Wikileaks and the "Special Relationship"

13 December 2010

The Wikileak cables reveal a consistent contempt for democracy, human rights, and international law

The leaked embassy cables, which tell us a lot about the mindset of government officials around the world, evidence some commonly held principles. One is that democracy, human rights, and international law, whilst being espoused in public in order to placate domestic populations, are shunned in the pursuance of “strategic interests”. Another is the extent to which the domestic population is feared by leaders, and must be controlled so as not to restrict their ability to act in their own interests with impunity.

The Chagossians of Diego Garcia are an important case. The native population of this Indian Ocean island were forcibly removed by the British in the 1970s, an act condemned by the UN and in violation of international law and fundamental human rights (1), in order to hand the island over to the US to use as a military base in exchange for a discount on the purchase of a Patriot Missile system.

The Chagossians, who faced poverty and discrimination following their expulsion (2), won a High Court ruling in the UK in 2000 giving them the right to return home. The British government utilised an archaic royal prerogative to secretly nullify the decision, which was later overturned by the High Court, describing the governments behaviour towards the Chagossians as “repugnant."  However, in 2008 the government had the appeal accepted by the House of Lords, despite previous rulings of the High Court and the Court of Appeal. The Chagos Islanders are now taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights.

According to British Foreign Secretary William Hague's public pronouncements, human rights are “core values” of British foreign policy, adding, “We want to make [foreign office reports on human rights] more accessible to the public.”

A leaked cable relates to the future of Diego Garcia, revealing the British government’s plan to create a Marine Protection Area on the island as “the most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands' former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling”, or, in other words, exercising their right of return under article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Colin Roberts, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Director, Overseas Territories, is quoted as stating “"We do not regret the removal of the population," since removal was necessary for the BIOT [British Indian Ocean Territory] to fulfil its strategic purpose”; a comment illustrating a level of concern and compassion for other human beings, as well as respect for international law and human rights, on par with the observation in 1966 by diplomat Dennis Greenhill, remarking on the forcible removal of the inhabitants from the island, that “along with the birds go some few Tarzans or Man Fridays”.

There are more contemporary analogues. The current offensive in Afghanistan around Kandahar is destroying the homes and fields of the local population, a tactic  that carries benefits because “by making people travel to the district governor's office to submit a claim for damaged effect, you're connecting the government to the people," according to one senior US officer quoted in the Washington Post.

The “strategic purpose” of the Diego Garcia military base for the US, along with facilitating bombing missions in the Middle East and Asia, includes its use as a transit point for renditions, which have involved the “abduction of individuals, the illegal transfer of detainees, enforced disappearance, torture, and secret detention”, according to Amnesty International, which urged a UK government investigation. Former Foreign Secretary David Miliband responded to the request by stating “the UK government was satisfied with the US assurances.”

US-UK collusion continues in the case of cluster bombs; the use of which has been deplored by the UN, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Cluster Munition Coalition (a global network of more than 350 civil society organisations in 90 countries) for their tendency to disperse over a wide area and create enormous civilian casualties, a third of which are children.

A British diplomat noted revealingly that the UK Government’s own participation in arms control conventions was a “tactical manoeuvre” designed to keep activity within the bounds of their "red lines"”. The latter term is instructive, assumingly addressing the domestic population. One US official laments, “Unfortunately, once cluster munitions are declared to be unacceptable, it is hard to argue that we still need to use them for awhile.”

Prince Andrew's much publicised outrage that investigative journalists from the Guardian should in some way obstruct attempts to sell weaponry, via bribes, to one of the worlds most repressive and heavily armed regimes in Saudi Arabia expresses a similar contempt for the domestic population at home when they hinder the pursuance of elite interests, often termed the “National Interest”.

Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, for his part, signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, irrespective of US protests. American diplomats expressed shock that their man in Afghanistan would do something without “prior consultation with the USG [United States Government]”. According to one cable, the United States refuses to sign the treaty because “cluster munitions continue to have military utility”.

Karzai might have been concerned with the fact that Afghanistan is the third most mined country in the world, leading to hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. This was clearly a  point of less concern for the US leadership, which used the weapon in the initial bombing of the country in 2001. Gino Strada, a surgeon with extensive experience operating on the victims in Iraq and Afghanistan, has called the weapon, which often lies unexploded in the ground until handled, “a form of terrorism in slow motion.” Following the initial bombing, the Red Cross warned Afghan children not to play with unexploded yellow cluster bomblets “that look a little like toys.”

An important publication by Human Rights Watch on the issue urges nations to adopt the Convention on Cluster Munitions, stating “The facts on the ground leave no doubt that cluster munitions inevitably kill and maim many civilians. Nations serious about stopping this suffering should join the ban convention and not settle for ineffective half-measures.” (3)

Elsewhere, the cables contain revelations about former Foreign Secretary David Miliband's approval for a legal loophole allowing the US to keep the munitions in the UK, without informing Parliament, as well as British officials putting "measures in place to protect [US] interests" during the Chilcot Inquiry into the invasion of Iraq. These are compounded by disturbing displays of gushing admiration and paranoid sycophancy from UK officials when dealing with US counterparts.  TIME magazine in the US remarked, “It's powerfully reminiscent of one of those dysfunctional marriages in which the clingy spouse eventually brings about the result he or she most fears: driving the loved one away."

One notable cable shows US acknowledgement that Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, bears responsibility for the massacre of Tamils last year. The UK government supported the killings, selling arms to Rajapaksa’s regime in violation of the 1998 EU Code of Conduct on Arms Exports, which restricts transfers to countries facing internal conflicts or with poor human rights records and a history of violating international law.

The UK recently hosted Rajapaksa, who met privately with Defence Secretary Liam Fox, sparking large protests, causing a planned talk at the Oxford Union to be cancelled, and attempts by lawyers working for Tamil activists to obtain a war crimes arrest warrant for the Sri Lankan leader.

This comes as the UK government is pushing through amendments to prevent private individuals from issuing arrest warrants for alleged war criminals. These warrants will now require sanction by the state instead, largely as a result of pressure from Israel. Director of Amnesty International in the UK, Kate Allen, called the amendments “dangerous” and “unnecessary”, handing a “free ticket” to suspected war criminals. The government attempted to justify the move by arguing, “current arrangements for obtaining arrest warrants in respect of universal jurisdiction offences are an anomaly that allow the UK’s systems to be abused for political reasons,” suggesting they will act more responsibly than the domestic population in this regard.


1.Article 7 of the statute of the international criminal court states the "deportation or forcible transfer of expulsion or other coercive acts" represents a crime against humanity. In 1965, a statement from the UN General Assembly on the matter stated, “Any step taken by the administering power to detach certain islands from the territory of Mauritius for the purposes of establishing a military base would be in contravention of the declaration and in particular in paragraph 6 thereof.” The UN Human Rights Committee in 2008 noted, “the Chagos islanders who were unlawfully removed from the British Indian Ocean Territory should be able to exercise their right to return to the outer islands of their territory.”

2. As a warning to the inhabitants, John Pilger writes, “Sir Bruce Greatbatch, KCVO, CMG, MBE, governor of the Seychelles, ordered all the dogs on Diego Garcia to be killed. More than 1,000 pets were gassed with exhaust fumes. "They put the dogs in a furnace where the people worked", Lisette Talatte, in her 60s, told me, "and when their dogs were taken away in front of them our children screamed and cried.” Pilger continues: “In the first years of exile suicides were common. "Elaine and Michel Mouza: mother and child committed suicide," said a report in 1975. "Josie and Maude Baptiste: poverty - no roof, no food, committed suicide." Lisette Talatte lost two children. "The doctor said he cannot treat sadness," she told me. Rita Bancoult, now 79, lost two daughters and a son; she told me that when her husband was informed the family could never return home, he suffered a stroke and died.”