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Fortress Conservation versus Human Rights in the Indian Ocean

‘the Chagossian people have suffered, and continue to suffer, a huge violation of their human rights....'

According to confidential UK-US diplomatic correspondence disclosed by Wikileaks in December 2010, the ulterior motive for the establishment of a ‘no-take’ BIOT marine reserve by the UK Foreign Office – anticipating the outcome of the litigation – was ‘to prevent any of the Chagos Islands’ former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling in the BIOT (British Indian Ocean Territories)’.


Fortress Conservation versus Human Rights in the Indian Ocean 

Contributed by Peter H. Sand 

When the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in April 2010 proclaimed ‘a marine reserve to be known as the Marine Protected Area’ in the Chagos Archipelago (British Indian Ocean Territory, BIOT) covering 544,000 square kilometres (ie, more than twice the size of the United Kingdom), the decision to ban all fishing in the area was acclaimed by prominent conservation organisations such as Greenpeace UK, for creating the world’s largest nature reserve. Yet, information that has since come to light on the geopolitical background of the move – including secret diplomatic documents disclosed by WikiLeaks – casts doubts on the FCO’s environmental rationale for this unilateral enclosure of ocean space (subsequently ‘corrected upwards’ in April 2012, to a new total area of 640,000 square kilometres), and in the process may well have damaged the image of Greenpeace (see Sidney Holt’s letter posted on this website on 19 May 2012 

By coincidence, the 200 nautical miles ‘green zone’ now surrounding BIOT also encloses one of the strategically most important US bases overseas, the coral atoll of Diego Garcia. Curiously, though, the island of Diego Garcia itself (the only current pollution source in the archipelago) and its three-mile territorial waters are exempt from the ‘marine protected area’ so as not to impede military operations. Under a 1966 UK-US bilateral agreement and a construction programme totalling more than US$3 billion since 1971, Diego Garcia boasts the world’s longest slipform-paved airport runway built on crushed coral, which served as the principal launch-pad for the bombing of Iraq and Afghanistan. Its Pearl-Harbor-size lagoon has been deep-dredged to accommodate aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and a large fleet of forward supply vessels, even though it is also listed since 2001 as part of an internationally protected nature reserve under the 1971 Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. The Diego Garcia naval port is not subject to inspection under the new 2010 US-Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (article IV, para. 11); and in the view of the UK, the USA and Russia, the base is outside the purview of the ‘Pelindaba Treaty’ on the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone, – although that interpretation is contested by all member states of the African Union. 

The unilateral enclosure of the BIOT ‘marine protected area’ has been described as a new variety of eco-imperialism – enacted by simple cabinet decision (without parliamentary approval, under ancient colonial law-making powers by ‘royal prerogative’), and disregarding both the legitimate interests of other states and the fundamental human rights of the Chagos islanders. 

BIOT is one of the last-born of Britain’s colonial territories, excised in 1965 from the former crown colony of Mauritius for the sole purpose of accommodating a US military base in the Indian Ocean, in exchange for US$14 million ‘detachment costs’ provided from a secret Pentagon fund, and in open defiance of several UN General Assembly Resolutions on decolonisation. Mauritius never formally abandoned her sovereignty claim to the Chagos islands, has enacted national legislation since 1984 for a 12-mile territorial sea and a 200-mile exclusive economic zone around the archipelago, and in December 2010 initiated arbitration proceedings under the UN Law of the Sea Convention (UNCLOS) against the proclamation of a ‘BIOT marine protected area’. The Maldives in turn claim part of the northern section, which overlaps with their own exclusive economic zone. Consequently, in the absence of an agreed geographical delimitation, the new British marine reserve remains unenforceable under UNCLOS articles 73-74.  

The small indigenous population of the archipelago (about 1,500 native Îlois) had been deported in 1968-73 to make way for the US base. In his foreword to a recent book by former Mauritian foreign minister Jean-Claude de l’Estrac (Next Year in Diego Garcia, 2011), former British High Commissioner David Snoxell ranks that so-called relocation as ‘one of the worst violations of fundamental human rights perpetrated by Britain in the 20th century’. The exiled Chagossians – most of whom now live in Mauritius, the Seychelles and the UK – instituted legal action for their right to return and full compensation in both British and US federal courts, albeit unsuccessfully, with an ultimate appeal now pending in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. According to confidential UK-US diplomatic correspondence disclosed by Wikileaks in December 2010, the ulterior motive for the establishment of a ‘no-take’ BIOT marine reserve by the UK Foreign Office – anticipating the outcome of the litigation – was ‘to prevent any of the Chagos Islands’ former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling in the BIOT’. 

One of the pseudo-environmental pretexts for denying the islanders a right of return has been the dire prediction that sea-level rise caused by global warming would soon make the islands uninhabitable, – a claim disproved by recent data for this particular area, and which in any event does not seem to deter the United States from further long-term investment in its Diego Garcia base. The more fundamental and more Machiavellian side of this greenwash, however, is a hegemonic form of ‘fortress conservation’, which places nature before people, pretending that human resettlement would jeopardize the ‘pristine’ condition of the Chagos marine environment. It may well be, as noted by the BIOT’s Conservation Advisor, that the reason for the Chagos Archipelago having ‘a greater marine biodiversity than the rest of the UK and its other Territories combined’ is that ‘it has been uninhabited for over 35 years’. Yet, this arguable de facto assertion can hardly be turned into a rationale for the continued de jure exclusion of the exiled islanders from their homeland. Protected areas can sustain people, and vice versa. It is to be hoped that the UK Foreign Office, regardless of the outcome of the Strasbourg case, will (a) undertake consultations with other states concerned as required under UNCLOS articles 56(2), 74 and 211(6) to legitimise its enclosure of ocean space internationally; and (b) integrate the Chagossians in any future governance arrangements for this unique marine region, which unquestionably deserves recognition and protection as global natural heritage. 

Meanwhile, the Chagos islanders in exile succeeded in collecting over 28,000 signatures worldwide for a White House petition in April 2012, calling on the US Government to provide redress for their forced expulsion. Greenpeace Executive Director Kumi Naidoo conceded, in his Oxford Amnesty Lecture on 10 May 2012, that ‘the Chagossian people have suffered, and continue to suffer, a huge violation of their human rights. It is completely within the powers of the UK Government to right the historic wrong and agree to the right of return for the Chagossian people, and commit to the development of a joint management plan for the marine reserve that includes the zoning of some areas to enable subsistence fishing.’ And the forthcoming 5th World Conservation Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN, to be held at Jeju/Korea in September 2012) will consider a draft resolution, submitted by eleven IUCN member organisations, calling on ‘the Governments of Mauritius and the United Kingdom to

(a)   jointly nominate the Chagos Archipelago for World Heritage Listing to ensure the integrity and protection required for its marine and coastal ecosystems and ecological processes in the long term; and

(b)   jointly develop a management plan for this unique marine area, aimed at ensuring the long-term protection and conservation of its outstanding environmental features, with the active participation of the Chagos Islanders and of competent scientific and environmental non-governmental organisations in both countries.’ 

Peter H. Sand is the author of United States and Britain in Diego Garcia: The Future of a Controversial Base, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2009.