BRUSSELS – The price of freedom, it is said, is eternal vigilance. But that price can take the form of morally squalid decisions in which innocent people bear the brunt of the cost of freedom’s defense.
Under the cover of the Cold War, Western governments were regularly forced to make many strategically realistic but morally noxious decisions. Dictators like Zaire’s Mobuto and Indonesia’s Suharto were embraced on the principle that “he might be a bastard, but at least he’s our bastard.” In addition, all sorts of dubious “freedom fighters,” from the Contras in Nicaragua to Hissene Habré in Chad to Jonas Savimbi in Angola received Western arms and political backing. Even the genocidal Khmer Rouge were, for a brief time, partly defended by the US in their forest redoubts after their eviction from Phnom Penh.
Twenty years after the Cold War’s end, the West has at times recognized its duty to make amends to those who were, in a very real sense, the “collateral damage” of that ideological struggle. For example, the countries that were consigned by Roosevelt and Churchill to Stalin’s un-tender mercies are now mostly part of the European Union. But there are other, untold stories of people who paid a heavy price for the West’s freedoms that have not gained much attention.
The fate of the Chagossians, the former residents of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, is particularly harrowing. The way in which the inhabitants of this archipelago were systematically dispossessed and thrown off their land in the name of Western strategic interests is a human tragedy for which the West can and should make restitution.
Between 1968 and 1973, British Labour and Conservative governments organized the removal of everyone living on the 55 islands that now constitute the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), and that were split off from Mauritius at the time of its independence. This was done at the behest of the United States, which at the time was embroiled in the Vietnam War and required, for understandable security reasons, the use of the island of Diego Garcia as an air and naval base. The British Foreign Office claimed at the time that the Chagos Islands had no settled population.
The Chagossians were shipped off to the Seychelles and Mauritius, where they were deposited and left to fend for themselves. They were ostracized and isolated. Many succumbed to mental illness, drug addiction, and alcoholism.
Despite the tragic impact of this compulsory removal, the islanders never gave up their campaign to win the right to return home. Many Chagossians eventually moved away from the Seychelles and Mauritius. Some settled in London (my European Parliament constituency). They have been a persistent thorn in the side of successive British governments, but at long last Prime Minister David Cameron’s coalition government seems to be seeking to conclude this matter in a fair, humane, and just way.
The Chagossians want to return to the outer islands of the Chagos archipelago. They have never sought to resettle on Diego Garcia, which remains off-limits and leased to the US government until 2016 – and continues to play a vital role in Western security and defense. Given Cameron’s determination to place the US-UK relationship on a more equal footing than it was under Labour, I hope he will feel free to raise this issue with the Obama administration; indeed, a deal between the late UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was apparently very nearly closed some years ago. Despite claims to the contrary, there is no possible threat to US interests from the islanders’ return to the outer islands, hundreds of kilometers away from Diego Garcia.
Ten years ago, the Chagossians won a tremendous victory in the British High Court, which ruled that the islanders’ expulsion had been unlawful, and that they should be allowed to return. Initially, the government accepted the ruling, but it was overturned by an Order-in-Council (an executive order from the Queen and not a law passed by Parliament) in 2004.
Now is not the time to discuss how appropriate Orders-in-Council are for lawmaking in a twenty-first-century democracy, but this move showed disregard for the Chagossians’ basic human rights. Earlier this year, we saw this cynicism in action once again, when David Miliband, foreign secretary in the previous Labour government, declared the Chagos Islands to be a protected marine zone, thereby preventing the islanders – if eventually they do return – from making their living from fishing.
The British Foreign Office has often used the excuse that resettling the Chagossians would be prohibitively expensive. But, when answering a parliamentary question that I put to the European Commission recently, the commissioner responsible for development policy, Andris Piebalgs, indicated that the Commission would consider any request from the UK for co-financing the Chagossians’ repatriation, which the EU fully and rightly accepts as a sovereign UK matter.
Ten years after the Chagossians’ Pyrrhic legal victory – a victory that seemed merely to strengthen the Foreign Office’s resolve to stop them from returning to the Islands – they have taken their campaign to the European Court of Human Rights, which has suggested that the case be withdrawn in favor of a “friendly settlement.” Many Chagossians who have settled in the UK would go back immediately – if only the government would let them.