Stu Barber had regrets about his time in the Navy. As a Navy planner in the 1950s and 1960s, Barber developed a plan that created a major U.S. military base on Diego Garcia, the British-controlled Indian Ocean island that has been used in U.S. wars and military operations across the Middle East. During base construction, the U.S. and U.K. governments forcibly displaced the entire indigenous Chagossian people of Diego Garcia and other islands in the Chagos Archipelago.
Barber, who died in 2002, had regrets when, two decades after retiring from the Navy, he learned about the impoverishment that Chagossians faced in exile. He wrote impassioned letters to officials, the media, and Human Rights Watch asking them to help “redress the inexcusably inhuman wrongs inflicted by the British at our insistence.” Barber’s appeals went unanswered.
In a new report, Human Rights Watch has alleged that the treatment of the Chagossians constitutes three distinct crimes against humanity: 1) “deportation or forcible transfer of population;” 2) “other inhumane acts,” which can include prevention of the return of a population to its home; and 3) “persecution on … racial, ethnic, or other grounds.” Human Rights Watch (which interviewed me for its report), like Barber, called for reparations, including compensation and the right to return home.
“All that we are asking for is to be treated as human beings,” Chagossian leader Olivier Bancoult said in a rare 2008 U.S. speech during an awareness-raising tour in Washington, D.C. “Unfortunately the great protectors of human rights, the United States and Britain, have not yet been able to see that to be uprooted from one’s homeland and one’s way of life is a denial of a people’s fundamental rights.”
Barber’s story of regret — and acting on that regret — is a model for current U.S. officials. They should make a long-overdue acknowledgment of U.S. responsibility for exiling the Chagossians and for the damage it caused. Beyond acknowledgement, U.S. officials must help repair the damage and compensate for it.
A Central Location Within Striking Distance
In the late 1950s, Stuart B. Barber directed the Navy’s long-range planning office. “The concept of setting aside Diego Garcia and surrounding islands as an unpopulated strategic territory for joint US-UK [bases] was initially mine,” he wrote in a March 16, 1971, unpublished letter to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, which Barber’s son Richard shared with me during research for my book “Island of Shame.” Diego Garcia attracted Barber’s attention because it provided a central location within striking distance of potential conflict zones, one of the world’s great natural harbors, and enough land for a large airstrip.
Others in the Navy and the highest echelons of the U.S. government embraced Barber’s idea. In 1960, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke initiated secret conversations with the British government about the island. British officials responded enthusiastically. During secret 1964 talks, U.S. officials insisted on the removal of the islanders. They wanted “exclusive control (without local inhabitants),” according to a Feb. 27, 1964, U.S. Embassy London telegram to Secretary of State Dean Rusk. British officials agreed to carry out the necessary deportations.
At the suggestion of Barber and other U.S. officials, the British government separated the Chagos islands from the U.K. colony of Mauritius and declared Chagos and three island groups separated from colonial Seychelles to be a new colony — Britain’s last-created colony — in 1965. This directly violated U.N. rules forbidding chopping up colonies during decolonization. The “British Indian Ocean Territory,” often referred to by its acronym BIOT, had one purpose: hosting military bases.
The U.S. and U.K. governments quietly confirmed their deal with a 1966 “Exchange of Notes.” In secret attachments to the Notes hidden from the U.S. Congress, the U.K.’s Parliament, and their publics, U.S. officials agreed to pay for basing rights and the removal of the Chagossians with the secret transfer of $14 million to the U.K., paid by wiping away debt owed for the Polaris missile system.
Although Chagossians didn’t know it, their lives would soon be shattered. The 1,500 to 2,000 people living across the Chagos Archipelago and their ancestors had lived on the islands since the time of the American Revolution. Franco-Mauritians colonized the previously uninhabited archipelago by importing enslaved laborers from Africa to build coconut plantations. The enslaved gained their freedom in the 1830s and increasingly were joined by indentured laborers from India. Over time, the workforce developed into a distinct people known initially as Ilois (the Islanders). By the 1960s, as my research shows, Chagossians were living in plantation societies, where they had secured an unusually good work bargain, complete with universal employment, salaries, and an array of work benefits. Chagossians and visitors alike, including today’s U.S. military personnel stationed there, describe the tropical island as idyllic.
`Absolutely Must Go’
Beginning in 1967, British agents managing the islands carried out the removals in stages. U.S. officials ordered the final deportations from Diego Garcia after base construction began in 1971. When a U.S. Navy commander on the island warned of “possible bad publicity” from deporting a people who had lived there for generations, the highest-ranking admiral in the U.S. Navy, Elmo Zumwalt, held firm. Zumwalt sent a three-word communique insisting the British complete the removals: “Absolutely must go.”
U.K. officials complied. They used overcrowded cargo ships to deport Chagossians to Mauritius and the Seychelles, 1,200 miles away, leaving them jobless, homeless, and without resettlement assistance. By 1973, the last Chagossian was gone. During the deportation from Diego Garcia, British agents and U.S. Navy personnel herded Chagossians’ pet dogs into sealed sheds, gassed them with exhaust from U.S. Navy jeeps, and burned the dogs’ carcasses.
In exile Chagossians found lives of, as they describe in their kreol language, “mizer” and “sagren” — abject poverty and profound sorrow.
To hide their crimes, U.S. and U.K. authorities agreed to “maintain the fiction” that Chagossians were “transient contract workers,” as British official Anthony Aust proposed in a Jan. 16, 1970, memo entitled “Immigration Legislation for BIOT.” Another official, who would head the British diplomatic service, Denis Greenhill, called Chagossians “Tarzans” and “Man Fridays,” a racist reference to the novel Robinson Crusoe.
When news of the expulsion finally broke, a single U.S. congressional hearing followed. The administration of President Gerald Ford falsely told Congress that Chagossians “went willingly…. No coercion was used and no British or U.S. servicemen were involved.” The administration coldly declared what has been U.S. policy ever since: “There is no outstanding US obligation to underwrite the cost of additional assistance for the persons affected.”
For half a century, Chagossians have demanded the right to go home and to receive proper compensation. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, some received British compensation totaling about $6,000 per recipient. Most Chagossians remain impoverished today. U.S. leaders meanwhile have spent billions building Diego Garcia into a major Navy and Air Force base. The military calls it the “Footprint of Freedom.”
The United States `Will Justifiably Be Held Guilty’
Barber’s son, Richard, told me his father was “dismayed” when he read about the Chagossians’ fate. The United States “will justifiably be held guilty, as the most obvious beneficiary, of being an accessory and of evading responsibility or compassion,” the senior Barber wrote in an unpublished Dec. 7, 1992, letter to the editor of the Washington Post. He called for approximately $210,000 in compensation per family (in 2023 dollars) and for allowing Chagossians to return home. “Such permission,” he wrote in another unpublished letter to the editor of the Washington Post, dated March 9, 1991, “together with resettlement assistance would go a long way to reduce our deserved opprobrium.”
In an Oct. 3, 1975, letter to then-U.S. Senator Ted Stevens, Barber admitted the expulsion “wasn’t necessary militarily.”
Human Rights Watch, in its report, calls for the United States and the U.K. to offer not only proper compensation and the right to return to all the Chagos islands, but also to provide resettlement assistance and official apologies. As the organization notes, “The UK government has … acknowledged that the treatment of the Chagossians was ‘shameful and wrong.’ But both the UK and the US have refused to right the wrongs they have committed against the Chagossians for the last half century.”
In recent months, the U.K. government finally has taken partial steps in the right direction by beginning negotiations with Mauritius over sovereignty in the Chagos islands and a Chagossian return. British officials likely were pushed to negotiate when they could no longer ignore a 2019 International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling and a subsequent U.N. General Assembly resolution declaring the U.K.’s creation of the British Indian Ocean Territory “unlawful” and Mauritius as the rightful sovereign of the islands. The ICJ called on the U.K. to “end its continued administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible.” The U.N. ordered the U.K. “to cooperate with Mauritius in facilitating the resettlement” of the Chagossians.
Chagossians have demanded to be included in the negotiations about their future. To date, the U.K. has excluded them. U.S. officials have not assumed any public role in the negotiations, but they are likely deeply involved given the power dynamics among the three governments. The Mauritian government has publicly offered a 99-year lease on the U.S. base.
Stuart Barber saw the denial of Chagossians’ rights and spoke out three decades ago. U.S. officials and others ignored Barber, as they have the Chagossians.
Following publication of the Human Rights Watch report, a State Department spokesperson said the U.S. government “acknowledges the challenges faced by Chagossian communities.” The government tepidly admitted for the first time that “the manner in which Chagossians were removed is regrettable.”
The Biden administration and Congress should go much farther by finally acknowledging U.S. responsibility for what Human Rights Watch rightly calls crimes against humanity, and by properly addressing the generational damage done.