Tuesday 13 April 2010

Tombstone of independence

Diego Garcia is the oceanic tombstone of British independence. The UK's violation of international law there is yet another of its epitaphs

Ian Williams

Of course we are all shocked, shocked, that the CIA would have misled the British government about renditions taking place via so-called British territory Diego Garcia.

But we should also be shocked that Whitehall did not suspect or know about it. We would not be that shocked if it turned out that that the CIA's assurances that none of the prisoners were tortured was more than a little wobbly. Indeed, five years ago, exactly such questions were being raised - and waffled away by Tony Blair's ministers. It is, let us say, coyly, not beyond probability that the CIA, which lies to its own legislators, may be economical with the truth with satellite state governments.

But apart from putting some truth in Robert Harris's novel The Ghost about a former British prime minister wanted by the International Criminal Court for aiding and abetting just such rendition, the brief flurry of interest in these islands may remind people worldwide of the original mass rendition, by which the British deported the island's inhabitants in order to hand over a nominal British colony to effective American control.

Luckily, the politicians involved then are now mostly dead, and the ICC has no retrospective authority, otherwise the ethnic cleansing and continued exclusion of the inhabitants would be subject to prosecution, as indeed would be complicity in the renditions.

Indeed, the British signature on the International Court of Justice, which precludes liability for any act occurring before 1974 and from any present or past member of the Commonwealth, also handily stops the Seychelles from protesting the timely removal of the islands from its jurisdiction just before independence.

Of course the American presence, and the islanders' absence from their home, is all in the name of defending the world for democracy and the rule of law - which is why the British government is defying successive court rulings in favour of the cleansees.

Indeed Diego Garcia is the distilled essence of the "special relationship" between Britain and the US. The British government stole the islands from their own inhabitants and the Seychellois, and handed them over rent-free to the US in return for a discount on the Polaris submarines that in turn marked the end of the genuinely independent British deterrent that the post-war Labour government had strived for, and tied the country's fate almost inextricably to the US. It involved giving up Blue Streak, the successful rocket which would have allowed Britain to have a presence in space as well.

Harold McMillan, who did the Polaris deal, believed like Blair that Britain could be Athens to Washington's Rome. He had marginally better expectations of constructive results from John F Kennedy than Blair did from his diplomatic duet with George Bush. At the insistence of the latter, Blair over-rode decisions of British courts on letting the inhabitants of Diego Garcia return.

Surely it's time for a declaration of independence. The lease of Diego Garcia is up for renewal in 2016. Britain should let the islanders back immediately and let them take it over then and join the Seychelles if they wish. And it should drop the pretensions to "independent" nuclear power and give up on the Trident replacement. Any relationship that involves the country in violations of international human rights law is indeed "special", but it is not necessarily desirable.

(Guardian, 26 Feb. 2008 - alas, as applicable now as it was then)