JUST how committed is the new British Coalition Government to Human Rights – and in particular the much trampled human rights of the Chagossians who have spent the best part of forty years attempting to get back to their homeland in the Indian Ocean, from where they were so unceremoniously booted off by Harold Wilson’s Labour Government to make way for a US airbase on Diego Garcia? Diego Garcia and the rest of the Chagos Archipelago were detched from Mauritius at independence in 1968 and re-constituted as the 'British Indian Ocean Territory'? The islanders were deported to the slums of Port Louis in Mauritius, where many live to this day.
Two years ago the Chagossians won a landmark victory in the High Court, which ruled that their expulsion had been “unlawful” and that they should be allowed to return. That court ruling was overturned by the Blair Government through an Order in Council from the Privy Council. The Privy Council is a remarkable autocratic hangover from another age, stuffed with appointees of the Government of the day. Essentially, Parliament may be overruled by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister – which is exactly what happened.
Subsequently, the then Foreign Secretary David Miliband rubbed salt in the islanders wounds by announcing that British Indian Ocean Territory was to become a “protected marine zone”, not only taking away any fishing rights the islanders might one day enjoy – but giving more rights to land crabs than the islanders.
Not surprisingly the islanders – many exiled in Mauritius and the UK - cheered to the rafters when barely a hundred days ago, the then Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague made this bold promise; “I can assure you that if elected to serve as the next British Government, we will work to ensure a fair settlement of this longstanding dispute”. Last week Hague expounded on his theme, telling the Daily Telegraph newspaper; “In our first 100 days we have brought the energy of a new government to bear on the promotion of human rights”.
In Opposition, the Liberal democrat leader, Nick Clegg was even more outspoken in support of the human rights of the Chagossian islanders. His office went on record saying; “Nick and the Liberal Democrats believe the Government has a moral responsibility to allow these people to at last return home”.
Emboldened by these promises, the islanders leader, Olivier Bancoult, recently wrote to Foreign Office Minister, Henry Bellingham, reminding him of his bosses words and politely inquiring when exactly his people might be allowed to go back home. Back came Bellingham’s reply; “The UK Government will continue to contest the case brought by the Chagos Islanders to the European Court of Human Rights. This is because we believe that the arguments against allowing resettlement on grounds of defence, security and feasibility are clear and compelling”.
Being charitable, it is just possible that the promises made by the parties when they were in Opposition have not been transmitted to the Foreign Office. But given the record of successive Governments of saying one thing in Opposition and doing another in Government, that seems unlikely.
There are some 4,000 islanders, some who are too young to remember their homeland, yet still the majority wish to go home. What possible security risk could emanate from these people, who are minded to re-start their lives in islands away from the main airbase on Diego Garcia? And even if they did wish to return to Diego Garcia, not only is there plenty of room, but their labour could surely come in handy?