WHITE HOUSE Petition
In March 2012, SPEAK in collaboration with UNROW Impact Litigation Clinic at American University’s Washington College of Law and the Chagos Refugees Group prepared an online petition ("We The People" website (https://wwws.whitehouse.gov/petitions)) to the White House – collecting nearly 30,000 signatures (29, 125 to be exact) in thirty days and successfully creating a widespread awareness-raising and support-gathering campaign for the Chagos islanders across the globe.
Central to the idea behind the ‘We The People’ website, and SPEAK’s interest in the online petition, was to allow people to present issues to the Obama administration and give the people “hope” (a term that Obama made wildly popular during his 2008 campaign) that their collective concerns would be efficiently addressed and comprehensively answered. In this sense, through the initiation of the petition with SPEAK’s contact in the US with UNROW Impact Litigation Clinic, SPEAK strategized that the petition would be an effective advocacy tool in the struggle for justice and accountability.
While it was online and running, the petition was a fantastic success. We had a late start, and this particular online platform was challenging, but we received support from countries all over the world, including South Africa, Australia, all across Europe, all across the United States, and many more. Amongst those who signed onto our petition was American linguist, philosopher, historian, political critic, and activist, Noam Chomsky; journalist and filmmaker John Pilger; international environmental lawyer Peter Sand; and journalist and writer Tim Butcher.
In continuing with our advocacy campaign with US Congress, which has been ongoing since 2010, SPEAK was excited and optimistic about using the support of the petition to leverage its efforts on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Straight after the petition deadline, various meetings were arranged and were last-minute cancelled, hundred of phone-calls were made and never answered. These meetings connected SPEAK to have meetings with several members of the Pentagon and Department of Defense.
A petition may not have any legal effect per se, but 29,214 signatures from across the globe certainly carries with it a very heavy moral weight.
On the 21st of December, the following official response was issued:
OFFICIAL DEPARTMENT OF STATE RESPONSE TO 'The U.S. Government Must Redress Wrongs Against the Chagossians', By Michael Posner, Philip Gordon, and Andrew Shapiro
Thank you for your petition regarding the former inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago. The U.S. recognizes the British Indian Ocean Territories, including the Chagos Archipelago, as the sovereign territory of the United Kingdom. The United States appreciates the difficulties intrinsic to the issues raised by the Chagossian community.
In the decades following the resettlement of Chagossians in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the United Kingdom has taken numerous steps to compensate former inhabitants for the hardships they endured, including cash payments and eligibility for British citizenship. The opportunity to become a British citizen has been accepted by approximately 1,000 individuals now living in the United Kingdom. Today, the United States understands that the United Kingdom remains actively engaged with the Chagossian community. Senior officials from the United Kingdom continue to meet with Chagossian leaders; community trips to the Chagos Archipelago are organized and paid for by the United Kingdom; and the United Kingdom provides support for community projects within the United Kingdom and Mauritius, to include a resource center in Mauritius. The United States supports these efforts and the United Kingdom’s continued engagement with the Chagossian Community.
Thank you for taking the time to raise this important issue with us.
Michael Posner is Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Philip Gordon is Assistant Secretary for European & Eurasian Affairs. Andrew Shapiro is Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs.
Hours after receiving the official response from the White House, SPEAK/ CRG issued the following:
On Friday, the 21st of December 2012, less than 48 hours after the European Court of Human rights has delivered its ruling on the inadmissibility of the application of the Chagos Islanders, the White House finally responded to the petition pertaining to the plight of the Chagossians. The response that purportedly took 8 months to prepare, was disappointing except for the fact that the Obama Administration has officially recognized the ‘hardship that they [the Chagossians] have endured’.
SPEAK Human Rights and Environmental Initiative (SPEAK) and the Chagos Refugees Group (CRG) note that, ‘[T]he United States appreciates the difficulties intrinsic to the issues raised by the Chagossian Community’, but deprecates its unwillingness to accept that it played an instrumental role in the deportation of the entire Chagossian Community.
First and foremost, the petition to the White House, did not address the territorial sovereignty of the Chagos Archipelago but the deportation of the indigenous population from their homeland, their continuing exile, ongoing sufferings and the need for the United States to provide for redress in light of its involvement. Therefore, the comment on territorial sovereignty is uncalled for, as it has no bearing to the subject matter of the petition.
The carefully crafted response shamelessly shifted the responsibility onto the United Kingdom and cleverly praised the latter for having ‘taken numerous steps to compensate former inhabitants for the hardships that they have endured (..) remains actively engaged with the Chagossian community(...)’ among many other measures. Obviously, if the United States had simply stated that the United Kingdom bears the sole responsibility, this could have jeopardized their diplomatic relationship and thus it was absolutely necessary to absolve the UK from further responsibilities. SPEAK/CRG note that the burden is shifted but caution has been exercised to ensure that the credibility of the United Kingdom is neither tarnished nor its responsibilities further engaged.
Fundamentally, SPEAK/CRG would like to highlight on the fact that, unlike as has been erroneously asserted by the Obama administration, only 230 Chagossians out of 1876 applicants were each given a sum of money. Apart from a few random exceptions, the majority of the Chagossians who are illiterate were not aware that the allocation of money was to be construed as compensation and a renunciation of the right to return. Furthermore, SPEAK/CRG would like to emphasize that all the Chagossians currently residing in the Seychelles have never obtained any sum of money.
SPEAK/CRG believe it necessary to reiterate that the Chagossian community is fully aware of the measures taken and the policies endorsed by the United Kingdom. SPEAK/CRG did not address a petition to the White House with the aim of being informed anew of the policies of the United Kingdom. The question put forward to the United States relates to its own responsibilities, the pressing need for the United States to accept its partaking in what could be described as the grossest of injustices and for the United States to make amends. The United States cannot escape from its legal and moral responsibilities. While, the physical act of deportation was perpetrated by the United Kingdom, it is a well-known fact that it was carried out at the behest of the United States who required Diego Garcia to build its military base.
Historical documents also attest that the United States was unequivocal that despite the military base being built on Diego Garcia, the whole of the Chagos Archipelago must remain uninhabited. In December, 1970, the United States informed the United Kingdom that it was time to relocate the inhabitants as per the terms of their agreements. Furthermore, the United States has repeatedly informed the United Kingdom that resettlement on the outer islands would be a threat to the security of the military base. In 2016 the 50 year US lease agreement shall expire but subject to a review on the defence needs. Yet according to the UK/US lease agreement, after the initial 50 years has lapsed, there is still the possibility of extending it for an additional 20 years. The United Kingdom has more often than not stated that its bilateral agreement with the United States prevents it from considering resettlement.
The United States cannot choose to ignore its involvement in the deportation of the Chagossian Community from the Chagos Archipelago. Its failure to officially acknowledge the above fundamental fact will not alter history.
SPEAK/CRG note that the United States supports efforts of the United Kingdom especially its ‘continued engagement with the Chagossian Community.’ Yet, if the United States believes in integrity, transparency, truth, fairness and human rights, it must ensure that justice prevails by gracefully accepting its responsibility, embarking on dialogues with the Chagossian Community, attending to their requests and providing for redress to right this historical wrong.
SPEAK/CRG would like to express their gratitude to all those people who support the Chagossian community and have signed the petition. We would like to reassure you that we shall spare no effort in reaching our goal.