Speech by Sylvia Boyes to the UN Working Group for Indigenous Peoples

Address to the UN Working Group for Indigenous people by Sylvia Boyes, representing the UK Chagos Support Association, Geneva, July 2002

It is with pleasure – but also trepidation that I stand here today, conscious of coming from the so-called developed world where, all too often, most political power seems to lie. And knowing of the wrongs that have been and indeed continue to be committed against indigenous peoples all around the world in the name of freedom, democracy and vested national interests. So anything I say must be spoken with humility.

I am working with a very small group of people in the U.K – the UK Chagos Support Association which exists solely to do whatever we can to support the Chagos people to return to their homelands. We have been in existence for less than two years working to educate and inform M.P’s and the general public of the terrible wrong that has been done to the people of the Chagos Islands. Our Chairman has visited the community in Mauritius and here I am speaking at this gathering.

It is fitting that this is a Working Group under the auspices of UN Human Rights because if there was an issue of the violation of human rights, the forcible removal of the people in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the lies and terrible treatment is surely a case in point.

If Human Rights are to be meaningful, there must be a common standard of achievement for all people and all nations, and not for the moment, when it suits, but for all times and in all circumstances.

It is difficult to come to terms with what did happen around Diego Garcia over thirty years ago when the people were removed to make way for a US military base and Britain got cut price Polaris nuclear missiles in return. That they won the right to return home by a ruling of the High Court in London gives added argument to their case; no one could call the High Court radical. Yet the British Government, despite accepting the ruling, continues to work without any sense of urgency apart from a small group of Parliamentarians who bring up the issue whenever possible.

The granting of British citizenship under the BOT Act may help the processes but it is not British citizenship the islanders want, but the chance to go home.

It would seem that the Chagossians are being prejudiced against. B52 bombers can fly from Diego Garcia to hit Afghanistan and Iraq; nuclear submarines are free to sail in the ocean; foreign workers work on Diego Garcia; yaughtsfolk land and live on the other islands and even the wild life is being protected. But when it comes to the indigenous people, they are certainly way down the list in consideration by the UK government. However, it must be remembered that in so many cases the UK remains subservient to the U.S interests.

The long awaited feasibility study has now been published. As has been noted, there have been many studies and papers produced on issues to do with indigenous peoples. It has also been noted that unfortunately the people themselves have not been consulted. This feasibility is, alas, no exception! While I would accept that it is wise to use expertise, I wonder what conclusions a study would produce of the present living conditions of the Chagossians in Mauritius. There is concern about the environment. I would question the detrimental effects of a major military base upon any environment. But if the Americans have found ways of resolving the difficulties resulting from living in a fragile environment, (where I am sure no expense is spared) then surely this expertise could be shared with the people of the Chagos islands.

While there are important and difficult issues to address there are also certain issues for which we cannot see the reasoning.

Questions such as why the Chagossians cannot return to visit their homeland when they are ready to accept strict security conditions or why they are not allowed to work there when other foreign nationals do so.

There is the question about compensation from both the US and UK. It must be remembered that the land belongs to the Chagossians and it is to them that compensation should be paid. As British citizens, there should be a wide range of educational and other opportunities open to them. However, nothing is ever simple as it was pointed out to me by Oliver- they may be entitled to British passports but how many can afford them? It is vital that the UK government acts with urgency in providing resources for education and training.

An issue, which must begin to be addressed, is the re-negotiating of the lease of Diego Garcia. The present one expires in 2014, so given the political will, it must be possible for an arrangement to be made for the Chagossians to return at least to part of Diego Garcia.

I make an appeal to the international community and this UN Working Group to use all means available to you to influence the governments of the UK and US to fulfil their obligations and to begin to right a terrible wrong. To give the Chagossians the resources which are needed, to enable them to begin a new chapter in their history.

Thank you for your attention.