MPs and peers attack government handling of Chagos MPA announcement
Members of both Houses of Parliament today attacked the Government’s decision to press ahead unilaterally with implementing a no-take marine protected area (MPA) in the Chagos islands, arguing that the FCO had acted in total disregard of the Chagos islanders’ campaign for justice and contrary to promises made to MPs.
In the Commons, Jeremy Corbyn – Chair of the Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group – tabled an Urgent Question to demand answers to why the Foreign Secretary David Miliband had not consulted MPs before announcing the creation of the MPA whilst Parliament was in recess last week. He also highlighted the disastrous effect that a no-take marine reserve would have on the Chagossians’ chances of resettling their islands pending a victory in the European Court of Human Rights later this year.
Mr Corbyn was joined by over a dozen parliamentary colleagues in denouncing the Government’s handling of the issue – almost all of whom agreed that the Government was being completely disingenuous in its attempts to divorce the issue of environmental protection from that of the Chagossians’ right of return.
There also unanimity in condemning the Government over its blatant contempt for an earlier promise that MPs would be briefed in advance of a decision being made.
It was notable that the Foreign Secretary himself declined to respond to MPs’ concerns, even though he had seen fit to laud the good sense of the MPA proposal just minutes earlier during Question Time. Neither did Ivan Lewis, the FCO Minister who had given the undertaking to keep in touch with MPs just weeks earlier.
Rather, the responsibility to defend the indefensible fell to Chris Bryant – a man who has shown no hesitation in vaunting the Government’s policy towards the Chagossians over recent months.
Mr Bryant defended the FCO’s decision to break its promise to MPs on the most incredible of grounds, saying that, by April 1, it had become apparent to Ministers that no additional relevant information about the merits or pitfalls of an MPA in Chagos could possibly have been forthcoming, and that therefore the responsibility to consult further no longer existed. Does the Minister really expect people to believe that this is why a decision was rushed out whilst Parliament was not sitting?
And even if Government Ministers were able to command every iota of information available on the complex legal, environmental, social and ethical issues that surround the Chagos islands (a conclusion that is definitely not supported by the performance of Ministers during parliamentary debates on the subject), is he really saying that this would absolve the Government from having to honour its promises to MPs?
In a series of defiant claims, Mr Bryant also contended that it would be “next to impossible” to plan for sustainable fishing to take place in the Chagos islands. Quite why this should be the case, he did not explain.
The Minister repeatedly attracted the ire of MPs through his persistent assurances that the creation of the MPA was a completely separate issue from that of the Chagossians’ right of return. Nevertheless, and without recognising the contradictory nature of his remarks, Mr Bryant simultaneously stated that the Government’s view was that the Chagossians would not be returning to their islands – indeed, that they should not return – and that the Government’s plans for the islands reflected this understanding.
Small wonder that so many MPs were dissatisifed with his response (not to mention the conspicuous lack of response from the Foreign Secretary).
A full report of the comments made by both MPs and Lords (Lord Wallace of Saltaire tabled a similar question in the House of Lords) will be made available tomorrow, after the Hansard is available. However, here is a brief overview of some of the comments made in the Commons:
Conservative Shadow Foreign Minister Keith Simpson urged that the Chagossian people be kept “the heart of any decision made about their homeland,” asking whether Mauritius would be legally liable to maintain the MPA after the UK relinquishes sovereignty of the islands; whether the governments of the Seychelles and the Maldives had been consulted; and how the effective enforcement of the MPA would be ensured.
Liberal Democrat Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Paul Keetch criticised the Government for failing to involve the Foreign Affairs Selected Committee and demanded a guarantee that the MPA would not jeopardise the Chagossians’ chances of returning to their islands. He further highlighted the environmental impact of the US base on Diego Garcia.
Conservative MP Peter Bottomley chastised the Government for breaking its promise to keep MPs informed about decision-making over the future of Chagos.
Labour MP Kate Hoey called the FCO’s decision “rushed,” calling upon Ministers to make clear that the MPA would not negatively affect the restoration of the Chagossians’ right of return.
Labour MP Dianne Abbott castigated the Government for hiding behind environmentalism in order to encroach upon the “rights and legitimate expectations” of the Chagos islanders. She pointed out that the British public supported marine protection, but not at the expense of the islanders’ human rights.
Conservative MP Bill Cash made the point that the issues of resettlement and marine protection must be taken together, criticising the Government for obdurately setting itself against the former.
Conservative MP Mark Field cautioned against using environmental issues as a “fig leaf” to disguise the abuse of human rights.
Labour MP Laura Moffatt asked for assurances that the Chagossian community in the UK would be somehow involved in the MPA, when implemented.
Labour MP David Drew highlighted the feeling amongst many in the scientific community that they had been “used” by the Government.
Conservative MP Anne McIntosh derided the Minister’s attempts to separate the MPA from the issue of resettlement, underlining the fact that islanders would need fishing rights in order to live sustainability in their homeland.
Conservative MP Tim Loughton queried the influence of the US over the UK Government.
Finally, Labour MP John Grogan made a telling and very poignant remark about the late Foreign Secretary Robin Cook – the man who had acceded to the High Court’s decision in 2000 to restore the Chagossians’ right of return. Mr Grogan wondered if Mr Cook would have approved of the Government’s current policy, and whether Mr Cook would have been willing to come to the dispatch box to defend it – unlike Mr Miliband, who Mr Grogan observed to have remained seated throughout the entirety of the afternoon’s exchanges.