Archive for March, 2010

Tories urged to support Chagossians’ right of return, whilst FCO comes under flak over rumoured announcement

Posted in Uncategorized on March 31st, 2010 by Peter Harris – Be the first to comment

Vice-Chair of the UK Chagos Support Association, Marcus Booth, has recently had a piece published on the Platform 10 website – a Conservative-leaning pressure group. His article is available here.

Marcus retraces the steps that led to the Chagossians’ exile and recalls the Government’s shameful, decades-long policy of keeping them from returning to their homeland. His article is a clarion call to both Conservative activists and Tory politicians alike – pointing out that an incoming Conservative Government could and should act to restore the Chagossians’ right of return and resolve the issue once and for all.

Conservative MPs such as Peter Bottomley and Bill Cash have already gone on record as criticising Labour’s handling of the Chagossian issue, whilst Shadow Foreign Minister Keith Simpson earlier this month told MPs that a Conservative Government would look at the issue with an “open mind.”

As the general election approaches, UKCSA has been busy lobbying MPs and candidates of all parties. However, as a potential Government-in-waiting, it is perhaps of particular importance that the Conservatives show that they the moral fortitude and farsightedness that, unfortunately, the Government has so far lacked.

Meanwhile, David Miliband and the FCO have received a taste of what lies in store for them if they announce a marine protected area in the Chagos islands that does not properly address the Chagossians’ right of return.

Writing for the Telegraph, the long-serving and well-respected environment correspondent Geoffrey Lean argues that Miliband would “set conservation back decades” if he were to enact an MPA that pre-empted the European Court of Human Rights’ judgement on the islanders’ right of return – expected later this year.

Mr Lean castigates those supporting the plan to exclude the Chagossians from the detail of the MPA – his article specfically cites Greenpeace, the Royal Society, Kew Gardens, London Zoo and the RSPB – as “flying in the face of probably the most important development in conservation over the past 30 years, a growing realisation that respect for nature has to go hand in hand with concern for local people.”

The FCO have repeatedly claimed that any MPA would be “without prejudice” to the outcome of the Strasbourg case – but Mr Lean hits the nail on the head when he argues that, at the very least, the original MPA plan should spell out, in specifics, just how the Chagossians will be able to return to their islands should their court case be successful.

Of course, it would be far preferable if the FCO did the decent thing and immediately restored the right of return immediately, something that Robin Cook assented to in 2000, but which was overturned by Labour in 2004.

These comments come on top of yesterday’s Guardian article, which quoted Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve’s condemnation of Government policy: “The truth is that no Chagossian has anything like equal rights with even the warty sea slug. There is no sense that the British government will let them go back. The government is not even contemplating equal rights for Chagossians and sea slugs.” Harsh words from a repected human rights campaigner.

Whether or not the FCO is indeed planning to make a substantive announcement on the future of the Chagos islands this week is still unclear; as previously reported, it had hitherto been understood that a final decision would take at least three months to arrive at.

However, at least the Government has received a warning of what would lie in store should it unwisely decide against making restitution with the Chagossians: there would surely, and quite rightly, be an outcry.

Surprise at early announcement on future of Chagos

Posted in Uncategorized on March 30th, 2010 by Peter Harris – 2 Comments

Supporters of the Chagossians’ right of return have today reacted with surprise at the apparent news that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is preparing to make an announcement this week on the future of the Chagos islands.

The FCO only concluded its consultation on whether to create a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the Chagos islands on March 5thless than four weeks ago – and so it would be utterly incredible if a final decision had been arrived at already.

However, writing in today’s Guardian, environment editor John Vidal remarked that:

“This week the British government […] is expected to signal that the 210,000 sq km area around the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean will become the world’s largest marine reserve.”

It is not clear how, when or by whom this news was leaked to the press. Nor it is clear what the nature of the announcement will be. However, it does not bode well that the Chagossians and their supporters have been kept in the dark.

If it is true that the FCO is poised to announce its final decision on whether to establish an MPA in Chagos then this would surely make a mockery of the lengthy consultation process that has just taken place: can the FCO’s Overseas Territories unit really have gone through all submissions – some of which were extremely technical – already?

It had previously been understood that it would take at least three months for a final decision to be reached. Any deviation from this would be as inexplicable as it was unexpected.

The timing of the announcement – i.e. during the week that Parliament goes on Easter recess – also bears an unsettling resemblance to the way that the Government attempted to conceal its enactment of the 2004 Orders-in-Council which re-imposed the Chagossians’ exile.

Earlier this month, FCO Minister Ivan Lewis told MPs that the Government would keep parliamentarians fully briefed about developments regarding the future of the Chagos islands. This promise would have been broken if a substantive announcement were to be made whilst Parliament was not sitting.

As the UK Chagos Support Association’s Chairperson Roch Evenor has said, creating an MPA that did not include the Chagossians “would be a natural injustice. The fish would have more rights than us.”

It would therefore be absolutely disastrous – for the Chagossians, the Government’s record on human rights, and the UK’s international relations – if the FCO did announce a plan for the future of Chagos that excluded the Chagossians, especially if it did so in a way that showed complete disdain for the Chagossians’ views and the integrity of the FCO’s own consultation process.

In the week that Joanna Lumley once again brought the Government to heel over the Gurkha issue, the FCO should do well to be reminded that trampling on the rights of the Chagossians is not something that the British public, nor international observers, will be willing to tolerate.

Environmental protection and human rights must go hand-in-hand in the Chagos islands, and the Government should exercise the foresight and the integrity to ensure that this is reflected in its policy.

Chagos Islands EDM: Lobby your MP today

Posted in Uncategorized on March 11th, 2010 by Peter Harris – Be the first to comment

We have added a new page (click here), giving advice on how you can lobby your MP to sign Diane Abbott’s Early Day Motion on the Chagos Islands.

EDMs are essentially a way of gauging the level of parliamentary support that exists for a particular cause. Ms Abbot’s motion calls upon the Government to drop its court battle with the Chagossians and instead seek a “friendly settlement” with the islanders, part of which should include restoring their right to return and making plans for the resettlement of the islands.

It’s important that we get as many MPs as possible to sign up to the EDM!

We know from yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate that the level of parliamentary support for the Chagossians is high – but we need to turn that support into names and numbers! With a general election aroud the corner, your MP should be somewhat more responsive than usual – so please get in touch with them and ask them to sign up to the Chagossians’ cause.

MPs press the Government over Chagossians’ right of return; Government acknowledges “moral obligation” must be fulfilled

Posted in Uncategorized on March 10th, 2010 by Peter Harris – 1 Comment

MPs today discussed the Chagos islands as the subject of a Westminster Hall debate, with the overwhelming message from parliamentarians being that the Government should resolve its legal dispute with the Chagossians and restore their right to return.

The debate was initiated by Chairman of the Chagos Islands APPG Jeremy Corbyn, who urged the Government to reach a friendly settlement to the impending European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) case. The debate was extraordinarily well attended for a Westminster Hall debate, with around a dozen MPs taking part.

Notably, the FCO chose to be represented in the debate by Ivan Lewis instead of its Minister for Overseas Territories, Chris Bryant. It’s possible that Mr Lewis’s background with the Department for International Development, coupled his current responsibility for migration issues, played a role in shaping his remarks.

Whilst Mr Lewis outlined the reasons for the Government contesting the Chagossians’ right of return in the courts, he was at pains to stress that there was a difference between (a) the UK’s “moral obligation” and (b) its “legal obligations” towards the islanders, suggesting that much more than the bare legal minimum could and should be done to assist the islanders. The Minister cited this moral obligation no less than five times during his speech.

Responding to a question from Mr Corbyn, the Minister also conceded that the only way the UK Government could ignore a ECtHR ruling in favour of the Chagossians would be through passing primary legislation via the Houses of Parliament, a measure that would be unlikely to succeed in either chamber given the level of parliamentary support that exists for the Chagossians’ rights.

However, on the key issue of restoring the Chagossians’ right of return, Mr Lewis repeated the prevailing FCO line of “no right of return.” On this, he was pressed by the cross-party group of MPs assembled, including Mr Corbyn and Liberal Democrat Shadow Foreign Minister Jo Swinson, who castigated the Government for spending millions defending what amounted to “a stain on Britain’s reputation.”

Welcome remarks were also forthcoming from the Conservatives’ Shadow Foreign Minister Keith Simpson, who demanded that the FCO prove its assertion that a resettlement of the Outer islands would jeopardise the security of Diego Garcia. He also underlined the absolute imperative of the UK working with the Chagossians and Mauritius in order to ensure the longevity and workability of any MPA, stating that an incoming Conservative government would look at the Chagos islands with an “open mind.”

Laura Moffatt, whose Crawley constituency contains a sizable community of Chagossians, made a long and eloquent speech about the Chagossians’ campaign for justice and their wellbeing within the UK. Ms Moffatt’s speech is well worth reading in its entirety, as it highlights many of the complexities that are often lost in the discussion over the future of the Chagos islands.

Elsewhere, Conservative MP Peter Bottomley called the Government’s position on resettlement “impractical” and short-sighted, suggesting that, actually, the US authorities were not opposed to resettlement. Meanwhile, Bill Cash criticised the way that the Government had used the Royal Prerogative to exile the islanders in 2004.

For Labour, David Drew called it “colonialism gone mad” that the Government seemed to be presuming that the Chagossians wanted to “destroy their own environment,” whilst his parliamentary colleague John Grogan echoed the Mauritian Prime Minister in questioning how Government could protect coral and fish whilst violating the rights of the archipelago’s indigenous population.

Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George pointed out the absurdity of recognising the Chagossians as “stakeholders” in the Chagos environment, but not allowing them to return to it.

A poignant moment in the debate was when the DUP’s Gregory Campbell summed up the FCO’s predicament as having “gotten themselves on the hook of not wanting to resolve the issue,” to which Mr Corbyn replied that it was the job of parliamentarians to assist the FCO in wriggling off this hook.

Now that the FCO’s consultation process has finished, the Government can expect to come under increasing pressure to act with decency and foresight when deciding upon the future of the Chagos islands.

Mr Lewis was absolutely right when he said that the Government had a moral obligation towards the islanders: it should let them return, and do it this year. As evidenced by the contributions to today’s debate, this door is well and truly open to them.

To view a video of today’s debate, visit: http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=5972

As the FCO consultation closes, lobbying of UK Government intensifies

Posted in Uncategorized on March 8th, 2010 by Peter Harris – Be the first to comment

The FCO’s consultation on whether to create a marine protected area (MPA) in the Chagos islands came to a close last week, and with its conclusion the campaign to restore the Chagossians’ right of return now moves into a new phase.

Civil society organisations, conservationists (including Dr Mark Spalding, “one of the world’s foremost experts on reef conservation“), the Government of Mauritius and others have all called upon the UK Government to uphold the rights of the exiled Chagos islanders when deciding on how to implement an MPA in Chagos. It’s crucial that Ministers are lobbied in order to make sure that they do.

Over 1,500 people signed a petition from the Marine Education Trust‘s petition on this issue, including “a former President of the Republic of Mauritius, 16 Members of Parliament, two Peers, one MEP, ten Professors of Marine and Conservation Science, and over 100 other marine science and conservation professionals, as well as other academics and professionals from a wide range of disciplines, and concerned members of the public.”

Politicians that signed the MET petition include MPs such as Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and Lord Joffe, Liberal Democrat MPs Vince Cable, Ed Davey, Jo Swinson, Chris Huhne, Mark Williams, Roger Williams, Lembit Opik, John Thurso, Steve Webb, Tim Farron, Nick Harvey and Lorely Burt; Graham Watson MEP; as well as a slew of prospective parliamentary candidates.

Messages of support for the Chagossians’ right of return were also received from the Greens’ Caroline Lucas MEP.

Now, as the campaign to lobby the Government to do the decent thing enters its next phase, Labour’s Diane Abbott has tabled an Early Day Motion in the Commons, which will be accompanied by a Westminster Hall debate scheduled to take place on Wednesday. So far, 34 MPs have signed up to Ms Abbott’s motion.

Now that the FCO’s consultation has finished, it is more important than ever that Parliament, the media, and the general public are vocal about the Chagossians’ campaign to return to their islands. The Government is likely to decide its position over the next few months, and with a General Election looming, timely and decisive action is of the essence.

The UK Government has the power to safeguard both the marine environment and the indigenous people of the Chagos archipelago – it must not be allowed to let that chance slip away.