Cross-party support for return of Chagosians to their homeland
Yesterday’s debate on the Queen’s Speech included the following speech by Baroness Whitaker, supported by Lords Ramsbotham and Avebury. They mention the pre-election commitment of the government to deliver justice to the exiled Chagossians. In the limited time the Minister has to reply to a long debate covering foreign affairs, defence and development he simply reads off the lines from a general brief provided by officials. Clearly the bit on Chagos had not been updated for some time but no attempt is made to answer the points raised by speakers.
Lord Ramsbotham (Crossbench)
My Lords, in noting the antics in the other place following the non-inclusion in the gracious Speech of a possible referendum on Europe, I am confident that they will not be repeated in this House if my contribution is devoted to the surprising absence of another issue. Before I come to that, as a vice-chairman of the Chagos Islands all-party group I agree with everything that will be said by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, on the Chagossian return.
Baroness Whitaker (Labour)
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for his trailer for my remarks, and for his support.
The gracious Speech promises to “ensure the security, good governance and development of the Overseas Territories”.—[ Official Report , 8/4/13; col. 3.]
This is sorely needed for the Chagos Islands, the inhabitants of which were exiled from their homeland by the British Government in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I am indebted to our former high commissioner to Mauritius, Mr David Snoxell, for his advice.
It is not as if anyone now thinks this exile was an example of good governance. On 23 April 2009 the then shadow Foreign Minister, Keith Simpson, said: “There is no doubt that there is a moral imperative”, and that, “I suspect … the all-party view is that the rights of the Chagossian people should be recognised, and that there should at the very least be a timetable for the return of those people at least to the outer islands”.—[ Official Report , Commons, 23/4/09; col. 176WH.]
In a letter to a member of the public on 23 March 2010 the shortly to be Foreign Secretary William Hague said: “I can assure you that if elected to serve as the next British government we will work to ensure a fair settlement of this long-standing dispute”.
I will briefly remind noble Lords of how this tragic fate overtook the Chagossians. In 1965 our Government detached the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in order to form a separate British Indian Ocean Territory, in defiance of four UN resolutions. They reclassified the inhabitants as contract workers, made the largest, most southerly, island, Diego Garcia, available to the United States for use as a military base, and gradually removed the Chagossians from all the islands, eventually depositing them in Mauritius and the Seychelles during 1971 to 1973. Some came to Britain from 2001.
Now, fewer than 700 of the original islanders remain. The United States base on Diego Garcia is 140 miles away from the outer islands, to which some would like to return. When the Government of the United States were asked by our Foreign Office publicly to affirm, as was reported in a WikiLeaks cable from the United States embassy in London, that they required the whole of the British Indian Ocean Territory for defence purposes, they did not do so. The State Department has indicated informally to a member of the Chagos Islands (British Indian Ocean Territory) All-Party Parliamentary Group, of which I also am a member, that if asked it will review the security implications of a limited return. Our Law Lords described official letters that claimed that there was a defence risk as “fanciful” and “highly imaginative”.
In 2014 the agreement with the United States will come up for renewal. I suggest that this gives an excellent opportunity for exploring whether a small number of Chagossian people could return to the outer islands. It would seem to have no security or defence implications for the base on Diego Garcia. I am assured that many will not want to return, but all want their right to do so restored, and some will want only to visit their homeland and come away.
Would this be a burden to the British taxpayer? The Foreign Office set up a feasibility study in 2001, which claimed that resettlement was not feasible and anyway was very expensive. The infeasibility argument has been discredited by one of its own consultants and by others, most recently in a report by Professor Paul Kench of Auckland University. As for the cost, it would be idle to pretend that justice would not carry some. However, the United Kingdom would not have to bear the whole burden of restoring the tiny infrastructure. The European Union high representative has confirmed to Charles Tannock MEP that funds are available. The UNDP may have capacity and it would surely be right for the United States, Mauritius and the Commonwealth to do their bit.
What of the marine protected area, with its full no-take ban on fishing—except, as it happens, around the waters of Diego Garcia, where recreational fishing can be practised—which was hastily declared by David Miliband, as Foreign Secretary, just before the last election? It is unlike most other MPAs, for instance around the Galapagos Islands, where the people who live there help to maintain it.
There is worldwide support for a marine protected area that takes account of the interests of the Chagossians and Mauritius. However, it should have been properly conceived, with a defined role for inhabitants. As it stands, there is only one vessel to patrol the ban over 640,000 square kilometres, and I have seen photographs of very recent substantial illegal fishing operating within the MPA.
The MPA was proclaimed without taking account of the views of the Chagossians, who applied for judicial review in the high court, or of Mauritius, which has brought a case under the Permanent Court of Arbitration for breach of the Convention on the Law of the Sea. There is much work to be done to make the MPA what it ought to be so that everyone can wholeheartedly support it.
In the time available I have simply tried to pinpoint the chief aspects of a manifest and agreed injustice of a fundamental kind. This hardly matches the human rights standards of the Commonwealth charter, which we signed only last March. However, it is very good news that the Foreign Secretary has shown indications of a positive attitude to righting these wrongs in his statement following the end of the human rights case in Strasbourg, and that he is reviewing the policy on resettlement. I hope that the Minister can say how the Government will now proceed and when Parliament will be consulted about the review of that policy.
Lord Avebury (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I warmly echo the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, on the right of the Chagossians to return to their homeland, from which they were ejected many years ago in one of the most shameful episodes in British colonial history. I also join her in welcoming the review by the Government of their Chagos policy, which I hope will lead to the removal of this blot on our reputation.
Lord Rosser (Labour)
At this point, I refer to the speech made by my noble friend Lady Whitaker and the issue of the Chagos islanders—a matter also referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham and Lord Avebury. The issue is whether they should be able to return to the outer islands. My noble friend referred to the statement made in 2010 by the now Foreign Secretary that he would,
“work to ensure a fair settlement of this long-standing dispute”.
My noble friend asked what the Government were doing or intending to do in the light of that undertaking. I do not know what that statement by the Foreign Secretary was meant to mean. I hope that the Minister will provide a direct answer to my noble friend’s question when he responds.
Lord Astor of Hever (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Defence; Conservative)
The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, asked why the Chagos islanders could not return. We regret what happened in the late 1960s and 1970s. The responsibility for decisions taken then has been acknowledged by successive Governments. However, the reasons for not allowing resettlement, namely feasibility and defence security, are clear and compelling. The Government will continue to look at the issues involved and engage with all those with an interest.