The UK’s creation of the world’s largest marine park in the Indian Ocean has been exposed as less of an ecological project than a means to “put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago’s former residents” and retain the area for military use.
The Chagos were forcibly evicted from the archipelago after the British bought it from Mauritius for £3 million (US$476,000) in 1965, with then-Mauritian Prime Minister, Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, receiving a knighthood the same year.
The island is presently occupied by the US base at Diego Garcia due to an agreement made in 1966 whereby the UK received favours, including a US$14 million discount on submarine-launched Polaris missiles, in exchange for use of the island until 2016.
The Chagos won a high court victory in the UK in 2000 enabling them to return to archipelago, but the decision was extraordinarily overruled by the Queen’s royal prerogative. In 2008, the House of Lords overturned the high court verdict, forcing the Chagos to appeal in the European court of human rights.
In April 2010, the UK declared the Chagos Archipelago a marine reserve – an area larger than France – theoretically making it the world’s largest marine protected area (MPA). Funds to manage the MPA for the next five years have been provided by Swiss-Italian billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli.
However, a leaked US Embassy cable dated May 5, 2009 and marked ‘NOFORN’, or ‘No foreigners’, the highest level of security among the 250,000 leaked cables, suggests the marine park was a calculated attempt by the UK Foreign Office to scuttle the resettlement claims of 3000 Chagos islanders in the European Court of human rights.
In the leaked US cable, Colin Roberts, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) Director of Overseas Territories, is quoted as saying that the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) has “served its role very well”.
“‘We do not regret the removal of the population,’ since removal was necessary for the BIOT to fulfill its strategic purpose, he said. Removal of the population is the reason that the BIOT’s uninhabited islands and the surrounding waters are in ‘pristine’ condition,” the cable read.
“Establishing a marine reserve might, indeed, as the FCO’s Roberts stated, be the most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands’ former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling in the BIOT.”
In the cable, Roberts emphasised that the establishment of the marine park would ensure it was reserved for military use and “would have no impact on how Diego Garcia is administered as a base.”
“‘We need to make sure the US government is comfortable with the idea. We would need to present this proposal very clearly to the American administration… All we do should enhance base security or leave it unchanged,”’ the leaked cable reports Roberts as saying.
“[Roberts] noted that the establishment of a marine reserve would require permitting scientists to visit BIOT, but that creating a park would help restrict access for non-scientific purposes. For example, he continued, the rules governing the park could strictly limit access to BIOT by yachts, which Roberts referred to as ‘sea gypsies’.”
As a result of the British government’s “current thinking” on the reserve, there would be “no human footprints” or “Man Fridays” on the uninhabited islands of the archipelago, Roberts stated in the cable.
‘Man Friday’ is the disparaging nickname given to a cannibalistic ‘black savage’ by castaway Robinson Crusoe, in the 1719 Daniel Defoe novel of the same name.
In response to concerns from US Political Counsellor Richard Mills that advocates of Chagossian resettlement might continue “to vigorously press their case”, Roberts replied that the UK’s “environmental lobby is far more powerful than the Chagossians’ advocates.”
Prior to their eviction, the Chagos were known to Maldivians in the southern atoll of Addu as they occasionally rescued a stranded fishermen who had strayed too far south. The islands themselves were never settled by Maldivians, although they retained the Dhivehi name of Feyhandheebu.
Second Secretary at the British High Commission in Colombo, Dominic Williams, told Minivan News in September that the UK believed a Marine Protected Area (MPA) “is the right way ahead for furthering the environmental protection of the Territory.”
The decision to establish the MPA was, he added, “without prejudice to the current pending proceedings at the European Court of Human Rights. As such, there is no need to wait for a decision from the European Court of Human Rights before implementing the MPA.”
“The establishment of this MPA has doubled the global coverage of the world’s oceans benefiting from protection and gives the UK the opportunity to preserve an area of outstanding natural beauty containing islands and reef systems rich in biodiversity.”
Both the US and UK have said they will not be discussing or verifying specific information contained in the leaked cables.
The Gibraltar Chronicle has meanwhile reported that Mauritius has summoned the UK’s top diplomat in the country to explain the marine park “smoke screen”.