Britain must renegotiate the deal which allows a key American military base on Diego Garcia to demand that any use of the Indian Ocean island for “extraordinary rendition” can only take place with London’s prior approval, MPs warn today.
A report by the influential House of Commons foreign affairs select committee said the revelation in 2008 that the US airbase had been used for two flights carrying detainees in 2002 - contradicting previous denials from London - had “dented public confidence” in Britain’s ability to oversee its sovereign territory.
The investigation found that despite an Anglo-American deal signed in 1966 laying out the rules for use of Diego Garcia, part of the British-controlled Chagos Islands, there was no “clear requirement” on Washington to seek UK permission for highly sensitive activity including rendition or combat operations and the arrangements in place are “entirely informal”.
MPs now want the Government to use a two-year window before the 1966 lease agreement is due to be extended in 2016 for another 20 years to revise the text to include a new clause requiring express permission from London for any “extraordinary use” of the base.
Sir Richard Ottaway, the committee’s Conservative chairman, said: “This is about building confidence. The Government relied on US assurances on its use of Diego Garcia, and in 2008 these proved to be inaccurate. That severely damaged credibility. The British public is entitled to know that the UK is able to exercise control over its sovereign territory and what happens there.”
London ceded use of Diego Garcia, the largest island in the British Indian Ocean Territory, to Washington 48 years ago and in 1973 ordered the archipelago to be cleared of its civilian population. The Chagossians have been fighting ever since to be allowed to return and right what campaigners say is one of the most egregious wrongs of British colonial rule.
Whilst Foreign Secretary in 2006, Jack Straw insisted that Diego Garcia had never been used for “extraordinary rendition”, the post-9/11 practice of transporting terrorism suspects between different countries, in some cases to regimes where torture is legal.
But his successor David Miliband apologised to MPs in 2008 after it emerged that two US flights, each carrying a single detainee, had refuelled in Diego Garcia in 2002.
The committee said its investigation had found that despite clear provisions in the 1966 agreement and subsequent revisions for issues from customs duties to the conservation of plants, there were no unequivocal requirements for the US to seek British permission to use Diego Garcia for combat operations or rendition.
The MPs said: “This seems to us to be an unsatisfactory gap in the UK’s formal oversight of the use of Diego Garcia by the US for defence purposes.”
The Foreign Office has said it expects to being “substantive discussions” with Washington on the extension of the lease on the island later this year. But it is unclear whether diplomats intend to raise the issue of safeguards on rendition.
The MPs also referred to reports earlier this year that a US Senate investigation had found the British Government offered “full cooperation” to the CIA in its desire to set up a so-called “black jail” on the Indian Ocean territory after 2001.
The committee said “we would expect to revisit this issue” if the US authorities decide to declassify part of their investigation into CIA activities and the reports are substantiated.
An FCO spokeswoman said: “The US understands and respect our position on their use of Diego Garcia. Following the disclosures of 2008, we tightened up procedures both for oversight on island of US operations, as well as seeking regular political reassurance from the US Government. “