As the Middle East lurches to deeper chaos, thanks to Washington’s drone-strike assassination in Iraq of Iranian and Iraqi citizens, and the world braces for reprisals, the light has shifted from the countless millions of other people deserving attention and compassion. Human rights continue to be abused in many regions in spite of efforts by the UN and private organisations to persuade various governments that their conduct is shameful.
Which brings us to the government of Britain.
Mustique is described as “a small private island that is one of the Grenadines, a chain of islands in the West Indies.” It is privately owned and the inhabitants reside in luxury, as do visitors to this Caribbean paradise, among whom in December-January were Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, and a female friend who lives with him in the prime minister’s residence in London. His undivorced wife and their children, who he rarely sees, were not in the tropics, and Johnson and his friend holidayed in spectacular opulence and total privacy, away from photographers and prying eyes, and, of course, all the ordinary people whom he professes to admire. (He was still in Mustique when Trump ordered the drone-strike killings in Iraq on 3 January and wasn’t consulted about or even informed of the operation that took place in the country where the UK has 400 troops. Being a U.S. ally has disadvantages.)
On the other side of the globe there is another group of tropical islands, the Chagos, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Like the Grenadines are now, they used to be a paradise for their inhabitants, but as noted by the BBC, “Between 1968 and 1974, Britain forcibly removed thousands of Chagossians from their homelands and sent them more than 1,000 miles away to Mauritius and the Seychelles, where they faced extreme poverty and discrimination.” There are some 3,000 reluctantly resident in Britain and many of the younger ones, born in exile, have been denied British citizenship and live in fear of being expelled. As one elderly deportee said in a BBC interview, “The young deserve to have British nationality. The Chagos Islands were colonised by the British so it’s their responsibility.” Given the attitude of Britain to foreigners in general, there is very little chance of that happening.
The Chagos Archipelago of some sixty islets was “depopulated” in the 1960s and 70s because Britain had agreed with its ally, America, that there should be a U.S. military airfield on the main island, Diego Garcia. As revealed in 2004, the bureaucrats of Britain’s Colonial Office had written 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 of that racist bigotry is repulsive, but the attitude remains, and the Chagos Islanders will continue to be victims of the colonial mentality. It should not be forgotten that Prime Minister Johnson once wrote 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” and some years ago in his weekly column in Britain’s ultra-right wing Daily Telegraph he noted 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.” With that sort of attitude to coloured peoples it’s unlikely he will be sympathetic to the plight of the Chagos exiles.
It is not surprising that the Johnson government wants to destroy the BBC, which is one of the few unbiased providers of information in the UK, because on December 27 it reported the Prime Minister of Mauritius (to which country the Chagos Archipelago rightly belongs) as saying “Britain has been professing, for years, respect for the rule of law, respect for international law… but it is a pity the UK does not act fairly and reasonably and in accordance with international law on the issue of the Chagos archipelago.” In the interests of presenting all points of view, the BBC asked the foreign office to comment, and received the reply that “The defence facilities on the British Indian Ocean Territory [in other words the U.S. military base on Diego Garcia, used by bombers striking the Middle East and who knows where else] help protect people in Britain and around the world from terrorist threats and piracy.” To its credit the BBC did not comment that this was one of the most pathetic government statements of recent times, but it had still better stand by for its sale to the pirate Rupert Murdoch.
When Johnson was foreign secretary in 2018, he was asked “Will the Foreign Office review its current position on the plight of the Chagos islanders, who should be granted immediately the right to repatriation in their home in the Indian ocean Territories?” He replied: “we are currently in dispute with Mauritius about the Chagossian islanders and Diego Garcia. I have personally met the representative of the Chagossian community here in this country, and we are doing our absolute best to deal with its justified complaints and to ensure that we are as humane as we can possibly be.” In other words Johnson was doing nothing.
In May 2019 the United Kingdom announced at the UN General Assembly that its new Ambassador “will be central to our work in defending human rights across the globe” and it was deeply ironical that two days later the Assembly overwhelmingly condemned the UK for its appalling treatment of the Chagos Islanders. UN members based their Resolution on the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice in February, when the Court concluded that “the process of decolonization of Mauritius was not lawfully completed when that country acceded to independence” and “the United Kingdom is under an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible”.
The Assembly demanded that the United Kingdom “unconditionally withdraw its colonial administration from the area within six months” which meant that it should comply by the end of November, at which time it was preparing for a general election in December. While Johnson and his clan of Brexiteers were intent on quitting the European Union with the slogan “Vote Leave, Take Control” the Chagos Islanders have been allowed neither votes nor control over their destinies.
On 18 October the British foreign office published a statement by its Representative at the UN in which she declared that “Human rights, and the idea that the relationship between people and states is not one of subservient obedience, but one where the State has obligations to the individual, are core to everything the United Nations stands for. At the UK’s core is a strong moral anchor. Make no mistake; we will robustly defend human rights here at the UN and beyond.”
But “beyond” doesn’t extend as far as the Indian Ocean, where an entire island chain has no human rights because its citizens were forcibly removed from their homes by Britain and replaced by some 2,500 U.S. military and civilian personnel on one island, Diego Garcia, where they stay in luxury. Just like Boris Johnson on Mustique. What a hypocrite.