Diego Garcia Island
NOAA's Geodesy Collection: Diego Garcia Island, Chagos. http://www.photolib.noaa.gov/

Look up the Chagos Archipelago on Google Maps, and there's nothing to see -- just a little red marker hovering over an expanse of light blue.

Zoom out to get some geographical context. Zoom out again, and again, and a few more times. Still the screen shows ocean in every direction. But keep on clicking, and eventually islands will begin to encroach on the periphery: first the Maldives, then the Seychelles and Mauritius.

As the scope expands to show the wider world, you'll see that the red marker is in the Indian Ocean, just below the equator, with Africa to the west and Asia to the east. The Chagos Archipelago is at least 1,000 miles away from any continental mainland.

There are people there -- Americans. On a coral atoll called Diego Garcia, the largest island in Chagos, the U.S. military has a Navy base that provides logistic support to operational forces... deployed to the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf areas of responsibility in support of national policy objectives.

The base has a bowling alley, a golf course and an outdoor theater. Bands travel there to perform for the troops. Special events in June included a bingo night, a pie-eating contest, and a spades tournament. Free T-shirts were provided.

The rest of the archipelago is uninhabited -- in fact, it's protected. Residents are not allowed there because the surrounding waters have been declared a marine reserve, providing safe haven for hundreds of species of fish and some of the planet's most vibrant coral reefs. It's a tropical paradise, pristine and unadulterated except for the presence of ecological researchers, military personnel and some lucky sightseers.

This is exactly the sort of environment the U.S. government was looking for when, during the Cold War, they decided to spring for a strategically located Navy base. Great Britain assumed ownership of the island in 1965, and the United States leased the land for construction of their facility, which began in 1971.

There was only one significant obstacle: the islands were inhabited.

So the United States and Great Britain agreed on a plan to forcibly evict those people from the archipelago and send them to Mauritius and Seychelles. Within just a few years, the island was cleared. Swept and sanitized, as one U.S. diplomat put it. And so it remains.

But the exiled islanders have never stopped fighting for their right to go back home.

Cast Out from Paradise

Olivier Bancoult was four years old when he left the archipelago in 1967. His little sister had been hurt in a cart accident and was taken to a local dispensary on Bancoult's home island of Peros Banhos, in the northeastern part of Chagos archipelago. But the nurse there didn't have the resources to help; the girl would have to travel to Mauritius, an African island nation 1300 miles away, for effective treatment.

So my mom and dad decided that the whole family needed to move to Mauritius, but that we would move back after the treatment of my sister, recalls Bancoult.

Three months after we arrived in Mauritius, my sister passed away. My parents decided to return, because all of our belongings were left in Peros Banhos. My mom went to register us for a return trip back, and it was a surprise for her to learn that it would not be possible because the islands had been given to America to be a military base. So we were obliged to live in Mauritius.

Today, Mauritius has the largest community of exiled Chagossians in the world; others ended up in the Seychelles and even Great Britain.

Mauritius is democratically governed and ethnically diverse; many groups co-exist harmoniously there. But the descendants of African slaves, referred to as Creoles, have historically faced higher levels of discrimination.

So when the Chagossians, who were primarily of African and South Asian heritage, were sent to Mauritius during the 1960s and 1970s, the color of their skin made them vulnerable to prejudice. That, combined with the inherent disadvantages of territorial displacement and linguistic differences, led to a pattern of marginalization that persists to this day.

David Vine, an assistant professor of anthropology at American University, described the plight of the Chagossians in his 2009 book, Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia. He explained that the Chagossians in Mauritius are thought to occupy a subset of Afro-Mauritanian Creoles... who by definition are found in the most marginal and lowest-paying occupations.

Conducting interviews with exiled Chagossians, Vine discovered that many of them live in slums and are frequently stereotyped and ridiculed by their neighbors.

He also gained insights as to how exactly the Chagossians were forced off of the Chagos Archipelago. First came sanctions that restricted supplies so that many residents felt compelled to seek new lives elsewhere -- this might have been why Bancoult's sister could not get the treatment she needed in Peros Banhos.

Then came forced deportations on overcrowded cargo ships, from which Chagossians were unceremoniously discharged at ports in Mauritius and Seychelles.

There, said Vine, they received no resettlement assistance and quickly became impoverished... Most remain deeply impoverished.

When Bancoult and his family learned they could not return home, they were shocked. They had been staying with Bancoult's grandmother in Mauritius and had very little money; nearly everything had been spent on the journey and the medical treatment. Now they would have to find a new home and a way to earn a living.

The life we had in Peros Banhos was very different than the life we had in Mauritius, said Bancoult. Before, everyone had a job; everyone had their own house. But after we moved, everyone had to share with each other. We had to find a job, but there were a lot of jobless people already in Mauritius, so it was even worse for the Chagossian people. Most of us didn't have the level of education you needed to get a job.

Luckily for Bancoult, his mother realized that an education would be a valuable asset and worked hard to help him attain it. She maintained several housekeeping jobs and encouraged her son to attend classes, while he went on to complete both primary and secondary school.

It was this education that helped Bancoult take on a leading role in an organization called the Chagossian Refugee Group (CRG). He began as the secretary, and then moved up. He has led the CRG as chairperson since 1997.

The Chagossians' fight to return to the islands of their birth has been long and arduous -- full of setbacks and misleading promises. But Bancoult hasn't given up yet.

All human beings should be able to have the possibility to live the lives they want, he said. We want to have the support of everyone who believes in [respect for] human rights.

According to the Contract

Both the United States and the United Kingdom are major players in this ongoing saga.

Though the Chagos Archipelago is owned by the British government, it was leased by the U.S. military during the Cold War in exchange for a weapons exchange discount. The archipelago's strategic location and relative isolation made it a valuable asset, but its inhabitants were seen as a security compromise.

From the beginning, both governments made efforts to downplay the Chagossians' right to their land.

In 1970, a secret memo sent from one British official to another made it clear that the United Kingdom, in holding up its agreement with the United States, understood the situation and was prepared to get creative with terminology.

We shall continue to try to say as little as possible to avoid embarrassing the United States administration... We would not wish it to become general knowledge that some of the inhabitants have lived on Diego Garcia for at least two generations and could therefore be regarded as 'belongers.'

A year later, another internal UK memo employed the agreed-upon rhetoric with practiced coolness.

The United States Government have recently confirmed that their security arrangements at Diego Garcia will require the removal of the entire population of the atoll by July if possible. This is no surprise. We have known since 1965 that if a defense facility were established we should have to resettle elsewhere the contract [coconut] workers who live there. It is desirable moreover, to arrange for the total evacuation from the Chagos Archipelago of the present population, who are essentially migrant workers.

But the Chagossians were not migrant workers. They had been brought to the island as slaves beginning in the late 1700s, but were freed when the UK abolished slavery in 1834. Several generations had established a way of life that was far from transitory; Diego Garcia had a church, a graveyard, a school, hospital, a prison, and a coconut plantation. The islanders spoke a French-based Creole and operated under a barter-based economy.

After their expulsion, the Chagossians essentially had no way to protest their displacement. They were unmoored and disenfranchised, and many were suddenly plunged into such poverty that seeking justice took a backseat to securing food and shelter for their families.

But that has changed in recent decades. Groups like CRG have been formed to give a voice to the Chagossian struggle, and human rights groups in the United States and the United Kingdom have also taken up the cause.

Stuck in the System

Attorney Ali Beydoun has been working with the Chagossians for years. He is a law professor at American University in Washington D.C., an international litigator, and the supervisor of the UNROW Human Rights Impact Litigation Clinic. He is also a senior partner with SPEAK Human Rights & Environmental Initiative, a global nonprofit that plays a major role in linking Mauritian Chagossians with human rights advocates around the world.

He hadn't heard of the Chagos Archipelago until decades after their displacement. It's amazing, isn't it? I didn't even know about this until 10 years ago, he said. I feel that the United States doesn't want anybody to hear this story.

Beydoun should know. He's been on the front lines of this fight long enough to see how intransigent both the U.S. and UK governments can be.

In the United States, Beydoun and his team at UNROW filed a class action federal lawsuit on behalf of Bancoult and 39 other refugees. That was in 2001, and the action didn't get very far.

We were kicked out of court very quickly because of what's called the 'political question' doctrine, meaning that the judiciary feels that executive decisions are what they are, and no judge in the U.S. could overturn, or even judge, a political decision, said Beydoun.

UNROW appealed this district court level decision, setting their sights higher. The case almost reached the Supreme Court, but was turned down again.

Currently, there is no litigation pending in U.S. courts, said Elena Landriscina, a law student who works with Beydoun on the Chagossians' case.

As with many cases involving unlawful government activity, the decision represented yet another instance where the court declined to fulfill its role as a check on executive power.

In the United Kingdom, the Chagossians actually won a High Court case in 2000, explained Landriscina. But that victory was later revoked.

In 2004 [following the 2000 court victory] the U.K. government issued two Orders in Council, which again prohibited the Chagossians from resettling upon their lands, she said. The Chagossians challenged the Orders in the courts. But a House of Lords decision in 2008 ultimately upheld the Order of Council based on the plenary power of the government to legislate for the territory.

In other words, the U.K. government has twice overruled Chagossian court victories in London.

Strange Bedfellows

Unfortunately for the Chagossians, the archipelago is still of great importance to the U.S. military.

As Vine explained in his 2009 book, The base on Diego Garcia has become one of the most secretive and powerful US military forces in the world, helping to launch the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq... [it is] host to a secret CIA detention center for high-profile terrorist suspects, and home to thousands of U.S. military personnel and billions of dollars in deadly weaponry.

Furthermore, he adds, Diego Garcia's strategic location in the middle of the Indian Ocean makes it a potential military threat to a range of countries, from the Middle East to Southeast Asia to eastern Africa.

To help the U.S. protect its interests, the UK has pulled an interesting tactic of its own. In 2010, the government turned the archipelago into the world's largest marine reserve. This measure has had at least two consequences for the Chagossians: it prohibited them -- or anyone -- from settling there, and it convinced environmentalist groups to side with the government.

This has fostered a rare alliance between environmentalists and the U.S. military. Ecologists have reason to ardently preserve the reserve; the Great Chagos Bank is home to the biggest living coral reef in the world, according to the BBC. It is of great importance to the hundreds of species that live both in water and on land, and it offers a remarkable research opportunity for marine biologists.

On the website of the Chagos Reservation Trust, an organization that is dedicated to the protection of the reserve, it is made clear that human inhabitants are not welcome.

Chagos represents a rare and iconic surviving example of nature as it should be. A place where human pressures do not conflict with environmental needs, which lead to degradation and impoverishment.

But the website also takes pains to pardon the presence of the sprawling U.S. Navy base on Diego Garcia.

Whilst there has been damage to some reefs close to the military area of Diego Garcia, it is not highly significant in the context of the tens of thousands of square kilometers of reefs in the entire Chagos ecosystem. Even around the Diego Garcia military base, ecological and water chemistry results show that the area remains in good condition.

This assessment is suspiciously convenient for both the United States and the United Kingdom, and that's no accident. Classified documents recently released by Wikileaks show that the British government anticipated these consequences, even before the marine reserve was declared.

According to a 2009 classified memo circulated internally in London, [an] official insisted that the establishment of a marine park -- the world's largest -- would in no way impinge on [US Government] use of the [archipelago] including Diego Garcia, for military purposes... He said that the [archipelago's] former inhabitants would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos Archipelago were a marine reserve.

This unknown official has been right so far.

Try, Try Again

In the face of all this, Chagossians and their supporters are still pushing for recognition.

Attorney Beydoun, having been turned down by the courts, is still pursuing change through the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. government.

On the legislative side, he's constantly trying to arrange meetings with congressional politicians and their representatives. So far, this hasn't yielded much -- Beydoun says he's often told that Congress has more important things to worry about.

Another thing we end up with is what's called ping-pong diplomacy, he added. The US says it's the UK's fault, and the UK says it's the US base, and it's their policies. And we end up with back and forth, back and forth, he said.

Beydoun and Landriscina have also worked hard to get a response from the executive branch. They used a 2011 White House initiative, called We the People, that promised to reward successful petitions with an official government response.

Initially, a successful petition was one that acquired 5,000 signatures within a 30-day time period. By the time Beydoun's team filed their petition, the required number of signatures had been raised to 25,000.

It was a very powerful drive that we had, said Beydoun. Let me tell you how hard it is to get 25,000 signatures in 30 days. It's really difficult. In the month we had to get these signatures, we were out there begging people. And the more people found out about it, the more interested they were.

They got over 29,000 people to put their names on the line.

But here we are three months later, and still have not received an official response from the White House, said Beydoun. I don't think the White House is interested in speaking with me. Even though we've upheld our part of the deal, they're not upholding theirs.

And in the UK, the marine reserve ruling has put a damper on the Chagossians' movement to secure rights to their homeland. International courts may be the next frontier.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is one possibility, but there are restrictions.

The ICJ has jurisdiction over complaints filed by states, explained Landriscina. In other words, as advocates we cannot file a complaint ourselves. Alternatively, the ICJ has jurisdiction over advisory opinions. This is something we have researched, but as yet have not pursued.

But there has recently been some success with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

The Chagossians brought this claim to the UK ECHR claiming a violation, said Beydoun, adding that this attempt may yet prove fruitful. The case is ongoing, and an ECHR ruling in the Chagossians' favor would be progress. Beydoun hopes for a decision this summer.

It'll be helpful, but it could be a double-edged sword, he said. On the one hand it could be very helpful to show that the Chagossians had their rights violated. But on the other hand, it could also show that the UK was actually the one in charge.

That might absolve the United States government of its responsibilities, allowing all three uncooperative branches to wipe their hands clean of the issue.

The Passage of Time

While human rights groups, attorneys, and Chagossians continue to wrangle with this issue at every possible level, the former inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago continue to live out their lives in exile.

And now, forty years after the forced deportations, those who are old enough to remember their lives on the remote archipelago are beginning to pass away. These veterans of the Chagossian struggle will never see their work come to fruition, and their absence weakens a movement that is strengthened by the memories of elders.

Bad news came in threes last summer.

Marie Elphezia Véronique was one of the first to be exiled from the archipelago; in Mauritius, she participated in a hunger strike to protest her deportation. She was 94 when she died in June 2010.

Simon Vincatassin died around the same time, leaving behind a widow and three children. Though he had already left Chagos by the time the expulsion began, he eventually became one of the leading voices of the refugees' struggle.

July saw the death of Joseph Raynal Bancoult, brother of Olivier. He was 68.

And this year, Madame Aurelie Marie-Lisette Talate passed away in January at the age of 70. Hers was a prominent voice in the Chagossian struggle, and she is remembered for her constant participation in hunger strikes, protests and demonstrations. At my age, if I could return to Diego for good, I would become young again, she said in 2009. She never got that chance.

Having dealt with these losses, Olivier Bancoult is determined to keep up the fight for recognition. It's not just about Chagossians, he said. It's about all displaced peoples around the world.

Everyone has a right to live in their own place, and that's the most important thing for us, he said. Our fundamental rights have been denied, and we want our rights to be returned to us.