U.S. Backs U.K.’s Diego Garcia Sovereignty Claims

During a recent meeting, Secretary of State Antony Blinken affirmed that the airbase at Diego Garcia plays a vital role for the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific region and for global security.

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron did not give a specific response at a joint news conference with Blinken when asked about a report that said British Defence Minister Grant Shapps wanted Britain to drop plans to hand back the islands.

“On the issue of the vital U.S. air base at Diego Garcia, when foreign secretaries and secretaries of state get together, they often discuss the importance of the assets that we share and use around the world, and that is an important one, and we touched on that this afternoon,” Cameron said.

Diego Garcia became an important U.S. base during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, acting as a launch pad for long-range bombers.

Diego Garcia Sovereignty Issues

The current sovereignty controversy is just another chapter in a very long book. Ever since the French occupied the island in the 1790s, Diego Garcia has had more than its share of sovereignty and ethnicity issues. These issues, along with others, prompted the United States to lean heavily on contractors in Diego Garcia.

For nearly 200 years, the largest of the Chagos Islands was part of Mauritius. Then, when the Cold War was heating up in the early 1960s, the British suddenly moved Diego Garcia into a new administrative area, the BIOT (British Indian Ocean Territory). Perhaps not coincidentally, the British almost immediately allowed the Americans to build a naval base on Diego Garcia. A renewable 50-year lease followed in 1966. The U.S. paid $14 million for the lease.

For the Americans in the mid-1960s, Diego Garcia was an ideal place to exert U.S. influence in the region, especially considering the Americans were heavily involved in Vietnam at the time. The island was small and isolated. Additionally, since it had little economic value, no one else wanted the territory. Finally, and perhaps more importantly, Diego Garcia had no native population, or at least that’s what the Americans thought.

At the time, about 1,000 Chagossians lived on the island. These people descended from absentee landowners and contract workers, so they werem not technically natives. However, Diego Garcia was the only home they’d ever known. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Americans and British began forcibly removing the Chagossians to make way for a larger military base.

Now, we go back to the Mauritius thing. In the late 2010s, the United Nations and several other international agencies ruled that the British illegally separated Diego Garcia from Mauritius. The British and Americans responded by renewing the aforementioned lease until 2035.

Contractors on Diego Garcia

We mentioned the heavy use of private military contractors on Diego Garcia above. Here in the United States, when servicemembers pass by, many of us get all warm and fuzzy. People in other countries often have the opposite reaction.

Contractors do not spark that kind of response. They may have American flags on their uniforms, but they don’t act like American soldiers. In fact, many Diego Garcia contractors aren’t soldiers at all. Instead, they are construction workers, maintenance personnel, and longshoremen.

Until recently, many of the island’s facilities dated back to the Cold War. So, harbors need expanding, and runways need lengthening. Additionally, barracks and other living quarters need updating. For many servicemembers, a Diego Garcia assignment is bad enough. It is even worse if you have to use a bathroom that hasn’t been updated since the 1970s.

Construction work is also dangerous work. Many workers fall victim to repetitive stress injuries. Toxic exposure injuries are a major problem as well. For example, most structures built before 1980 contained asbestos. A single microscopic fiber can cause a number of serious illnesses, including cancer and lung disease.

In the 1960s, Diego Garcia was basically a remote firebase for the Vietnam War. Today, it is an even more remote firebase for a potential war against China. Advanced drones, aircraft, and other military hardware require advanced maintenance. Regular servicemembers may or may not be qualified to perform such maintenance. But contractors, many of whom worked at the companies that designed and built the hardware, are always ready to go.

Maintenance workers face many of the same injury risks that construction workers deal with. Mechanics spend lots of time twisting their wrists and bending their knees. The biggest toxic exposure danger may be the powerful industrial solvents these workers use every day. These fumes, like benzene fumes, are extremely dangerous.

Pretty much anything that comes onto or leaves Diego Garcia comes and goes on board a ship. Longshoremen are in great demand to load and unload these vessels. Modern longshoremen use huge cranes and other implements. If these cranes fall, lots of people get badly hurt.

Injury Compensation Available

The Defense Base Act is an extension of the federal workers’ compensation program that covers longshoremen and harbor workers, the Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act. So, the Administrative Law Judges who preside over DBA cases are very familiar with the issues that longshoremen and other such contractors face.

However, we are getting ahead of ourselves. Before an ALJ appeal, DBA claims must go through an initial review. A mediator reviews the paperwork in the case, mostly medical records, and tries to convince a DBA lawyer and an insurance company lawyer to settle the matter. Usually, the two sides are so far apart at this point that the mediation fails. Frequently, an insurance company lawyer wants a victim to settle a case for pennies on the dollar. A DBA lawyer will not let that happen.

As the ALJ appeal draws closer, insurance company lawyers become increasingly motivated to settle injury claims. They know that an experienced lawyer has a big advantage in an ALJ hearing, and they don’t want to take this risk.

Compensation in a DBA injury claim, whether it’s a trauma injury or an occupational disease, usually includes lost wage replacement and payment of reasonably necessary medical expenses. Compensation for future lost wages and medical bills is usually available as well.

For more information about these and other benefits, contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen, Frankel & Castro, P.A.