August 4, 2000

More than 30 years ago, 2,000 people from the remote Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia were shipped out to make way for a giant United States airbase. Now they want to return - at least to the outlying islands that do not form part of the air and naval base.

In a case before the high court, Britain has been accused of having acted illegally in signing away their homeland. Klaus Dodds, lecturer in geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, said the islanders live in a depressed state in Mauritius.

"In the mid to late 1960s, the wishes of the Diego Garcians were not going to be respected because of the wider strategic picture. Their homes were simply traded away because the Americans wanted a base in the Indian Ocean to try to contain Soviet expansionism," Dr Dodds said. In 1992, the island was used as base for US troops during the Gulf war against Iraq.

"It will depend on the outcome of the case as to whether there is any movement, and on how the Americans conceptualise the strategic value of the Indian Ocean. As long as there is a problem with Iraq and the Middle East, Diego Garcia may be of interest. In this sense, it is quite a good illustration of the continuation of the cold war."

Dr Dodds said that if this government follows an ethical foreign policy, it will have to deal carefully with this community, which has been let down in the past. Ironically, he said, it was an earlier Labour government that "sold them down the river".

A Foreign Office white paper on overseas territories published in 1998, after Hong Kong returned to China, envisaged a modern relationship with remaining overseas territories and placed self-determination at the centre of British responsibility.

Dr Dodds contrasted the treatment of the Diego Garcians with how successive British governments have persistently championed the self-determination of the (white) Falkland Islanders, who resisted being handed over to Argentina despite a 1965 UN resolution urging Britain and Argentina to discuss the colonial situation in the South Atlantic.

"The Diego Garcians should have some hope from this government, but the problem is the Americans want their airbase."

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