’s eyes were focused on Egypt and Libya, freeing King Mohammed VI of Morocco to violently suppress any agitation) was also addressed in Labour’s manifesto.

The Moroccan government has waged a brutal war of repression against the Sahrawi people for the past few decades since the invasion by Morocco and Mauritania in October 1975. Thousands of Sahrawis fled to refugee camps in the Algerian desert, where they live in tented communities to this day. In November 1975 (only a month after the ICJ published its advisory opinion which upheld the Sahrawis right to self-determination), the Moroccan King Hassan II ordered a ‘Green March’ of over 350,000 Moroccans into the northern territory of Western Sahara, after which their homes were subsidised by the Moroccan government. Mauritania withdrew its forces in 1979 since it was on the verge of bankruptcy, but Moroccan forces remained.

The activist Pedro Leito has written that the media ‘ignored the fact that in 1981 the US extended $33 million in military credits to the conservative monarchist regime in Morocco and delivered $136 million in arms whilst licensing the further commercial export of $68 million in arms to Hassan’s regime’ (Pedro Leito, The East Timor Question, pp. 175-6). This repression has intensified over recent years, most notably with the attack in November 2010 on a protest camp which had been set up near the capital of Western Sahara, Laayoune. Moroccan security forces invaded the camp in order to dismantle it by force, beating both the young and the old and arresting around 200 Saharawis, many of whom were subsequently tortured.

In 1991, the UN Security Council promised a referendum on self-determination for the Sahrawi people, in which they would be able to choose between independence from or integration with Morocco. Yet the international community has failed to honour that promise. Minurso, the UN mission established to organise the referendum, has been prevented from carrying out its mandate as a result of Moroccan intransigence with the strong support of western powers. As a result, Western Sahara effectively remains Africa’s last colony. The French government, despite being keen to initiate military action putatively in support of human rights in Libya, has used its Security Council veto to block the UN from monitoring human rights in Western Sahara.

In the meantime, the European Union has entered into repeated deals with Morocco to exploit the natural resources of Western Sahara to benefit both the Moroccan government and western firms. Western Sahara enjoys one of the world’s largest phosphate deposits, as well as unexplored reserves of oil, gas and uranium. It also has rich offshore fishing banks. Leito notes: ‘In 1974 the World Bank labelled Western Sahara as the richest territory in the Maghreb region because of its fishing resources and extensive phosphate deposits in an almost completely desert environment’ (The East Timor Question, p. 169). In February 2011, EU member states voted to extend their illegal deal with Morocco which allows European trawlers to continue fishing off the coast of Western Sahara.

By acknowledging its aim to address these major, and relatively unknown injustices, Labour’s manifesto presents concrete directions for a new UK foreign policy, helps to expand the range of acceptable humanitarian concerns addressed by major political parties, sends a message of solidarity to the victims of UK state violence – and gives hopes to ‘unpeople’ that their grievances will not go unnoticed.


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Elliot Murphy teaches in the Division of Psychology and Language Sciences at University College, London.

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