This year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of a US military base at Diego Garcia, a small island in the Chagos Archipelago that is part of Mauritius but was excised by the United Kingdom during colonisation.
The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) stands in solidarity with Mauritians who are demanding closure of the US military base, reunification of Mauritius, and repatriation of Chagossians—Mauritians from the Chagos islands—to their land.
The UK and US governments have imposed 50 years of militarism upon the people this small island in the Indian Ocean, who were forcibly removed from their homes. The Chagossians and other Mauritians from other parts of the country have led 50 years of resistance, demanding the decolonisation and reunification of Mauritius and resettlement of people that were forcibly removed by the UK government.
Many have also demanded a closure of the military base on Diego Garcia, recognising that from Japan to Djibouti, from Australia to Ecuador, military bases bring misery to local populations and perpetuate war and violence around the world. At the end of this year, the UK government’s 50 year lease of Diego Garcia to the United States is due to expire, but will automatically renew unless otherwise decided.
WILPF calls on the international community to urge the UK government to not renew its lease of Diego Garcia to the United States and to demand that the military base on Diego Garcia is closed forever. We are concerned with reports the Mauritian government, which planned to table a resolution at the UN General Assembly calling for a referral of the case of decolonisation and repatriation of the Chagos archipelago (including Diego Garcia) to the International Court of Justice, has been pressured to accept a delay in the consideration of this issue until June 2017.
History of the military base and forcible removal of the local population
Diego Garcia, an atoll that is part of the Chagos Archipelago in Mauritian territory, was settled by the French in the 1790s and transferred to UK rule after the Napoleonic Wars. The British excised the archipelago from Mauritius prior to its independence in 1965. The US government saw Diego Garcia’s location as desirable for a military base and in 1966 made an agreement with the UK government, secret from both countries’ parliaments, to remove the local population from the island. Between 1968 and 1973, the Chagossians were forcibly removed by the United Kingdom. Many were deported to Mauritius and Seychelles.
Diego Garcia is now a multibillion-dollar Navy and Air Force base and a central node in US military operations in the Middle East. It played a pivotal role in waging the Gulf War, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the US-led war in Afghanistan, and the current bombing campaign against Daesh in Syria and Iraq. It was also a black site in the CIA’s rendition and torture programme. It has reportedly been used as a forward-operating site for B-52 nuclear weapon bombers and also nuclear submarines.
Resistance from the Chagos
The Chagos people have never stopped fighting for their land. Women from the Chagos have been in the forefront of the interlinked struggle for the decolonisation of the Chagos, for the right to return there, for reparations, and for closure of the base. Aurelie Talate helped lead her people in demanding the UK and US governments return them to their homeland.
The Muvman Liberasyon Fam, a national women’s organisation in Mauritius, has been a leader in this struggle, together with the LALIT campaign and the trade union movement in Mauritius. Two of its members were arrested during protests at the Port Louis docks in Mauritius in 1981, when Chagossian women organised street demonstrations to support eight other women on hunger strike. The demonstrations included hundreds of women with placards blocking the street opposite the British High Commission for three days and confrontations with riot police.
In 2000, after a lawsuit was brought before it, the British High Court ruled that the removal of the Chagossians was illegal, but the Law Lords in the House of Lords rejected this during appeal. A number of steps have since been by the UK government to maintain control over the Chagos islands, such as by offering Chagossians British passports. In 2010, the UK government announced the creation of a Marine Protected Area in the Chagos Archipelago, which WikiLeaks has revealed to be an intentional attempt to block resettlement on any of the islands, including Diego Garcia.
What’s happening now?
At the end of 2016, the original 50-year agreement between the UK and US governments expires. The lease will automatically extend by 20 years if neither side terminates it now—but the Mauritian people and government are trying to prevent this.
Last year, Mauritius won a tribunal case under the UN Convention of the Law of Sea, which made it clear that it is illegal for the UK to take decisions unilaterally on the Chagos islands without consulting Mauritius. The Prime Minister of Mauritius decided to take the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for an Advisory Opinion, and was trying to get support for this through a resolution at the UN General Assembly this year. However, the General Assembly’s agenda indicates that that there will be no consideration of this issue before June 2017.
It is not clear why Mauritius agreed to this postponement. With the lease for the base expected to automatically renew at the end of 2016, the date of June 2017 for consideration of this issue at the UN or the ICJ would appear to come after the fact of base renewal.
The Mauritian people support the demand for decolonisation of all of the Chagos islands and their reunification with the Republic of Mauritius. Many—particularly those in the women’s movement and the trade union movement—also demand the closure of the military base on Diego Garcia. The Mauritian government, however, does not necessarily support the closure of the military base—hoping instead to collect the rent from the United States itself.
In supporting the demands for decolonisation and reunification, WILPF urges the Maurtian government to consider the implications of maintaining a US military base on its soil. Foreign military bases, regardless of the nature of their operations, undermine human rights, increase geopolitical tensions, and facilitate sexual violence against local populations. This mode of militarism is damaging to local people, local economies, and have “helped lock us inside a permanently militarised society that has made all of us—everyone on this planet—less secure.”
The US base at Diego Garcia has proven to be an integral part of the US war machine, allowing it to project violence, death, and destruction throughout the Middle East in particular. Thus we urge all Mauritians to join the global movement of those opposed to war and militarism that call for a closure of foreign military bases around the world, including Diego Garcia.
What can WILPFers do?
Please send messages of support to LALIT, the international campaign for decolonisation, reunification, repatriation, and the closure of Diego Garcia, at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’re in the United States, please email President Obama, with a copy to LALIT, to say:
We call on you to withdraw the communiqué signed jointly with the UK threatening “lasting damage” to Mauritius-US relations if Mauritius goes to the International Court of Justice over its claim for decolonisation and reunification of the Chagos islands. We urge you to instead support Mauritian sovereignty, to support the right of return of Chagossians free from colonial chains, to pay them proper reparations, and to close down the military base, the source of all this suffering, and effect a clean-up. If the US administration acts in a principled way, and closes the base, there will be no need for the UK to continue its occupation of Chagos.
If you’re in the United Kingdom, please email Prime Minister May, with a copy to LALIT, to say:
We call on you to withdraw the communiqué signed jointly with the US threatening “lasting damage” to Mauritius-UK relations if Mauritius goes to the International Court of Justice over its claim for decolonisation and reunification of the Chagos islands. We urge you to instead support Mauritian sovereignty, to support the right of return of Chagossians free from colonial chains, to pay them proper reparations, and to help close down the US military base, the source of all this suffering, and help effect a clean-up. If the UK acts in a principled way like this, and decolonises the whole of Mauritius, there will be no need for the UK to continue its occupation of Chagos, nor to sub-rent Diego Garcia for the base.
If you’re in any other country, please write to your government, with a copy to LALIT, to say:
We call on you to support Mauritius’ UN General Assembly resolution that the sovereignty dispute between Mauritius and the United Kingdom be considered by the International Court of Justice (ICJ). We also urge you to call for the US and UK to withdraw from their illegal occupation of Chagos, including Diego Garcia.