After raising the hopes of the exiled Chagos islanders for an end to their plight, the coalition has dashed those hopes yet again.
Commitments of support for the islanders before the election were followed by encouraging noises from the new Foreign Secretary William Hague, who indicated in a conversation with constituent Philippa Gregory that the best solution would be to allow the islanders home.
But in a letter sent to Chagos Refugees Group leader Olivier Bancoult in August while parliament was still in recess, Foreign Office Minister Henry Bellingham said the coalition would “continue to contest the case” at the European Court of Human Rights, and that the arguments put forward by the previous government for preventing a return were in fact “clear and compelling”.
The islanders could hardly believe the new government would go back on its word so dramatically – especially without cabinet or the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Chagos having been consulted. But when William Hague was asked about Chagos at the Foreign Affairs Committee earlier this month, he said that “when you go into it in detail, it is quite hard to hold out the prospect of a fundamental change of policy, so I do not want to raise any hopes of that.” Hague said that he was still looking into the issue, but that “in the light of what I have seen so far, we will be maintaining the position that we have taken on proceedings in the European Court”.
Despite this, Business Secretary Vince Cable, a known supporter of the islanders, wrote in a letter to a constituent that the government intended to drop the case – also noting that the Liberal Democrats “will continue to aid [the islanders'] campaign to see justice done”.
But within hours of Cable’s letter being made public by the New Statesman, the Foreign Office had got in touch to say that it was the result of a “mistake”. Cable then swiftly issued a second letter apologising for the first one, which he claimed was sent “in error”. The coalition, he said this time, would in fact continue the policies of the previous government (which the Lib Dems previously accused of “mistreating” the islanders).
Error or otherwise, Cable’s first letter shows us how he feels and where the Lib Dems stand. What that means for government policy is another matter, and Cable now says he is unable to remain as actively involved with this cause, because of his ministerial role.
Clearly the coalition is in complete chaos over Chagos, and it seems to be settling into trotting out the same specious arguments that the islanders have been hearing for years.
Words of support before the election have amounted to nothing. William Hague has not, as he promised when he was seeking votes, ensured “a fair settlement of this long-standing dispute” (which would be achieved by dropping the case and seeking a friendly settlement). Nor has Nick Clegg acted on his belief that the government has a “responsibility” to allow the islanders home. Vince Cable, who made clear in his first (hand-signed) letter that both he and Hague were “committed” to a fair settlement of the matter, now seems to want to distance himself from the issue.
The Chagos islanders are, of course, used to being disappointed. But the government that promised foreign policy “with a conscience” could hardly have found a crueller way to raise their hopes and then dash them. As David Snoxell, co-ordinator of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Chagos, told the New Statesman: “A candid explanation to the Chagos Islanders, parliament and the media is now required.”