I make this comparison only on the clear understanding that I am not referring to any specific mother-in-law of mine, past or present. But I must admit that the British creation of the world’s largest marine reserve around the Chagos Islands incites in me the same conflict of emotions that I would feel if I saw my mother-in-law drive off a cliff in my new car.
On one hand, the creation of a 545,000-square-km protection zone around the world’s largest living coral structure, the Great Chagos Bank, is a good thing. It is one of the world’s richest ecosystems, with 220 coral species, half the total for the Indian Ocean, and more than 1,000 species of reef fish.
On the other hand, British motives are deeply suspect. It has spent the last decade erecting legal obstacles to the return of the original inhabitants of the islands, the “Chagossians”, whom it expelled 40 years ago in order to provide the United States with a secure base in the Indian Ocean.
The British Foreign Office insists that the two issues are entirely separate: they’re just trying to save the fish. But the technical term for those who believe what the Foreign Office says is “fools”.
The 2,500 people of the Chagos Islands were evicted from their homes in 1967-71 so that the US Air Force could have a strategic base on the main island, Diego Garcia. Most of the inhabitants were dumped without resources 1,900 km away in Mauritius, and left to rot.
In exile, some of the Chagossians got an education, understood what had been done to them, and started demanding to be allowed back. In 2000 a British court declared that the expulsion had been unlawful and ordered the government to let the islanders go home. But then 9/11 came along and made Diego Garcia an important US base again.
So the British government issued an “order in council” in 2004 to block the islanders’ return on security grounds.
The Chagossians went back to court, and the High Court ruled in 2006 that the order was illegitimate. The government appealed, but in 2007 the Court of Appeal found the British guilty of “abuse of power” and ordered it to let the islanders go home.
So the government appealed again, and in 2008 the House of Lords Appeal Committee decided that it had the right to ignore the islanders’ wishes.
But Britain cannot control the European Court of Human Rights, so how can it go on when that court says to let the Chagossians go home?
They are always two steps ahead at the Foreign Office. Make the whole Chagos archipelago a “protected marine area” (PMA), and you can postpone the return of the Chagossians forever by bringing up endless environmental objections to their return.
William Marsden, chairman of the Chagos Conservation Trust, was positively lyrical about the PMA. “Today’s decision by the British government is inspirational,” he said. “It will protect a treasure trove of tropical, marine wildlife for posterity and create a safe haven for breeding fish stocks for the benefit of people in the region.”
So it will, but it will also enable the Brits to keep the Americans happy and the Chagossians in exile for a long time to come.
The Chagos Trust’s chairman, William Marsden, is the former Director Americas and Overseas Territories at the Foreign Office. Its founder, Commander John Topp, was previously the “British Representative,” the senior British officer at what is really a US military base on Diego Garcia. Mind you, it’s probably just coincidence.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.