Foreign Office misled parliament over Marine Protected Area

The UK Foreign Office misled the UK parliament over its reasons for proposing a Marine Protected Area (MPA) around the Chagos Islands, according to secret US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, and reported in the Guardian. New leaked documents show that the Foreign Office privately admitted its plan to declare the islands the world’s largest MPA would end any chance of the expelled Chagossians being repatriated. The admission completely contradicts public claims by Foreign Office ministers that the proposed park would have no effect on the islanders’ right of return. In fact, the creation of a marine park was a ploy to block their return, as it would make it impossible for them to live there through the ban on fishing, their main livelihood before expulsion.

The disclosure follows years of criticism levelled at Whitehall over the harsh treatment of the islanders, many of whom have lived in poverty in other countries since their deportation. In the past, National Archive documents have revealed how the Foreign Office consistently lied about the eviction, maintaining the fiction that the islanders had not been permanent residents. The latest leaked documents are US state department cables recording private meetings between Foreign Office mandarins and their American counterparts.

In May 2009, Colin Roberts, the Foreign Office director of overseas territories, told the Americans “We do not regret the removal of the population since removal was necessary for [Diego Garcia] to fulfil its strategic purpose,”. Roberts, admitting the government was “under pressure” from the islanders, told the US of the plan to set up the marine park on 55 islands around Diego Garcia, known as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). “Roberts stated that, according to [Her Majesty's government's] current thinking on a reserve, there would be ‘no human footprints’ or ‘Man Fridays’ on the BIOT uninhabited islands,” according to the American account of the meeting. The language echoes the racist terms used in 1966 when Denis Greenhill – later the Foreign Office’s most senior official – described the inhabitants as “a few Tarzans and Man Fridays”. The documents also highlight the cynical calculations on how pressure from environmental groups could be used to support the creation of an MPA, with Mr Roberts stating that the “environmental lobby is far more powerful than the Chagossians’ advocates.”

The struggle for the Chagossians has been long; the UK High Court has ruled numerous times in their favour, the UN has advised on their repatriation and the Organisation of African Unity has appealed that the Chagos people be allowed to return to their homeland where they will undertake and enhance conservation work, and not threaten US security. How is this to become government policy when unelected officials at the Foreign Office appear determined that it shall not be so?

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