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News > World

Labour's Emily Thornberry Calls on Theresa May to ‘Apologise to the Commonwealth for Britain’s Historic Wrongs’

  • A U.S. warplane on the British Indian Ocean Territory of Diego Garcia island.

    A U.S. warplane on the British Indian Ocean Territory of Diego Garcia island. | Photo: Reuters

Published 13 April 2018

Emily Thornberry, Britain's shadow foreign secretary, said the country's Prime Minister Theresa May should offer apologies to Commonwealth leaders.

Emily Thornberry, Britain's shadow foreign secretary, believes Prime Minister, Theresa May, should offer apologies to Commonwealth leaders for the government's history of colonialism.

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Thornberry said former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and other past leaders had turned a blind eye to the work of Commonwealth members to end apartheid in South Africa, as well as Britain's decision to evict all Black residents from the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean. They were replaced by a U.S. military base on Diego Garcia.

The eviction of the Chagossian people, an event Thornberry described as being a “historic wrong,” occurred from 1967 to 1973. “This week would be an appropriate moment to correct that historic mistake, and would send a wider signal to our Commonwealth cousins that we in the UK truly recognize that the days are gone when our union was described – in colonial terms – as the ‘British Commonwealth,'” Thornberry said.

“This great institution does not exist for the benefit of Britain, and even less simply to make up for the post-Brexit hole in our trading balance sheet. It exists for the collective benefit of all its members, and the wider benefit of the world.”

In the lead up to the forced expulsion of the Chagossians, a declassified 1966 cable exchanged between the British and U.S. government read: “There will be no indigenous population except seagulls.” Another read: “Unfortunately, along with those birds go some few Tarzans.”

In the 1970s, British officials rounded up all the dogs on Diego Garcia and gased them to death. Their next roundup was that of the Chagossian people, forcibly shipping them to Mauritius.

Diego Garcia has served as a critical point of contact for the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Isolated, but with easy access to Africa, Asia and the Middle East, the CIA, allegedly, used the military base on the island to conduct rendition flights of suspected terrorists after Sept. 11, according to NPR.

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Last year, Mauritius led a group of 33 countries that voted to refer Britain to the International Court of Justice in the Hague concerning Diego Garcia and the Chagos Islands as a whole, and the right of its people to return home after more than 40 years of forced exile.

Sabrina Jean, a Chagossian in exile and head of the U.K. Chagos Refugees Group in London, said "When I been on the island, we say we are in our motherland, especially when you wake up in the morning, when the elderly told you about the singing of the bird, about the sea — the blue sea. Everything. It was for me a paradise island."

However, once every year, the U.S. military does allow 15 Chagossian elders to visit their homeland briefly. One of them, Bernard Nourrice, said “it's heartbreaking. I feel so ashamed.”

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