By ann summers
In 1966, the head of Britain’s Colonial Office, Lord Denis Greenhill, wrote about Chagos, “The object of the exercise is to get some rocks which will remain ours; there will be no indigenous population except seagulls who have not yet got a committee. Unfortunately, along with the seagulls go some few Tarzans and Man Fridays that are hopefully being wished on Mauritius.”
As part of my continuing political/ecological interest in “rocks that will remain ours” and their constructed soverignty, “Tarzans and Man Fridays” are the best (neo-)colonial impediments to modern defense policy shared by the US and the UK and as of yet, the shared base at Diego Garcia has yet to have its lease renewed. Apparently the Brits have screwed up the deal by acting unilaterally as the lease holder, leaving the US potentially in the lurch not only for one of its most strategic “black sites” but a place that allows for significant projection of Western power in the region. The former flightless bird refuge is the quite isolated symbol of modernization and imperial power in the land of the TPP and the messiness brought by WikiLeaks.
But in its ruling, the permanent court of arbitration in The Hague has endorsed the Mauritian point of view—that is, it was illegal for Britain to act unilaterally in the Chagos Islands by not properly consulting Mauritius. After all, if all parties agree that Mauritius will one day govern the territory, then it stands to reason that Port Louis has a very real interest in what happens in Chagos in the meantime. As such, steps should have been taken to ameliorate Mauritian concerns regarding the MPA. Britain had no right to act unilaterally.
That military base, aside from technically being in the more democratic area of Africa namely Mauritius, is the subject of much speculation after Wikileaks, including the role of the base in rendition and the hiding of clusterbombs from international scrutiny. December 2014 was the projected deadline to renew the lease given that the fifty year lease would end in 2016. No agreement has yet been announced because of various legal claims, most notably by the 2000+ non-indigeneous people relocated in the 1970s as well as the area’s problematic and technical designation as a sensitive environmental area. One would hate to think that it serves as part of one of the nuclear legs of US defense policy but the B-52 and B-2 bomber capability is essential in South Asia. So whether dodo or DoD, extinction is certainly one feature of this largely unseen yet strategically important piece of real estate.
When it was discovered, the island of Mauritius was the home of a previously unknown species of bird, the dodo. Dodos were descendents of a type of pigeon which settled in Mauritius over four million years ago. With no predators to attack them, they lost their need and ability to fly. In 1505, the Portuguese became the first humans to set foot on Mauritius. The island quickly became a stopover for ships engaged in the spice trade. Weighing up to 50 pounds, the dodo was a welcome source of fresh meat for the sailors. Large numbers of dodos were killed for food. Later, when the Dutch used the island as a penal colony, new species were introduced to the island. Rats, pigs, and monkeys ate dodo eggs in the ground nests. The combination of human exploitation and introduced species significantly reduced the dodo population. Within 100 years of the arrival of humans on Mauritius, the once abundant dodo became a rare bird. The last one was killed in 1681. The dodo is prominently featured as a (heraldic) supporter of the national Coat of arms of Mauritius.
Between 1968 and 1973, the Chagossians-a group of people native to the island of Diego Garcia-,numbering about 2,000 people, were forcefully resettled by the British government to the neighboring isles of Mauritius and Seychelles to allow the United States to establish a military base on the island. Today, the exiled Chagossians are still trying to return, claiming that the forced expulsion from Diego Garcia was illegal. This claim and their right to return home was upheld by the British high court but has continued to be blocked by the United States. Today, Diego Garcia is only populated by Military personnel. According to Wikileaks CableGate documents (reference ID “09LONDON1156”), in a calculated move planned in 2009, the UK proposed that the BIOT become a “marine reserve” with the aim of preventing the former inhabitants from returning to their lands. A summary of the diplomatic cable is as follows:
HMG would like to establish a “marine park” or “reserve” providing comprehensive environmental protection to the reefs and waters of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), a senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) official informed Polcouns on May 12. The official insisted that the establishment of a marine park—the world’s largest—would in no way impinge on USG use of the BIOT, including Diego Garcia, for military purposes. He agreed that the UK and United States should carefully negotiate the details of the marine reserve to assure that United States interests were safeguarded and the strategic value of BIOT was upheld. He said that the BIOT’s former inhabitants would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos Archipelago were a marine reserve.
Additionally, Diego Garcia was used as a storage section for U.S. cluster bombs as a way of avoiding UK parliamentary oversight.
In some regards the Cassandras of the Chagos are right to worry about the outcome. It’s hard to imagine a more ideal military outpost and waypoint than the current setup at DG: no neighbors to complain about the noise or pry into operations, cheap pay for imported labor, excellent diving (if you don’t mind the sharks). The only real drawback is perhaps its slightly too-distant location from hot spots in Southeast and Northeast Asia, but it can’t be everywhere at once. If Mauritius does come into ownership, the U.S. may pay more for its continued use of the basing, pay more for labor and have to hire former islanders or their descendents, and put up with a few inhabitants and the complications that they bring. All in all, however, such changes would be mostly superficial.
“Tarzans and Man Fridays” are the best (neo) colonial impediments to modern defense policy shared by the US and the UK and as of yet, the shared base at Diego Garcia has yet to have its lease renewed.
The lease for the Pentagon’s ship and air support facilities on Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory, must be extended by the end of this year for the Navy to remain there until 2036. Otherwise, the 50-year lease will end December 2016. Leaders in Mauritius, seeking the territory’s sovereignty, have approached U.S. officials in hopes of negotiating a side deal that could cut out the British. “This would mean that both the U.S. and U.K. would recognize the sovereignty of Mauritius over the islands so that there would subsequently be an agreement between Mauritius and the U.S. over the continuous use of Diego Garcia,” said Milan Meetarbhan, Mauritius‘ ambassador to the U.N. For the Pentagon, Diego Garcia — one of several islands in the Chagos Archipelago — plays a key role in the Obama administration’s plan to “pivot” to the Asia Pacific region to rebalance the focus of the U.S. military. Mauritian officials, who at one time administered the archipelago, have long sought its return, saying 2,000 inhabitants were forcibly resettled in Mauritius between 1967 and 1973 so that Great Britain could accommodate the military base it leased to the U.S. Mr. Meetarbhan said that if Washington is willing to engage Mauritius in outpost negotiations, that would “enable the United States to be on the right side of history.” Mauritian officials have said they do not oppose the U.S. military’s use of Diego Garcia, which was of strategic importance during the 1991 Gulf war when it was used as a base for Air Force B-52 bombers. But the United Kingdom, which had controlled the territory long before it granted Mauritius independence in 1968, is not interested in having that conversation. British Embassy spokesman James Barbour said the U.K. “does not accept Mauritius‘ claim to sovereignty,” and his country plans to relinquish its claim to the territory to Mauritius “when it is no longer required for defense purposes.” The U.K. claimed the territory since France ceded the area to Britain in 1814.