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

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

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