‘WE SUPPORT YOUR RIGHT TO RETURN’ – TUC leaders tell Chagos Islanders

Delegation from the Chagos Islands Community Association at the TUC in Brighton on Wednesday
Delegation from the Chagos Islands Community Association at the TUC in Brighton on Wednesday

‘FORCE this British government to carry out the rightful decision to return us back to our beautiful islands and put an end to these years of misery that our families have had to bear.’

So said Hengride Permal, chair of the Chagos Islands Community Association, when she opened a 100-strong meeting of Chagos Islanders and TUC delegates at the TUC Congress in Brighton on Wednesday.

Permal told the meeting: ‘The government has made its last final appeal to the House of Lords to stop us returning and we will hear the result in October.

‘We believe they will lose this appeal and are just spending huge sums of money to delay our return.

‘As soon as we hear, we intend to call a big lobby of Downing Street to demand we have the right to return immediately and for all Chagossians.

‘There are plans being discussed that only a few people will be able to go back, but this is not acceptable.

‘All sorts of decisions are being made on our behalf, but we demand that we must be party to all decisions that concern our people and that we have every right to say what we want in running our islands.

‘We’ve had enough of governments deciding for us.

‘We also want the US base in Diego Garcia removed, the US government pays no rent. They get it for free.

‘From there, they have bombed Iraq and intend to use it to attack Iran and other countries.

‘It is also used to house an illegal prison where so-called terrorists are brought and interrogated and tortured, even though this is officially denied.’

Concluding, she said: ‘We know that British workers stand very firm on their principles and are internationalists.

‘We ask you to help us write this terrible wrong that has been done to us.’

Prison Officers Association General Secretary Brian Caton said: ‘I was ignorant until three weeks ago about your struggle.

‘I believed we live in a civilised country until I saw the John Pilger documentary.

‘I was appalled. This government fails to listen to the country and fails to recognise people’s needs.

‘We will give you every support.

‘The government talks about the special relationship with America.

‘But it’s not special, it’s an abuse of people’s human rights.

‘They took people off the islands and set up a base to bomb other countries and now they have illegal prisons on it.

‘To fly people out and to put up such a base – it’s an appalling situation and should be ended.’

He added: ‘For over 40 years, to be in your position, is more than a struggle.’

He pledged: ‘I will put an article about your struggle in our union magazine.

‘I don’t think our government can re-write history, because that’s what it’s been doing. We can’t allow them to do it.

‘We should not allow it to feed the war machine of imperialism.’

He continued: ‘The Tolpuddle Martyrs were shipped off to an island.

‘The trade union movement said we want them to come home.

‘Let’s send a message today to the government: we will get you home.’

Keith Sonnet, deputy-general secretary of UNISON, said he had been following the Chagos situation for years.

He said: ‘It is one of the most shameful episodes in British imperialist history.

‘It happened under a Labour government, the Wilson government.

‘They connived with the United States to create a base on Diego Garcia and remove the people.

‘They had looked at an empty island, they looked at North Mauritius, but there was a population of turtles there and the British government decided it would be unpopular to remove the turtles!

‘They lied, saying the islands were depopulated.

‘The truth was kept from parliament.

‘I’m not surprised at the comments made by a British government official.

‘This action was unlawful and it was an abuse of power.

‘The High Court described it as repugnant. Even the barristers representing the government said there were repugnant features.

‘I had hoped, with the Labour government coming in in 1997, there would have been justice, that it would have accepted the decisions of the courts.

‘It’s disgraceful that they went to the House of Lords.

‘I hope they will without question say the Islanders have the right to return.

‘If the judgement goes against them, we will still have to maintain the campaign to get justice for the Chagos Islanders.

‘There’s no justification for the US to maintain a military base in the Indian Ocean.’

He said that, after 42 years, they should dismantle the base and pay compensation to the Islanders.

Sue Bond, vice-president of the PCS, said: ‘Our view is this is a story of secrets and lies, of 20th and 21st century colonialism, a story of racism, of US imperialist crimes with the full support and collusion of the UK government, from the 1960s to the present day.

‘Our government leased Diego Garcia to the US for a rent of £1 a year – and a hefty discount on Polaris submarines.

‘All this was kept secret from parliament, the US Congress and the UN.

‘They lied about the Islanders and said they were temporary contract workers, even though they had lived there for over five generations since the 18th century.

‘British government officials called them “mere Tarzans and Man Fridays’’.

‘They terrorised them, they rounded up their pet dogs and gassed them, suggesting the same fate awaited the Islanders if they didn’t get out, and the official statements on record were that it was essential that “fiction must be maintained’’, that no one lived on the island.

‘This fiction they have maintained to this day.’

She added that the Islanders ‘were deemed not to exist’.

She said: ‘This was all because the US wanted Diego Garcia as a strategic military base, which it still is.

‘It was from Diego Garcia that bombers was launched to rain destruction on Iraq and Afghanistan.

‘It is Diego Garcia which rendition flights use as a secret landing base for transporting kidnapped terror suspects to foreign jails for interrogation and torture.

‘The UK collusion with US interests is shameful.

‘It has continued under this government.’

She added: ‘Time after time our government has ignored, blocked or overturned court decisions in the Islanders’ favour, and still it ‘’maintains the fiction’’, first quoted by a Foreign Office official 40 years ago.

‘At the House of Lords hearing this July, the QC for the Foreign Office argued that “the Chagossians do not own any territory, they have no property rights on the islands at all, they are arguing for the right for a mass trespass’’.

‘Let’s look at the real “mass trespass’’ – that is the home stolen from 2,000 Islanders over 40 years ago.’

Concluding, she said: ‘PCS supports your demands to close the base and return to the islands.

‘What inspires me more than anything else is your refusal to be cast as victims and to fight on until you win.

‘That will be a victory, not just for you, and the justice you deserve, but a victory for the millions of us across the world who oppose the whole system of domination by US imperialism and our government’s shameful support.’

GMB Regional Secretary Richard Ascough said: ‘In recent imperialist history this was one of the most shameful episodes.

‘What was done was absolutely terrible.

‘As a member of the Labour Party, it is a matter of shame it was done by the Wilson government.’

He said: ‘There were cover-ups’ and added: ‘First settled in the 18th century, nearly 2,000 people lived there.

‘But the island paradise came to an end when an American rear admiral came ashore in 1961.

‘The lies went on. Even in 1970 the Foreign Office said there is no mention in our files about a population or an evacuation.

‘How can they deny there was an indigenous population?

‘The Wilson government connived with the US to sweep and sanitise the islands.’

He added: ‘The actions of the Blair government are just as shameful as the Wilson government.

‘The government will not give up and has gone to the House of Lords.

‘We need to bring this up at the Labour Party conference and to lobby Downing Street to ensure their rightful return.

‘The GMB is delighted to be associated with your struggle.

‘It is shameful what has been done to you in our name.

‘The GMB will continue to support your right to return home.’