On May 20 the United Kingdom appointed its first human rights ambassador to the United Nations and two days later the General Assembly of the United Nations overwhelmingly condemned the UK for its continuing colonial treatment of the Chagos Islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
It was surprising to hear the UK’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt declare that the new ambassador “will be central to our work in defending human rights across the globe.” But he was spouting some of the most hypocritical garbage ever uttered by representatives of the present British government, which says a mouthful (as it were), because Britain’s conduct when it evicted the 1800 Chagos Islanders from their homes was brutal, and its continuing denial of their human rights is despicable.
The Chagos Archipelago was “depopulated” in the 1960s because Britain had agreed with America that there should be a US military airfield on the main island, Diego Garcia. As revealed in 2004, the head of Britain’s Colonial Office in 1966 wrote that “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 Birds go some few Tarzans or Men Fridays whose origins are obscure, and who are being hopefully wished on to Mauritius etc.”
The sneering condescension so evident in that display of racist bigotry encapsulated the attitude of the British government which had refused to contribute troops to America’s war in Vietnam and was seeking to make up for this in some fashion. Prime Minister Harold Wilson, knew that sending British troops to Vietnam would be politically suicidal — but nobody cared about the fate of a couple of thousand “Tarzans or Men Fridays”, so he curried favour with Washington by handing over Diego Garcia.
By various subterfuges, the people of the entire Chagos Archipelago were expelled, in the course of which the colonial governor Sir Bruce Greatbatch, “ordered all 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.” As one evicted Islander, Lizette Tallatte, said in a 2004 documentary “when their dogs were taken away in front of them, our children screamed and cried,” and then the remaining islanders “were loaded on to ships, allowed to take only one suitcase. They left behind their homes and furniture, and their lives.”
Boris Johnson, the likely next prime minister of Britain, could relate to all this, as he too has a condescending attitude to the coloured peoples of Britain’s former empire, having written that “It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies.” In his column in Britain’s ultra-right wing Daily Telegraph he also mentioned that the then prime minister Tony Blair was “shortly off to the Congo. No doubt the AK47s will fall silent, and the pangas will stop their hacking of human flesh, and the tribal warriors will all break out in watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird.”
When he was foreign secretary Johnson was notorious for his blunders, insensitivity and arrogant rudeness. In September 2017, when visiting the Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar, one of the country’s most sacred Buddhist sites, he attempted to recite a colonial era poem by Rudyard Kipling that includes the lines “the temple-bells they say: Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!” The British ambassador stopped him in mid-verse, which was just as well, because watermelons are a major product in Mandalay, and who knows what Johnson might have said or sung if he had seen some.
His boorishness and vulgarity extend to Russia, which he frequently berates, and he especially objects to the status of Crimea. As reported by the Daily Telegraph (which pays him £275,000 ($350,000) a year for a weekly column) he likened the situation “to the occupation of the Sudetenland by Hitler’s forces in 1938.” (This statement is ludicrous, but it is notable that thousands of people were expelled from Sudetenland, albeit it more brutally than the citizens of the Chagos Islands were thrown out of their lifelong homes.)
Even the New York Times reported that “an overwhelming majority of Crimeans voted on Sunday [16 March 2014] to secede from Ukraine and join Russia, resolutely carrying out a public referendum that Western leaders had declared illegal and vowed to punish with economic sanctions . . . The outcome, in a region that shares a language and centuries of history with Russia, was a foregone conclusion.”
The Chagos islanders were not given an opportunity to vote in a referendum or in any manner at all before being expelled from their homes, and continue to be denied any voice in their future.
At the UN General Assembly on May 22 there was an overwhelming vote for a resolution requiring that Britain should withdraw its “colonial administration” from the Chagos Islands. 121 countries voted in favour, against the US, Australia, Hungary, Israel, Australia and the Maldives which joined Britain in defending its manifestly illegal deed, which it was judged to be by the International Court of Justice in the Hague.
One of Boris Johnson’s lucrative Daily Telegraph pieces is carried on a British Government website (one wonders if he received any further cash for what the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society defines as “secondary uses of work”), and in it he refers to the Crimea referendum as “bogus”. He then declares that Britain must “redouble our determination to stand up for our values and uphold international law”.
First of all, does Mr Johnson agree that Britain’s values include the human rights of dispossessed Chagos islanders? Second, does he consider that the International Court of Justice is an important arbitrator in matters of International Law? (As defined, “The International Court of Justice is the principal legal body of the United Nations… its job is to settle disputes between states.”)