UK, US Expelled Islanders 50 Years Ago, A Crime Against Humanity, Says HRW
The forced displacement of the entire Chagossian people by the United Kingdom and United States governments and the UK’s racial persecution, and continued blocking of their return home, are crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said in a report and video released today. Both governments should provide full reparations to the Chagossian people, including their right to return to live in their homeland in the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean.
The 106-page report, “‘That’s When the Nightmare Started’: UK and US Forced Displacement of the Chagossians and Ongoing Colonial Crimes,” documents the treatment of the Chagossians, an Indigenous people whom the UK and US forced from their homes in the 1960s and 1970s so that a US military base could be built on Diego Garcia, the largest of the islands. The UK, with US support, has prevented the Chagossians from returning home. Even though the UK and Mauritius surprisingly announced negotiations on the future of Chagos in November 2022, there has been no clear commitment to meaningful consultation with the Chagossians and to guarantee their right to reparations, including their right to return, in any settlement.
“The UK is today committing an appalling colonial crime, treating all Chagossians as a people without rights,” said Clive Baldwin, senior legal adviser at Human Rights Watch and lead author of the report. “The UK and the US, who together expelled the Chagossians from their homes, should provide full reparations for the harm they have caused.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 57 people, including Chagossians and UK, US, and Mauritian officials, and reviewed numerous documents. Human Rights Watch identified three crimes against humanity against the Chagossian people: a continuing colonial crime of forced displacement; the prevention of their return home by the UK; and their persecution by the UK on the grounds of race and ethnicity.
The UK and US abandoned the expelled Chagossians in Mauritius or Seychelles, where they lived in abject poverty that triggered other rights abuses and discrimination. Chagossians interviewed said that some of those displaced, including children, died from the economic hardship and, they believe, from the emotional devastation, which they call sagren, of being torn from their homeland. Many later moved to the UK after the government granted them citizenship. Those in the UK described various forms of discrimination, including in housing and work. Currently, thousands of Chagossians live around the world, most in Mauritius, the UK, and Seychelles.
The Chagossians are predominately descendants of enslaved people, forcibly taken to the then-uninhabited Chagos Islands under French and then British rule in the 18th and 19th centuries. Chagos was administered by the UK colonial administration as part of Mauritius. The Chagossians are a distinct people with their own Chagossian Creole language, music, and culture, who have lived for several generations on the main Chagos islands and atolls of Diego Garcia, Peros Banhos, and Salomon. They are an Indigenous people under African and international human rights standards, as Human Rights Watch sets out in the report.
The UK and US governments have treated Chagossians as a people without rights, cooperating to permanently displace them from their homeland without consultation or adequate compensation. In secret deals in the 1960s, both governments planned a military base on Diego Garcia island, which the US required to be devoid of inhabitants. Under the plan, the UK split Chagos from Mauritius and declared Chagos a new colony in 1965, the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), now the UK’s last colony in Africa.
Documents written at that time, made public in recent years and reviewed by Human Rights Watch, reveal that a key reason behind the decision to displace the entire population of Chagos, not just Diego Garcia, was to avoid triggering a UK reporting obligation to the United Nations for the continued rule over a colony with a permanent population. UK officials admitted in documents to having lied in claiming that Chagos had no permanent inhabitants. In other documents from that period, senior British officials described the Chagossians as “Men Fridays … whose origins are obscure,” illustrating the systematic racism behind their treatment.
“Life was easy, it was like Paradise,” said Louis Marcel Humbert, a Chagossian. “I was very sad when I realized we wouldn’t be able to go back. We had left four brothers and a sister in Chagos. My mother cried and said to us, ‘Now we will live a very different life.’ And that’s when the nightmare started.”
The UK government has repeatedly refused to allow the Chagossians to return, citing vague concerns about security and cost.
The UK government has repeatedly acknowledged in the last 20 years that its treatment of the Chagossians was “shameful and wrong,” but these apologies have not led to concrete reparations. Years after forcing them from their homes, the UK paid, through the Mauritian government, a small amount of compensation to Chagossians in Mauritius, and decades later awarded citizenship to Chagossians, but has otherwise refused to address full reparations or consult with the Chagossian people. Chagossians expelled to Seychelles have, as a group, received nothing.
The UK and US governments should provide full reparations to the Chagossian people, Human Rights Watch said. The UK should provide restitution by immediately lifting the ban on Chagossians permanently returning to the Chagos Islands. The UK and the US should ensure financial and other support to restore the islands and enable the Chagossians to return and live and work in dignity.
The UK and US should also provide financial compensation to all Chagossians, of every generation, for crimes committed against them and guarantee that similar crimes will not happen again. After meaningful consultations with the Chagossians, this could entail full apologies from the UK and US governments, including the British monarch, acknowledging the extent and nature of the crimes.
The UK and US should publish all material concerning the treatment of the Chagossians. They should conduct effective investigations into these crimes that provide accountability for the individuals and state institutions most responsible.
The government of Mauritius should publicly commit to support the return to Chagos of all Chagossians, regardless of their nationality or current residence, and recognize them as an Indigenous people, Human Rights Watch said. Mauritius, the UK, and Seychelles should guarantee the rights and equality of Chagossians living in their territory, including ensuring full and equal citizenship and family reunification.
“The Chagossian story over the past 50 years is one of struggle and survival,” Baldwin said. “The UK and US governments should right the wrongs against them starting with the political and financial commitment to return the Chagossians to their homeland with dignity.”