Diego Garcia, we have a problem, hello is that "British soil"?

22 February 2008

Anthony Barnett (London, OK):

There are times when one tragedy, one crime tells us how a whole system works behind its democratic facade and helps us to understand how much of the world is run for the benefit of the powerful and how governments lie. To understand the catastrophe of Iraq, and all the other Iraqs along imperial history's trail of blood and tears, one need look no further than Diego Garcia.

So, there has been extraordinary rendition via what the BBC repeatedly describes as "British soil" aka Diego Garcia. But where are the British citizens - or subjects (modest cough) - who might have witnessed the event? This is one of those stories where one has a strange feeling that officials are saying if we focus on the tip perhaps we can distract attention from the iceberg.

The fact that it has hoved into view at all may be to some credit of the government for having asked for another check. Here is Miliband's statement to the Commons. But first of all, and second, let's hear it for John Pilger whose words open this post - and his film "Stealing a Nation" trailed here:


There was an extraordinary moment at the end of BBC's Question Time just now - it's at the end of the programme. A member of the audience asked why, given there were all these British troops on Diego Garcia how come they didn't know what was going on when an American plane flew in? Fraser Nelson had already made his joke: there could no cover up because Labour could not organise one! Ha ha, so "no menacing plot to be uncovered".

He was followed by a man in a check shirt in the audience who disagreed and asked about the sighting of flights coming through Prestwick Airport where no record existed. Wonderful to see such expertise putting the panel to shame.

Ruth Kelly said with some strength of feeing that "we do not accept extraordinary rendetion, to suffer at the hands of torturers. If it happened in the past it was extremely regrettable and it cannot happen again".

Then came the question. "Does it [Diego Garcia] has not have any UK troops?", Dimbelby looked to Ruth Kelly and asked the Secretary of State, “Does it have any UK troops?” “I don’t know” says Ruth Kelly, “it certainly has a US base” “No, I don’t know either” said Alan Duncan, the Tory front bencher, “I doubt it, because the few we’ve got will be deployed elsewhere”, he said, smiling at his own clever answer. “All we know”, says Dimbelby, “is that there was no one from Diego Garcia there because we shipped them all off to give it to the Americans in the first place”. With that and a joke from Derek Simpson of Unite the programme ended on a happy note.

It is appalling and shameful but believable that senior front-benchers preparing for Question Time never asked whether there are any British troops in Diego Garcia and did not know. I can't believe that Fraser Nelson, political editor of the Spectator, was not aware that there are hardly any British forces on Diego Garcia, the base is nominally a joint one but is in effect a US one operating in secrecy. The entire archipelago has been swept clean of its inhabitants, the Chagossians, "stolen" from them to use Pilger's accurate description, before the strategic spot was granted to pleasure of the US military. But he kept quiet having skillfully avoided supporting the US 'war on terror'. It was abject.

There were also MPs at it on Newsnight as well (Ming Campbell of the Lib Dems and Andrew Dismore, Labour MP and Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights). When it was put to them they they may be detention facilities on Diego Garcia they agreed that they did not know. MPs go on about their importance and parliamentary sovereignty etc. All they needed to say was that there had to be a small all-party group of MPs dispatched asap to Diego Garcia to see for themselves. Or perhaps the Americans might not let them in? What British right of inspection is included in the treaty that handed control of "British soil" over the US?

The greatest violation of human rights and the most "extraordinary rendition" of all has been the forcible removal of the islanders with almost no compensation. John Pilger made a powerful investigation of their treatment and fate. This episode should become an opportunity for amends, for example closing the base and giving them back their homeland. LOL

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