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“Crime Against Humanity”: Exiled from Diego Garcia for U.S. Military Base, Residents Demand to Return

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Image Credit: Chagos Refugees Group

Over 50 years since the United States forced them out in order to build a military base on the island of Diego Garcia, exiled residents of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean continue to pressure Britain and the U.S. to pay reparations and apologize for expelling residents. We speak with prominent Chagossian activist Olivier Bancoult, who is visiting the United States to meet with lawmakers and State Department officials. The U.S. is “fully responsible for what happened to our people,” says Bacoult. “We want the Biden administration to apologize and to make reparation for what they did wrong to our people.” Located halfway between Africa and Indonesia and about 1,000 miles south of India, the military base on Diego Garcia played a key role in the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. “This is a crime against humanity,” says author of Base Nation David Vine, who adds that there are more than 20 cases of the U.S. displacing local populations for military bases. “The Chagossians are not alone.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Pressure is growing on Britain and the United States to pay reparations and apologize for expelling residents of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean half a century ago so the United States could build a major military base on the island of Diego Garcia, which is located halfway between Africa and Indonesia and about a thousand miles south of India. The U.S. base at Diego Garcia played a key role in the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. For over 50 years, Chagossian people have been attempting to return home, but their efforts have been blocked by both the U.K. and the United States. Earlier this year, Human Rights Watch accused the two governments of committing crimes against humanity.

In a moment, we’ll be joined by a prominent Chagossian activist who’s here in the United States visiting to meet with U.S. lawmakers and Biden administration officials. But first let’s turn to an excerpt of a video produced by Human Rights Watch titled The Last British Colony in Africa: How Chagossians Were Forced Off Their Homeland.

ELLIANNE BAPTISTE: In the 1960s, Britain ruled over about 18 countries and three territories in Africa.

ROBIN MARDEMOOTOO: Many African states were already engaged in the process of starting to fight for their independence. Mauritius was fully engaged in this process.

ELLIANNE BAPTISTE: Britain granted independence to Mauritius in 1968, but with a major caveat: The U.K. would keep the Chagos Archipelago for a small price.

DAVID VINE: U.S. government officials in the era of decolonization were growing concerned about losing control of the world. So a group of officials in the U.S. Navy developed a plan to identify small islands around the world, and Diego Garcia became the prime island on which they wanted to build a base.

ELLIANNE BAPTISTE: Diego Garcia is one of the main islands in the Chagos Archipelago, where many families had lived for generations.

DAVID VINE: The secret deal began being worked out by the U.S. and British governments in the early 1960s, where the U.S. government insists to the British that we want this base, and we want it without any local population. The British government agrees to do the dirty work of getting rid of the Chagossians in exchange for wiping away $14 million in debt that the British government owes the U.S. government.

ELLIANNE BAPTISTE: British officials feared that if they acknowledged the permanent population of Chagos, they would have to report to the U.N. about the new colony they had created.

PHILIPPE SANDS: What the British do in 1965 is recharacterize the entire population of the Chagos Archipelago as contract laborers, not a permanent population, to create the ruse that there’s no population.

ELLIANNE BAPTISTE: Between 1968 and 1973, the British government removed about 1,500 people from the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritius and to the Seychelles. They were not given a choice.

ILINE LOUIS: [translated] The only thing I saw my mother take with her was a little chest to put our clothes in it and the mattress. That’s all. Everything else, we left there.

ROSEMONE BERTIN: [translated] They put all the dogs into a chamber and gassed them until they died.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from a video by Human Rights Watch titled The Last British Colony in Africa: How Chagossians Were Forced Off Their Homeland. One of the voices featured in that clip was David Vine, a professor at American University in Washington, D.C., author of Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military on Diego Garcia. Professor Vine is also the author of Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World. He’s joining us now from New York, along with Olivier Bancoult, who is the chair of the Chagos Refugees Group, the organization representing most Chagossians in exile. His recent article for openDemocracy is titled “The US and UK stole our homes. 50 years on, we’re still being denied justice.”

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Olivier Bancoult. Thanks so much for being with us. Explain why you’re here in the United States and, in fact, even what happened to your own family half a century ago, that you’re still demanding a correction for, as well as all of the Chagossians living in exile.

OLIVIER BANCOULT: First of all, good morning, Amy. First of all, thank you for giving me this opportunity to talk on behalf of my people.

The reason we are here in the United States is to find out from the Biden administration and apologize for what wrong had been done to the Chagossian people. I think that the U.S. government needs to change their policy concerning human rights for Chagossian people who have been uprooted. We want that the people of the United States understand our position as far as our international human rights had been banished for so many years, and we want justice to be done. We want that the U.S. with fully responsible for what happened to our people. Because of the base, we have been having a nightmare story. And we want them to recognize and to put an end and to apologize for all wrongs that they did, and started by making some reparation for our people, like compensation, and helping to resettle Chagossians on Chagos.

My story, I, myself, I was born on Peros Banhos, one of the islands of Chagos Archipelago, and I was expelled in 1968. The reason? Because I have — our family have to come to Mauritius to have treatment for my sister, who had been hurt by a wheelcart. But, unfortunately, after three months, my sister passed away. And when my mom and dad decided to return, because we have left all our belongings there in a future return, when we asked to return, we have learned that it will be impossible for us because the island had been given to America. And it is the wrong that we have been suffered, not being on our birthplace, being away from where we were born, and this is one of the reasons I want just to get more awareness of the situation and put the responsibility toward our people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Olivier Bancoult, who have you met with in Washington among the leaders in the United States? And do you sense any support for your demands in Congress?

OLIVIER BANCOULT: Yes, of course, we are very hopeful to say that we have been able to meet with many people, especially members of Congress. And we met also with official from State Department, because, according to them, it’s the first time that they hear from Chagossians what our demands are. The most important is concerning our fundamental rights and our dignity as a people. If we are a people, according to Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that everywhere, if you were born on a place, you have the right to live on the place. And we cannot accept that other people can live on our place, whereas we are declared as persona non grata. This is the main occasion, and we want to have the support of congressmen in order to find out how to present something like a letter, a resolution or even an hearing to explain our situation and to let the U.S. government shoulder their responsibility toward our Chagossian people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about the history of the inhabitants of the Chagos Islands, the long-term history that rebuts this contention of the U.S. and Britain that there were only contract laborers there in the ’60s?

OLIVIER BANCOULT: Both of the governments, U.K. and U.S., lies, because they all say that before the installation of the U.S. military base, there were not permanent inhabitants there. It’s totally untrue, because people were living for more than five generations. I give my own example. I was born there. My father, my mother, my grandfather and grandmother, even my great-grandmother were born there. And we were not — we have never been contractual workers. We were permanent inhabitants.

And life for us is very wonderful because we were living in peace and harmony. We have our culture. We have our house. We have our job. And after working hours, we used to go fishing. And we all live as one family. Suddenly, they just decided to choose Diego Garcia because it is a very strategical point place, and it is very well situated. They decided to build a U.S. military base on Diego Garcia, but forget about the fundamental rights of our people, who were living in peace and harmony.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play some clips of other Chagossian voices. This is Iline Louis speaking to Human Rights Watch about her life in Chagos before she was forcibly removed from her homeland.

ILINE LOUIS: [translated] Life in Chagos for people was like living as one family. Everything, we share. Even the food we cook, we share. If there is a problem, there is always someone to help.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is Ellianne Baptiste talking about her family’s story.

ELLIANNE BAPTISTE: I moved to the U.K. when I was 15 years old, but my parents stayed in Mauritius. In the 1960s, hundreds of Chagossians, including my mom, were forced to leave the Chagos Archipelago or not allowed to return because the British and U.S. governments wanted to make space for a U.S. military base. That U.K.-U.S. pact had a detrimental impact for those living on the islands, as well as for future generations, causing many families to be divided.

The British granted British citizenship to the Chagossians and the first generations, which allowed people like my sisters and I to move to the U.K. But not everyone had the chance to, because there were limitations and restrictions, such as the age of the first generations and the spousal visas. My mom’s siblings were not born on the Chagos Islands, so they and my cousins are not eligible for the British citizenship. It just makes me think that if the Chagossians were not deported, if my family, my grandparents, my mom, were allowed back on the islands, none of this would have happened.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Ellianne Baptiste. These voices, Professor David Vine, when you hear the pain of what was lost, first of all, I mean, explain from the beginning — many have called this a crime against humanity — the U.S. and U.K. moving in, the U.S. building this military base, and aside from just building that military base, saying no Chagossians could live there.

DAVID VINE: Good morning, Amy and Juan.

Indeed, this is a crime against humanity, a fundamentally racist crime against humanity, that was masterminded from the beginning by U.S. government officials, who seized upon the idea of building a base on Diego Garcia and getting rid of the Chagossians. And then they proceeded to pay the British government, secretly, $14 million to basically do the dirty work of getting rid of the Chagossians, and then proceeded to orchestrate the expulsion over the course of several years in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

And from the beginning, the U.S. government has had the power. They had the power to exile the Chagossians. And now the Biden administration has the power to finally make this right. This is an outrage, a crime against humanity, indeed, that should have been corrected, should never have happened, should have been corrected years ago by prior administrations. But the Biden administration now has the ability to show the world, at a time when the Biden administration is rightly criticizing other governments and their human rights records — Saudi Arabia, China, among others — at this time, the Biden administration has the ability to change U.S. policy and finally provide justice to the Chagossians by allowing them to return home, by providing compensation, by assisting with the resettlement of the Chagossians in the land of their ancestors, in their homeland, the land that has been taken from them.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Vine, sadly, the example of what happened with the Chagossians is not unique. Could you talk a little bit about these enormous bases that the United States has, a system around the world, places like Okinawa, Vieques, Hawaii, of course the Philippines back in the days of Subic Bay, Guam, where the military basically runs roughshod over the local populations?

DAVID VINE: It’s true, and there are more than 20 cases in which the U.S. military has displaced local people, often Indigenous people, like the Chagossians, as part of the creation or expansion of U.S. military bases around the world. And that’s just since the end of the 19th century. Of course, during the 18th and 19th centuries, the U.S. Army, in particular, displaced millions of Native American peoples across the North American continent as part of the colonization and conquest of the continent. The Chagossians are not alone.

But there is another case that is sadly telling. In 1946, in islands that the U.S. Navy occupied, the Ogasawara Islands, small islands that are now part of Japan, the U.S. Navy actually assisted a local population, mostly white local population of U.S. ancestry, in returning to their homes to live side by side with what was then a U.S. Navy base. They assisted in setting up schools. They assisted in setting up local government. They assisted in setting up a local economy. If the U.S. Navy, if the U.S. military, if the U.S. government can help a mostly white population of U.S. ancestry return to their homeland, their homes, in 1946, surely, the U.S. military, the Biden administration can do the same for the Chagossians, a population of mostly African and Indian ancestry, return to their homes, their homeland, the land of their ancestors today.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have a minute, but, Olivier Bancoult, your message to people here in the United States, as well as around the world?

OLIVIER BANCOULT: My message on behalf of my people is to find out the way. We want, as all human beings, to be able to live in peace and harmony. As I said, that is clear and mentioned in the international Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that everyone has the right to live on his birthplace. We want our right to be recognized. We want that we can pay tribute to all our parents who are buried in Chagos, which we did not have access to the grave.

I’ll just give you one example. We, as Chagossians, we are not allowed to go to Chagos to pay tribute to our parents buried there, whereas in Cannon Point in Diego Garcia we have a military dog cemetery who are well maintained. How would you consider that?

My message to the world, we are not asking less or more. We are asking about our rights. And we want the Biden administration to apologize and to make reparation for what they did wrong to our people. And this is our message. And we want to have more awareness, ask people to give a small support on our action.

AMY GOODMAN: Olivier Bancoult, I want to thank you for being with us, chair of the Chagos Refugees Group, and David Vine, professor at American University, author of Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military on Diego Garcia.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go to New Mexico, where a Trump supporter wearing a MAGA hat opened fire on an Indigenous-led protest against the reinstallation of a statue honoring a 16th century Spanish conquistador. One Indigenous climate activist was shot and needed to be airlifted for emergency surgery. We’ll speak to one of the Indigenous activists who he waved a gun at but didn’t shoot or kill. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Music by Chagossian musician Charlesia Alexis, one of the founders of the Chagos Refugees Group.

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