Marcus Booth is a corporate finance lawyer at leading UK law firm, Chairman of Conservative City Future and Vice Chairman of the UK Chagos Support Association (UKSA). He contested Angus at the 2001 general election.
It is a sad and sorry stain on the human rights record of the British. It is a chapter in British life that sadly undermines British claims to be a country that respects the rights of its Citizens. The story of the Chagos islands involves geo-politics, secret deals, deception, and the abuse of British citizens’ human rights.
The Chagos archipelago is a chain of 65 small coral islands in the Indian Ocean, about halfway between Africa and Indonesia, seven degrees south of the Equator. The largest island, Diego Garcia, covers only 17 square miles – the others are much smaller. The climate is hot and humid, and tempered by sea breezes. The soil is very fertile and the seas around the islands are rich in fish. From 1776 the Chagos Islands were colonized and the Chagossian people developed their own language and culture.
In the midst of the Cold War, the United States decided it wanted a military base in the Indian Ocean to keep the USSR and China from threatening the Arabian Gulf. Suddenly the Chagos archipelago was more than just an insignificant speck on the map. The US’ first choice location for a new base was the uninhabited Aldabra Atoll, but Harold Wilson, the then British Prime Minister, feared antagonism from ecologists, as Aldabra is home to a rare breed of turtle. So he offered Diego Garcia instead, even though it was inhabited.
In 1966 Britain secretly leased Diego Garcia to the US for 50 years, with the option of an extension. This was done in exchange for a discount of millions of dollars on Polaris nuclear submarines – a way of concealing the payment. The US pays rent of one dollar per year. The deal was not disclosed to the US Congress, the British Parliament, or the United Nations. Until this time the Chagos islands had been part of the British colony of Mauritius, but in order to lease Diego Garcia to the US, Britain had to avoid giving the islands back to Mauritius when that country became independent in 1968. So, in 1965 the “British Indian Ocean Territory”, as the archipelago is now officially known, was invented for the sole purpose of setting up the base and it was decided that it had to be cleared of people.
For the islanders a peaceful existence came to an abrupt end as they were forcibly evicted and duped into leaving their homes for Mauritius and the Seychelles. This small and brave community, dumped by Britain, has been fighting for its right to return to live in the Chagos islands ever since. After an initial victory against the government in the High Court (subsequently overturned by the government who misused the royal prerogative to do so), they wait for the European Court of Human Rights to rule on their case. Robin Cook alone said that he would stand by the decision of the High Court. As soon as he was out of the way, the Government reverted to duplicitous form.
As an aside, the last Government has seen fit to exempt the BIOT from the applicability of the Human Rights Act, almost unique amongst British overseas territories!
In a final act the last Foreign Secretary declared the BIOT a Marine Protection Area – an almost final insult that protected the rights of marine life in such a way as could have prevented for ever the right of return.
The current state of play
From a political point of view the islanders had reason to be more hopeful when David Cameron walked into Downing Street. During the election campaign both William Hague and Nick Clegg spoke out in support of the Chagossians. Clegg stated that “the Government has a responsibility to allow these people to return”, and Hague promised a “fair settlement for this long-standing dispute.” However, since the election the government has been sending out mixed messages. Perhaps, sadly, the FCO officials are getting to the Ministers whose intentions were once so noble.
Mr Hague has appeared to remain sympathetic to the islander’s case after the general election and has spoken inspiringly about human rights being key to Britain’s foreign policy. This Coalition could make a strong statement that human rights truly are at the heart of its foreign policy by restoring the right of the Chagossians to return to their homeland.
Just imagine the moment… a hushed House of Commons listens intently as a British Foreign Secretary finally makes amends for the wrongs of the past… jubilant Chagossians cheer from the gallery hugging their supporters and patrons. I can sadly only but dream of this end of the struggle to which I am committed. When will the Chagossians have heir ‘Gurkha moment’? Not yet it seems…
A letter from Henry Bellingham, the minister responsible for British overseas territories, sent over the quiet summer period was at odds with our Foreign Secretary’s previous remarks, he (or his officials) wrote:
“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 the grounds of defence, security and feasibility are clear and compelling.”
Then on 13 September 2010, the story took a dramatic turn – the New Statesman printed a letter from Vince Cable’s office to a constituent. In an apparent dramatic shift in government policy the Business Secretary stated:
“The Coalition Government are dropping the case in the European Court of Human Rights opting instead for a friendly settlement.”
All of a sudden victory seemed to be within the islanders’ grasp. Those of us who campaign day and night for the right to return waited with disbelief – could it really be that after all the toil of struggle that we could have won??
Hopes however were dashed in an afternoon – after (presumably) a lot of desperate scrabbling about by officials at the FCO, the New Statesman was quickly informed by Mr Cable’s department that the letter was an ‘administrative error’ sent by the Business Secretary’s constituency office, and the Government’s position remains unhelpfully ambiguous.
Rather than engage in dialogue, like a deranged robot reading the phone directory, the FCO prefers to parrot the same stonewalling message without any apparent grasp of the injustice they’re perpetuating.
I do blame the FCO officials, on this issue they have and are standing by the indefensible, dying in a ditch for an injustice and flying in the face of good sense and fair play. I strongly believe that they are not giving the new FCO Ministers a fair appraisal of the facts.
However if the FCO Ministers are prepared to engage, those of us in the UKSA must hope that our arguments might yet prevail – despite the arm twisting, we know, for example, that a certain Dr Cable, for one, remains committed to the cause.
Thankfully the government is yet to make a final decision.
This Coalition government has a unique opportunity to find a workable solution that recognises and restores the rights of these British subjects – they must grasp it.
An eminent statesman once said that ‘a British subject, wherever he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England, will protect him against injustice and wrong.’ If Lord Palmerston’s pledge was conveniently forgotten for the 2,000 people of Chagos, it is time it was remembered.