On Feb. 15, 2023, Human Rights Watch released a scathing report outlining the ongoing crimes against humanity the United Kingdom, with the assistance of the United States, is committing against an Indigenous community.
Chagossians, a people descended largely from enslaved Africans who were forcibly brought to the archipelago off the coast of Mauritius, did nothing except be Black and live on islands deemed fit for boosting the security of a far-off land of white people. Despite this original sin, the Chagossians learned to adapt, and developed their own language, music, and culture.
THE DEHUMANIZATION OF CHAGOSSIANS
During the 1960s, the United Kingdom and United States began their secret insidious plan to remove all Chagossians from the Chagos Islands so that the United States could build a military base. In return, the United States would provide discounted nuclear weapons to the United Kingdom. That is how little these white Western empires regarded the lives of Indigenous Black people. The United Kingdom pressured Mauritius, a then UK colony on the brink of independence, to give up the islands. They then declared it as a new colony called the British Indian Ocean Territory and lied about their being no permanent population so they wouldn’t have to report to the UN about continuing the British colonial empire.
The lie paved the way for the United Kingdom and the United States to strip the Chagossians of their humanity, and their rights, permanently displacing them from their homelands through violent means. These methods included preventing those who had left the island for medical care or other reasons from returning (and separating them from their families), and ordering the remaining population to leave or else, killing their dogs to indicate what the “or else” would entail if they refused. These atrocities were part of a larger system of structural racism replicated throughout the African continent, and which has followed Chagossians for decades as they seek reparations and a return to their home.
The heartbreaking violence the Chagossians have endured for decades shows us that we cannot rely on these imperialist empires to provide the justice we deserve.
Chagossians were sent to Seychelles or Mauritius, where they lived in extreme poverty compared to native Mauritians. Children were dying as a result of being violently removed from their homelands and deprived of the necessities they needed to live healthy lives. This abject poverty and discrimination continue to this day, as Chagossians living in the United Kingdom are subject to the same human rights abuses. They have received minimal compensation for their entire lives and history being destroyed. Those who did receive meager compensation were forced to sign a document in English legal jargon — a language and terms they did not understand — giving up the right to return to their homelands.
To this day, Chagossians are still fighting for their right to exist and be recognized as full human beings, and to receive reparations for the ongoing harm being done to them at the hands of the UK and US governments. British courts have gone back and forth about whether or not the Chagossians deserve to return to their homelands or be compensated, and even Queen Elizabeth II stepped in at one point to firmly deny them their rights on the basis of security concerns and costs. The concerns over cost are overstated, given global firm KPMG totaled the cost of such an operation to be approximately $605 million, which is pennies compared to what the United Kingdom spent on nuclear weapons in 2021 alone.
WORKING TOWARD JUSTICE
This story is, unfortunately, not unique. History has proven time and time again that these white supremacist, patriarchal, imperialist empires care only about preserving the security of and enriching other rich white people, the rest of the world be damned. From the Marshall Islands, across the United States in poor, working class, and often Black, brown and Indigenous communities, to Japan and the world over — empires like the United States and United Kingdom will stop at nothing to establish “full spectrum dominance” over the entire world, in the words of activist and writer Ray Acheson.
The heartbreaking violence the Chagossians have endured for decades shows us that we cannot rely on these imperialist empires to provide the justice we deserve. Even when cases like this are taken to the International Court of Justice, empires can simply ignore accountability and go about their day.
This is a call in for all the white people who would call themselves allies. Those thinking about issues like nuclear weapons abolition, anti-militarism, and so many other social justice issues that plague our society who don’t center their work in a justice framework that focuses on the disproportionate impacts on Black, brown, and Indigenous people. How many more Black, brown, and Indigenous lives must be sacrificed before you shed your ally persona and become an accomplice (in the wise words of activist and educator — and my friend — Mari Faines) in the fight to hold the United States, the United Kingdom and other empires’ feet to the fire and demand full spectrum justice? At what point are you willing to loudly call bullshit on these shallow defenses of maintaining “national security” rendered useless by the continual displacement, violence, and murder of hundreds of millions (dare I say billions) of people around the world?
If this piece sounds angry, it’s because I am. I’m angry that we are learning about yet another community fallen victim to the violent, bloody hands of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism and imperialism — whose humanity and dignity have been stripped in the name of “national security” while the perpetrators of these crimes evade accountability once again. As long as we prop up this global system that enriches and benefits a few at the expense of literally everyone else, we cannot expect to see justice.
We have to get serious about building a movement and global community fighting for full spectrum justice. A movement that uplifts the lived experiences of Black, brown, and Indigenous communities, and centers the disproportionate harm they experience at the hands of white supremacy. A movement led by the victims, where they can advocate for themselves and outline what reparations and justice looks like to them. A movement that engages actively with and seeks to dismantle the structures of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism that uphold these imperialist empires.
The good news is that movements like this already exist. Beyond movements like the prison and police abolition movements or the missing and murdered Indigenous women’s movement, we can take notes from the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). Throughout the creation and implementation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, ICAN has continuously worked to incorporate the perspectives of nuclear victims so that human impacts are front and center, a conversation rooted in a long history of humanitarian disarmament. Those who seek to become accomplices should respectfully join forces with these movements and support their work, or their efforts will never truly be just. Anything else, including shallow commitments to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice without action to back it up, are inadequate at best and actively harmful at worst.
Black, brown, Indigenous and other people of color around the world deserve our genuine commitment to seeking full spectrum justice for their communities that are constantly ravaged in pursuit of profit and power for a handful of people.
If you aren’t fighting for this, then what are you even fighting for?
Jasmine Owens is the Associate Director for the Nuclear Weapons Abolition Program at Physicians for Social Responsibility. Her work and her passions focus on centering our collective humanity in the fight for a more just and equitable world, starting with the abolition of nuclear weapons.