Diego Garcia: Depopulation Explored


Diego Garcia and the islands of the Chagos Archipelago, today part of the British Indian Ocean Territory, have throughout history provided a source of controversy. This work investigates the legitimacy of the British Governments actions surrounding the depopulation of the Chagossian people through the 1960’s and 70’s, together with the reasons behind the conspiracy. The work draws together both factual and anecdotal evidence from the people of the region and those academics who have devoted many years of study to the subject, from fields such as: legal, environmental and anthropological. This work goes on to present the current situation, as the British Government attempts to avoid further legal action, appearing to provide a more acceptable conclusion to this long running moral question. The work concludes with the current realities for the Chagossian people providing a contextual moral backdrop in contrast to the harsh factually reality.


The Chagos Archipelago is a group of about 65 islands situated 1200 miles from the coast of Mauritius, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The largest of this group of islands is Diego Garcia, which has been subject to colonisation and re-colonisation since its first discovery in the 16th Century. Today, the Chagos Archipelago is under joint British and American control (Nauvel, 2006:97), and is ‘one of the biggest American military bases in the world’ (Pilger, 2004). Diego Garcia, despite its 4000 residents, has no capital city, speaks English as it’s first and only language, its currency is the US$ and it has none of its own political parties.

During the 1960’s and 70’s the British Government separated the archipelago, home to the ‘Llois people’, more commonly known as the ‘Chagossian people’, from Mauritius and ‘relocated’ between 1000 – 2000 inhabitants. The official line however from both the British and Americans is:

There were no indigenous inhabitants on the Chagos, only contract workers. Hence, there was no relocation, and the islanders were simply returned to their home countries after the termination of their contracts (Nauvel, 2006:101).

The reason for the depopulation seems to stem from the fact that in the mid-1960s, during the height of the cold war, the U.S. government needed ‘a naval and military base that could provide quick access to the Middle East, South Asia and Eastern Africa’ (Nauvel, 2006:99).

Many aspects of these actions have been called into question. This work assesses the facts and legality of the depopulation of Diego Garcia and the reality of depopulation on the Chagossian people; both historically and today. The general consensus today from both the Chagossians themselves and academics across the world, including, journalist John Pilger in his documentary ‘Steeling a Nation’ (ITV, 2004), is that the British Government has acted potentially illegally and certainly immorally from the time of the original depopulation, through to the present day, causing unnecessary suffering to the Chagossian people, while ‘creating a place so secret that no journalist has been allowed to visit’ (Freedland, 2009).

This work attempts to separate facts from rhetoric, explain why ‘Britain and the USA consider the island a ‘fortress territory’ where decolonisation is ‘unthinkable’ (Sand, 2009:24), and offer insight into the manipulation of international laws is secure the desired outcomes of those in power.

The first section details the methods used to bring this work together. The second section serves to highlight some of the key sources used during the investigation ensuring textual context and biases are identified. Thirdly I will discuss the case using a series of further subheading to enable the reader simple navigation. Lastly I will present my findings from both a moral and factual perspective.


This project has primarily been the product of secondary research. The debate about the advantages and disadvantages of both primary and secondary research are clearly identifiable; primary research, consisting of first hand accounts, interviews, surveys and direct observation and emersion, holds advantages in the enhanced accuracy and detail, while ensuring that the questions you need answering are answered fully, clearly and with full understanding. The disadvantages of these types of primary investigation are focused around interpretation, together with people wanting to appear helpful, thereby answering surveys in a way they believe the questioner would want them answered. Often the time consuming element and the physical work involved in carrying out such surveys had a detrimental impact on this being a viable option. Secondary research involves books, websites, journals, documentaries, newspapers and television and radio programmes. Secondary research advantages include the volume, diversity, ease and inexpensiveness of accessibility to topic areas that you may otherwise be unable to access, while encouraging a broadening of view points from peer reviewed sources. Disadvantages of secondary sources include problems with bias, too much information available, much of which can produce conflicting, out-of-date results, while often not addressing your point fully. I chose secondary research methods for several reasons: firstly, due to the sensitive nature of the project I felt that it would be inappropriate to contact the Chagossian peoples with personal questions for a college project. Secondly, logistically the opportunity to visit the people and location under discussion was obviously impossible due to the distance involved and time constraints. Further surveys of the public or my fellow students, although removing some of the ethical issues, are marred through a lack of the general public awareness of the issues surrounding the Chagos Archipelago and the secret nature of the Chagos archipelago’s current uses. Lastly to retain a balanced argument both sides should have equal opportunity to be represented, this lead to the decision that it would also be inappropriate to pose direct questions to the Foreign and Commonwealth office, or its ministers as I was unable to provide primary counter argument and additionally was hindered by a limited time frame. Having chosen to use purely secondary sources I have taken the critical analysis of my materials seriously, insuring that more that one material is used to ensure balanced and contemporary view, that a range of private authors, government agencies and non-governmental organisations have produced a range of quantitative and qualitative data, each concentrating on separate research areas – human rights, military or environmental. I was unable to ascertain the scope and accuracy of the primary information gathered by the authors of my reviewed literature, and will need to rely on their academic reputations to assure reliability.

Literature review

Collen, L., (2008) A political activist and novelist, living in Mauritius; she won the ‘Commonwealth Writers Prize for the African Region 1994’. Her political activism is focused around democracy, freedom of speech and human rights. In this article written for the International Journal of Socialist Review, Collen provides details of the 2008 Court case against the British Government. The article appears to provide a neutral overview of the situation of the time, although having further investigated her political background, I must be aware that she will cover a story as controversially as this, with some elements of bias and potentially has used language to present the case in a certain light.

Geddes, A., (1996) Andrew Geddes lectures in politics at the University of Liverpool. This book discusses the social and political aspects of race, immigration, racism and the development of ‘responses’ to racism paying particular attention to the policies of both the Labour and Conservative political parties. Geddes focuses on the impact and situation in the UK today. As a result it is not an ideal source of reference when considering the impact of forced immigration on the Chagossian people. The book does however provide an interesting source of information, opinion and argument concerning the central themes of relocation and the challenges faced. These include language, racism, cultural difference, religion, employment, socio-economic status, education and housing in addition to important considerations of social inequality.

Howe, S. (2002) Stephen Howe is a professor in ‘History and Cultures of Colonialism’ at University of Bristol. He is a regular contributor for both the New Statesman and Independent. His specialism in Colonialism provides an excellent source of information, providing a balanced opinion on the reality and legacy of colonialism. I have used this book to provide guidance, assisting in the understanding of the formation, structure, historical and cultural perspectives of ‘the Empire’ and current meanings for colonies today.

HMSO Books & Central Office of Information, (1995 Researched and written by The Central Office of Information, together with the Department for Education and Employment, the Department for the Environment, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Home Office. This book describes both international and British input into the design and preservation of Human Rights based on the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a framework. Due to this books author’s direct link with the government, its primary aim is to highlight and combine facts with positive and constructive examples of the governments achievements, all of which this book thoroughly completes. This book however does not present a balanced of British Government policy and policy making regards Human Rights, this leaves the reader unable to make value judgements based on a complete overview.

ITV (2004) ‘Steeling a Nation’ is a documentary written and directed by John Pilger, who is an award winning, Australian journalist and specialist documentary film maker. ‘Steeling a Nation’ won the Royal Television Society Award for ‘Best British Documentary’ in 2004. The documentary uses both primary and secondary sources as well as archive footage , to produce a detailed and graphic account of the events surrounding and, in the time since the population of Diego Garcia was ‘relocated’ by the British Government, while providing a seeming balanced view of the situation. The balanced feel of this documentary is created by the opportunity of all the major actors to express their opinion. ‘Steeling a Nation ‘has enabled me the benefit of primary information without the need to initiate direct contact with the Chagossian people: this is of benefit as it was considered that it was inappropriate to contact a group of people regarding such as sensitive topic for a college project.

Layton-Henry, Z., (1992) The Politics of Immigration, Oxford, Blackwell Publishers Zig Layton-Henry is an Associate Director of the Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations, University of Warwick, this book investigates the transformation of British Society. Ideas on Colonial emigration and immigration are balanced, providing an in-depth overview of the subject.

Nauvel, C. (2006) Christian Nauvel is a student studying at the Northwestern University School of Law. In his essay titled – A Return from Exile in Sight? The Chagossians and Their Struggle, he assesses in great detail the legal arguments of the case, which I have found lacking in each of my other sources of reference. The legal argument provides a more balanced and almost neutral stance is gained, without bias to any of the involved parties or ethical judgment particularly on the part of the author, which appears rare with such a controversial issue. Without this resource I would have found it nearly impossible to present a new style of essay on this subject, taking into account the ‘empirical’ stance of the 1960’s UK Government.

Sand, P, H. (2009) Peter H. Sand is affiliated to the Institute of International Law, University of Munich, having formerly held a position as a legal adviser for the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank. In his work, Diego Garcia: British-American Legal Black Hole in the Indian Ocean, he examines two key areas in greater depth than other sources: the environmental and military consequences of the current situation in the archipelago. Sand uses a large amount of secondary information (mainly legal documents and court transcripts), together with scientific data to substantiate his argument, which is brutally honest in its aim; to exposing the wrong doing of both the British and American governments.

History of Chagos Archipelago

The Chagos Archipelago was first discovered by ‘Portuguese explorers in the early 1500s marking the first human presence on the island’ (Harris, 2003). The islands then remained uninhabited until the 1700’s, when the French took possession. The French saw an opportunity to use the islands to grow copra (dried coconut fibre used to make oil) so incentivised plantation owners with seeds and animals to start to populate the islands. The plantation owners needed a labour force, so brought either enslaved Africans or indentured South Indians to work the land (Foreign & Commonwealth Office:2010, Freedland:2009, Harris:2003).

During the Napoleonic wars Britain captured Mauritius from the French.

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 [sic] pool in 1835. The greatest majority of these individuals stayed, becoming plantation contract workers (Harris, 2003).

The islands remained nearly unchanged from this time until the 1960’s a peaceful cluster of islands whose 2000 inhabitants, people lived out their simple lives on Diego Garcia and two other atolls: Peros Banhos and Salomon, dividing their time between fishing and working on the coconut plantations; a gentle Creole nation with thriving villages, school, hospital, church, prison, railway and docks. Although none of them owned the land they lived on, they had been in the Chagos for two, three or even four generations and had developed a deep attachment to the islands that they called home (Freedland:2009, Nauvel:2006, Pilger:2004).


For nearly 200 years, the Chagos had been governed as part of the British Colony of Mauritius (Nauvel, 2006:100). As the political decolonization of the European empires gathered pace following the end of the Second World War (Howe 2002:104), the relationship between Britain, Mauritius and the Chagos Archipelago was about to change.

Mauritius fought to negotiate its independence from Britain, along with the other colonies. Mauritius was unaware that the United States had found its protection and intelligence gathering to be limited in the Indian Ocean region, and had identified the Chagos Archipelago as a prime location, due to its strategic and isolated position as an ‘ideal basing area in the region’ (Harris, 2003). Britain was keen to reinforce its trans-Atlantic alliance, what we now know as the ‘special relationship’, and held secret talks with America about providing a location for such a base. In return the ‘British government was offered an $11 million subsidy on the Polaris submarine nuclear deterrent’ (Nauvel, 2006:99).

In December 1966, Lord Chalfont, a British Foreign Office minister, signed a contract in Washington giving the Pentagon a 50-year “lease” on Diego Garcia with an automatic extension of 20 years (New African, 2007:85). The details finalised behind the scenes by then Prime Minister Harold Wilson. For the deal to be ‘cleanly completed’ firstly involved ‘the Chagos islands being separated from Mauritius, and retained by Britain’ (Bomford, 2001), and secondly, the Americans required the British government to “sweep” and “sanitize” the islands (Pilger, 2004).

The Mauritian leaders accepted these terms of independence without argument. The terms of the separation included preferential trading agreements with both the USA and Britain, which was there sole source of income, then as it is now.

On the 8th November 1965, ‘on the eve of Mauritius’s independence, the archipelago was unceremoniously carved away to create a separate entity’ (Nauvel, 2006:100) the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) was established through an Order-In-Council (Sand, 2009:1-2). To remove the problem of awkward questions being asked the British Prime Minister, together with select members of his cabinet approved an Order-In-Council, decree behind the back of parliament therefore avoiding the need for parliamentary approval or scrutiny, giving domestic laws regarding such things as the redrawing of borders and colonial boundaries, a right to be exercised.

Mauritius gained independence from Britain in 1968. Since the 1980’s, successive Mauritian governments have asserted a sovereignty claim to the islands, arguing that they were detached illegally’ (Foreign & Commonwealth Office, 2010). Britain maintained control of the Chagos Archipelago and its population.

British territory is covered under the UN Charter; if it had simply ‘evicted’ the native population it would have been in violation of this charter, so instead Britain set out to ‘deceive’ the UN Committee of Twentyfour - to which the administering powers of all non-self-governing territories must report. The deception relates to Article 73 which clearly states that – ‘the principle that the interests of the inhabitants of these territories are paramount’ (United Nations, 1945). The British government avoided the problems caused by Article 73 of the UN Charter by simply stating that there was no native population and that the Archipelagos were an uninhabited territory thereby beyond the reach of Chapter XI of the UN Charter’ (Harris, 2003).

This excerpt from a 1966 confidential missive from the Secretary of State for the Colonies to the Commissioner of the BIOT in the Seychelles: In August 1966, Sir Paul Gore-Booth, permanent undersecretary at the Foreign Office, wrote: “We must surely be very tough about this. The object of the exercise was to get some rocks that will remain ours. There will be no indigenous population except seagulls.” At the end of this is a handwritten note by D.H. Greenhill, later Baron Greenhill: “Along with the Birds go some Tarzans or Men Fridays …” Under the heading, “Maintaining the fiction,” another official urges his colleagues to reclassify the islanders as “a floating population” and to “make up the rules as we go along.” (Pilger, 2004)

The now declassified documents go on to further demonstrate the knowledge of what they were doing.

The British Colonial office can be quoted as that it ‘wishes to avoid using the phrase ‘permanent inhabitants’, because to imply permanency would recognise that there is a population with democratic rights. A Foreign Office memorandum goes on to state in 1965: “Our understanding is that… a small number of the people [on the islands] were born there and, in some cases, their parents were born there too. The intention is, however that none of them should be regarded as being permanent inhabitants of the islands… [They] will be evacuated as and when defence [sic] interests require this… (Nauvel, 2006:101-102). The British government had the foresight to including, in the Order-In-Council which served to separate Mauritius, the creation of the position of ‘commissioner’; with responsibilities to ‘make laws for the peace, order and good governance of the Territory’ (Nauvel, 2006:100-101). The commissioners first action was to use the authority given to him to create BIOT Ordinance 1 1971, this ordinance stated the ‘compulsory removal of the whole existing civilian population, for not possessing a government issued permit’ (Nauvel, 2006:100-101). The ordinance was only published in the BIOT Gazette which has an extremely limited circulation.

To add yet further weight to the evidence in another memorandum in 1967 the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs, the Officer Administering the Government of Mauritius wrote: “I am not sure myself about the validity of the argument that the Ilois have lived in Chagos ‘only on sufferance of the owners,’ since the point at issue is ‘belonging’ in a national sense rather than rights of residence on private property (Nauvel, 2006:102). This statement refers to some of Britain’s oldest known laws, highlighted in the Magna Carta, which states; “No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised [sic] of his freehold, or liberties… or exiled…but by the law of the land…” (British Library, 2010).

This amount of trouble was taken so as to avoid the embarrassment of having to tell the Americans that the archipelago was no longer available, especially if the UN Committee of Twentyfour had stopped the arrangement upon finding out that its inhabitants were forcibly ‘relocated’.

There is only one official who is recorded as being worried these actions, having added a note stating that the matter was “fairly unsatisfactory” that “we propose to certify the people, more or less fraudulently, as belonging somewhere else.” The documents leave no doubt that the cover-up was approved by the prime minister and at least three cabinet ministers (Pilger, 2004).

The people of the Chagos islands having been wholly unaware of the political negotiations were first ‘enticed under false promises to go on holiday to Mauritius’ (Harris, 2003). Those who took up the offer as either a ‘holiday’ or to undergo medical treatment, were told they would be unable to return. Then the British government tried to intimidate the islanders by removing their livelihood through the closing of the copra plantations. The people still did not leave. Next the British stopped all supplies reaching the islands, while telling people that there was plenty of work, food and new housing awaiting them in Mauritius, this continued until 1971, the British government was running out of time to honour its agreement with America. Sir Bruce Greatbatch, the governor of the Seychelles, who had been put in charge of the “sanitizing,” ordered all the 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’ (Pilger 2004). Then in 1971 the remaining people (about 800), were evicted against there will, having been allowed to take just one suitcase of possessions.

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. The surviving Chagossians were then sent to Mauritius and Seychelles as were the ones who went earlier (Harris, 2003).

By 1973, all the islands of the Chagos Archipelago, including those of Peros Banhos and Solomon had been completely depopulated. The Ministry of Defence then denied the actions and the people. A leaked document from the 1970’s states; ‘There is nothing in our files about a population and an evacuation’ (Pilger, 2004).

Arrival in Mauritius

Upon their arrival in Mauritius, most Chagossians had nowhere to go, no money and no employment prospects (Nauvel, 2006:99). Many people, both young and old, died. ‘Unemployment, drugs and prostitution, all of which had been alien to their society, ravaged them’ (Pilger, 2004).

These conditions continue to this day, with many families, over 35 years on still sharing a one-room shelter, often living without a water supply or any support of the government. They are still subjected to race discrimination and find it difficult to get work (ITV, 2004), despite the ‘International covenant on economic, social and cultural rights (including) rights to work, to an adequate standard of living, participate in cultural life’ (HMSO Books & Central Office of Information, 1995:3).


There have been many attempts to resolve the issues surrounding compensation since the depopulation.

In 1972 the Mauritian government was given £500,000, to be shared by the people of the Chagos Archipelago. This money was delayed in its distribution due to the emergence of several organisations supporting the Chagossians. It is said that due to the number and inexperienced nature of these organisations they actually led to confusion and an incredibly slow negotiation process. In 1978, when the protests and petitions stopped the Chagossian people were given an amount of £20 each. It has been reported that many went on hunger strike.

Further compensation was offered to and accepted by the Ilois Trust Fund Board and the Mauritian government in 1982. A total of £4,000,000 was divided upon those who agreed to raise no future claims against the British government and signed to confirm that they acknowledged that they would never be returned. Many of the Chagossians were illiterate and had been fighting for further support for nearly a decade, many signed to be able to move on with their lives (Harris, 2003, Nauvel, 2006:112).

British Governments legitimatisation

To legitimise many of the actions taken by the ‘Empire’ the British government developed the ‘Colonial Laws Validity Act of 1865’ (CLVA) its role was to remove inconsistency between (colonial) and British (imperial) legislation (British Parliament, 1865). This ability to have separate laws governing separate colonial areas provides the British government with the apparatus to evade international legislation through the sighting of ‘domestic’ law. In addition to CLVA , the British government has also been supported in its actions through many international oversights which have not ensured that all territory is covered by international agreements; therefore, when in 1966 the General Assembly brought two international covenants to the table, placing legal obligations on those states which ‘ratified’ them to abide by laws outlined by the 1944 Declaration of Human rights the British government of Harold Wilson was able to leave a large part of its territory out of the agreement.

The most recent argument of the British government was made by the Law Lords in 2009, which the once again defended the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s decision that the Human Rights Act 1998 simply does not apply as the British government has not formally extended its ‘ratification’ of the 1959 European Convention on Human Rights to territory outside of the British Isles (Sand, 2009:4). Although its at the British governments discretion to extend treaties to include additional areas of territory, the governments position not to extend these rights has left it labelled as a ‘human rights black hole’ (Sand,2009:5). The lack of ratification is also extended to the Geneva Conventions III and IV1949, UN Human Rights Covenants of 1966, the UN Convention Against Torture 1984, the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture 1987 and the Statute of the International Criminal Court of 1998. An environmental ‘legal black hole’ also still exists due to treaties again not being ratified to include UK overseas territories.

The Bancoult Case

Olivier Bancoult and his parents were born on Peros Banhos; in 1967 the family left Peros Banhos for Mauritius seeking medical treatments for his sister. They were stopped from returning home by the Immigration Ordinance of 1971.

In 1998, after some relevant legal documents were finally made public, Olivier Bancoult, the leader of ‘The Diego Garcia Society’, filed a suit in England in 2000. This was the first legal step made since the 1982 compensation agreement, stating that everyone in receipt of the moneys relinquished their ‘right to return’. The challenge was first to overturn the legality of the 1971 Ordinance which had given authorisation to the depopulation. Bancoult was successful, with the high court judge finding in that the original immigration ordinance was illegal, technically removing the ordinance from existence. This meant the permission to banish all BIOT citizens and that which stopped them from returning to there homeland no longer existed (Nauvel, 2006:101-103). Apart from the American military base, this historic decision should have led to an automatic return for the Chagossian people. Shortly after the announcement, the Blair government confirmed the fact that it wouldn’t be possible to return to Diego Garcia because of a ‘treaty’ with Washington; ‘as for the other islands in the group, a “feasibility study” would determine whether these could be resettled’ (Pilger, 2004).

Feasibility study

A preliminary feasibility study was produced on 20 June 2000; and following the collection of data, a more complete report was published on 10 July 2002 (Nauvel, 2006:111). The feasibility study firstly observed that all of the islands, except Diego Garcia, had at this point been uninhabited for over 30 years and lacked all basic infrastructure and amenities. The study also found that due to a large amount of coral mining, introduction of invasive alien plant species and an ongoing problem with major fuel spills, the Chagos Archipelago had lost much of the capability to support an population meaning that supplies would continually need to be brought in from Mauritius and other islands. Once again much of these problems extend from the lack of international environmental treaties, which can be used to ‘safeguard’ such delicate habitats (Sand, 2009). Sand also goes on to state that due to climate change the expected rise in sea levels exceeds the elevation of the islands; ‘estimates of global sea-level increase ranging from 2.6 feet to 6.6 feet by the year 2100…the Diego Garcia atoll has a lower than average elevation of just 4 feet’ (Sand, 2009).

If the expectation of rising sea levels is in fact correct then return for the people seems unlikely – ‘resettlement of the depopulated Chagos islands is definitely not economically sustainable, in view of the growing risk of sea-level rise and other imperative factors excluding permanent human habitation’ (Sand, 2009:22).

In direct contradiction to Sand, Professor David Stoddart, a world authority on the Chagos Archipelago, cited the feasibility study as ‘worthless’ and ‘an elaborate charade’. ‘The study consulted not a single islander; it found that the islands were “sinking,” which was news to the Americans who are building more and more base facilities’ (Pilger, 2004).

Following the negative outcome of the feasibility study, the case ground to a halt, until on 10 June 2004, Her Majesty in Council promulgated the British Indian Ocean Territory Order 2004 (“Constitution Order”). This new legislation replaced the 1971 Ordinance almost exactly, declaring “no person has the right of abode in BIOT or the right without authorisation [sic] to enter and remain there.” ‘It was also made it an offence to be present in the territory without a permit’ (Nauvel, 2006:113). This new ‘Order’ once again exiled the Chagossian people, and denied any further compensation

Olivier Bancoult did not accept this new ruling and a decision was made to challenge. This decision was welcomed as it establishes that prerogative Orders in Council could be judicially reviewed (Moules, 2009).

On the 11th May 2006 Olivier Bancoult won the battle against the British government allowing the Chagossians the ‘right to return’…meaning that a Orders-in-Council issued in 2004, allowing the Chagossians the ‘right to return’ was overturned. The high court judges, Lord Justice Hooper and Justice Creswell stated they found the British governments decision to ‘exile a whole population… in the interests of peace, order and good government…repugnant’, they used extremely strong language, such as ‘irrational’ and ‘unlawful’ when referring to the actions of the British Government in 2004 (Carey, 2006). This, however did create a problem, how to tell the Americans.

The judges reviewing the case used the argument that the ‘ancient, feudal method of making laws called a Queen’s “Order in Council”, used in 2004…, was perfectly legal’ (Collen 2008). Lord Bingham who was the presiding Judge, although in the minority, said the Order in Council ‘as a method of legislating is passing through an historical process of being phased out…cannot thus be used in order to do new things not already done in the past… thus void’ (Collen, 2008).

Another main argument of the majority judges revolved around the issue of defence. It was deemed that if it had been thought necessary by the Prime Minister, to invoke an ‘Order-In-Council then it had been done to ‘give due weight to security interests” and [he] is “entitled to” (Collen, 2008). Lord Bingham then refers to the ‘feasibility study’ which the government would not have commissioned if they had originally believed the Chagossians to be a threat to security “there was no credible reason to apprehend that the security situation had changed” (Collen, 2008).

Majority Law Lord, Lord Hoffman also highlighted that their right of abode is,” he said, “purely symbolic.” And he found that “the whole of this litigation is … ‘the continuation of protest by other means’.” Adding that “funding is the subtext of what this case is about”. Hoffman said that the Chagossians’ attempt to get compensation through an ordinary court case (in 2002) failed, so that is why they are using this as a step “in a campaign to achieve a funded resettlement”. In this sense, he argues, it is not a human rights case, but about money (Collen, 2008). On October 26, 2008 the judgement on the case of the British government against the Chagossians’ ‘right of abode on Diego Garcia’ found 3:2 against. The House of Lords judgment came as a shock. Since the first judgment in 2000, a total of nine out of nine judges found in favour of the Chagossians’ right to return, as their lawyer, Robin Mrdaymootoo pointed out. …“It is true that the Chagossians will now require immigration consent even to visit the islands” (Collen, 2008).

The Foreign Secretary (David Miliband) said: 'The House of Lords has today allowed the appeal taken on my behalf and has upheld the validity of the British Indian Ocean Territory (Constitution) Order 2004…The two Orders in Council made for the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) in 2004 therefore stand…I should repeat the Government’s regret at the way the resettlement of the Chagossians was carried out in the 1960s and 1970s and at the hardship that followed for some of them.  We do not seek to justify those actions and do not seek to excuse the conduct of an earlier generation…the Courts have previously ruled that fair compensation has been paid and that the UK has no legal obligation to pay any further compensation….However, our appeal to the House of Lords was not about what happened in the 1960s and 1970s.  It was about decisions taken in the international context of 2004.  This required us to take into account issues of defence/security of the archipelago and the fact that an independent study had come down heavily against the feasibility of lasting resettlement of the outer islands of BIOT …We will keep in close touch with the Chagossian communities and consider carefully future requests to visit the Territory.' (Foreign & Commonwealth Office, 2008)

The Chagos Archipelago Today

Today the Chagos Archipelago is home to one of the largest American military bases on the world, with close to 4000 troops, anchorage for 30 warships, a satellite station, 177,000 tonnes of jet fuel and diesel oil as well as bars and golf courses. The Americans control the archipelago day-to-day. The British retain sovereignty and carry out administrative duties relating to policing and entry permits. (Nauvel:2006, Pilger:2004, Sand:2009).

The Chagossian people, as a whole do not appear to have found a new home in Mauritius. The population now numbers close to 5000 people, many still living in poor accommodation in the slums around Port Louis, they still suffer the discrimination from a lack of formal education meaning that they find it difficult to find work (Bomford, 2001). Those who have relocated to England have settled ‘…clustered, to be precise, in the unlovely exurbs around Gatwick airport’ (Freedland, n.d.).

In recent years considerable debate has taken place in Britain about incorporating the European Convention in to British law. The supporters of such a change argue that at present the freedoms granted by the Convention cannot be invoked directly before the British courts and that the procedure of petitioning the European Commission on Human Rights can be long and expensive. The government on the other hand, believes that this would involve the judges directly in areas of political controversy and that human rights are best secured through access to an independent and impartial judiciary (HMSO Books & Central Office of Information, 1995:7).

Speaking to Sean Carey for the New African in 2004, Mauritian foreign minister, Madan Dulloo expressed the continuing Mauritian belief that the Chagos Archipelago was illegally separated from Mauritius prior to independence in 1968. Dulloo is quoted as stating “We have always used all available opportunities in the UN, the AU, the Non-Aligned Movement …to reiterate our sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago” (Carey, 2005). Carey then goes on to ask Dulloo about the original inhabitants of Diego Garcia, stating that “the vast majority of whom continue to live fairly wretched lives in the slums of your capital, Port Louis, Do you agree?” to which Dulloo simply answers that “successive governments have made considerable efforts to assist tem to fully integrate within Mauritian society” (Carey, 2005).

Despite the British government’s recent victory, the courts still advised that the government took the opportunity of coming to a ‘friendly settlement’. This suggestion has been dismissed, with the British government’s expectation that the case will be heard before the European Court of Human Rights. Both the American and British governments have spent more than £2.5 million pounds each defending their positions so far (Carey 2009). Diego Garcia’s tragedy has been that both Britain and the USA consider the island a ‘fortress territory’ where decolonisation is ‘unthinkable’ (Sand, 2009:24)

Following consultations with the US Authorities, the British Government has agreed to a visit be a fixed number of Chagossians to their relative graves on Diego Garcia. The visit to these graves would be in addition to their visiting the graves on the outer islands of the BIOT, for which permission has already been granted (Foreign & Commonwealth Office, 2004).


What happened during the late 1960’s and early 70’s in the Chagos Archipelago is shocking. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office, together with the Ministry of Defence, has continued to conceal the facts, both through avoidance and blatant lies. So many basic questions remain unanswered over 40 years on; from sovereignty of the islands, the legality of the separation of the archipelago from Mauritius, the loop holes found in international law, and of course the question of the British government, righting moral wrongs of the past persists. These questions occur, despite there actions always ‘falling within the letter of the law’, they have certainly not maintained the ‘spirit’ in which the law was written. Future legal appeals may again secure victory for the Chagossian people and their descendents, but this would no doubt come without any change in there situation. To date there have been several trips by the Chagossian people to visit both Diego Garcia and the other outlying islands, these have been mainly to tend graves and lay wreaths, it unfortunately means there has been little ground gained by the many legal cases and In fact if the scientists are to be believed then the islands and any inhabitants, whether Chagossian or American will be underwater within the next hundred years, so perhaps climate change will provide the verdict in the long term.


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