David Snoxell: Ministers recognise the injustice done to the Chagossians. But it's time for action, not words.
David Snoxell is Coordinator of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group and was British High Commissioner to Mauritius, 2000-04, and Deputy Commissioner of BIOT, 1995-97.
In 1965, the UK excised the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius to create a new colony, the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), so that the largest of the 55 islands, Diego Garcia, could be developed as a US base. In the process the population of 1,500 Ilois were removed from their homeland and dumped in Mauritius and Seychelles. Since the 54 outer islands have never been required for defence purposes what is stopping the Government allowing Chagossians to return for visits or to resettle there?
Since 1999 their case for doing so has trailed through the courts. At each stage the Chagossians won. But at the last hurdle in 2008, the Law Lords gave a qualified 3:2 verdict in favour of the Government. However, the case is now before the European Court of Human Rights. If it decides the case is admissible the Chagossians are likely to win since the UK is manifestly in breach of one or more of the articles of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The case should never have had to go this far. The right to return was restored in November 2000 by Robin Cook, following the High Court judgment in favour of the Chagossians, but this was overturned in June 2004 by Orders in Council. Jack Straw was to admit in 2009 that by not consulting Parliament he had sacrificed legitimacy for speed. It is inconceivable that Parliament would have agreed to deprive the Chagossians of the most fundamental of all human rights – the right to return to one’s homeland. It would be far better if the FCO were to withdraw from the case and settle out of court, as already suggested by Strasbourg. This would avoid fuelling the campaign of those who see its judgments as an attack on the independence of our courts.
Over the past decade there has been a systemic failure – a lack of political will and foresight set against a background of international crises, low level handling of the issues in the FCO, lack of ministerial engagement, buying time, the inevitable face-saving, the defence of past mistakes and mounting legal bills, (about £3 million), exacerbated by the turnover of staff and ministers. This was not a planned strategy, rather a failure to grasp the nettle. Since 2002, Ministers have signed off on keeping the Chagossians in exile, deploying largely disproved arguments, such as the security of the base, "treaty" obligations to the US, feasibility and cost of resettlement, conservation and the recently created Marine Protection Area.
The Chagos Islands (BIOT) All Party Parliamentary Group, whose purpose is "to help bring about a resolution of the issues concerning the future of the Islands and the Chagossians", was established in the wake of the 2008 defeat by the Law Lords and has wrestled with these arguments in the course of 26 meetings over more than three years. The group has currently 41 members. Several of its members are in the Coalition Government and four were FCO Ministers. The Group has had meetings with FCO Ministers on four occasions, with leaders of the Chagossian groups, the US Embassy and Mauritius High Commissioner, conservation groups and the UK Chagos Support Association whose Patrons are Philippa Gregory, Ben Fogle and Benjamin Zephaniah. The FAC has noted: “We conclude that there is a strong moral case for the UK permitting and supporting a return to BIOT for the Chagossians. The FCO has argued that such a return would be unsustainable but we find these arguments less than convincing”.
Before the election both parties expressed strong support for the Chagossians and William Hague promised “to ensure a fair settlement of this long standing dispute”. Nick Clegg’s office said: “Nick and the Lib Dems believe that the Government has a moral responsibility to allow these people to at last return”. Then in a letter to a constituent Vince Cable announced in September 2010 that the Government was withdrawing from the case, opting instead for a friendly settlement. He noted that William Hague was “also committed to a fair settlement and that steps had already been taken to ensure their return”. A week later he was forced to recant, but added that “I am sure that the Chagossian cause will continue to be championed by my colleagues within the Liberal Democrat party.”
Why, then, in the 21 months of this Government has nothing happened? There has been an abject failure of politicians to carry through the commitments they made on several occasions in parliamentary debates. A tiny group of FCO officials and legal advisers have continued to run policy towards Chagos. Whilst being more sympathetic than the previous government, ministerial answers to parliamentary questions, interventions and letters have simply reiterated standard FCO lines. True, Ministers' public and parliamentary stance comes over as positive and anguished but the reality is, so far nothing has changed. In a recent meeting with members of the Chagos APPG, the Foreign Secretary referred to FCO positions and policy rather than his own. The gap between what politicians feel and what officials "recommend" has never been so obvious. Yes, the climate has changed - but not yet the tide.
In a major speech last year, the Foreign Secretary said: “My ambition is a Foreign Office in which ideas thrive and the status quo can be challenged fearlessly...our diplomats excel at finding deft, realistic and workable solutions”. There is not much evidence that Ministers are succeeding in challenging the status quo on Chagos and applying political will and compromise to finding workable solutions - though, unlike the previous government, it is pretty clear that they would like to do so. They give the impression of being unwilling passengers bound and gagged in the backseat of a car driven doggedly by their officials.
The UK remains in violation of several UN human rights instruments and decisions. Our international reputation continues to be badly damaged by accusations of double standards. In the same speech, the Foreign Secretary said: “We cannot ride roughshod over international opinion or neglect to ensure that our actions are seen to be as legitimate as possible in the eyes of the world”. What better year than 2012, when the eyes of the world are on London for the Olympic Games and the Diamond Jubilee, to restore the human rights and the dignity of the Chagossian people? What better way to mark the Queen’s long reign, which has seen the transition of the British Empire to a Commonwealth of Nations, by bringing to an end this tragedy and relic of Empire in the Indian Ocean? Jeremy Corbyn, the Chairman of the APPG, has asked for a debate early in the session. This will be the opportunity for the Foreign Secretary to tell Parliament about the progress that he is making towards a settlement of the issues.