New British Government, new Parliament – a new policy on Chagos?
Here in the UK we have a new Parliament, 227 new MPs and a Coalition Government which is espousing a new consensual way of politics that takes account of a broad spectrum of views. There is a very different climate and feel to the body politic. But will this approach also be applied to the abysmal handling of Chagos issues over the last decade?
The 10th of June is the sixth anniversary of the 2004 Orders in Council which barred the Chagos Islanders from returning to their homeland. The Orders overturned the High Court judgement of November 2000 and the decision of Foreign Secretary Robin Cook in 2000 to allow the people to return to the Outer Islands. As British High Commissioner at the time I had argued with London against this proposed move which I saw as compounding the human rights violations and deceptions of the past. Also I believed this to be a quite unnecessary device. I well remember the invidious task of informing the Mauritian Government which was least expecting such a provocative action.
The announcement of the Orders on 15 June triggered mass Chagossian protests, a hastily called session of the National Assembly and the visit of Prime Minister Bérenger to London to see the Commonwealth Secretary General. The Orders were equally shocking to the British Parliament which had been bypassed and to those who believed that protecting human rights was a core British value. And of course it was devastating for the Chagossians.
Since then former Foreign Secretaries (Straw, Beckett and Miliband), unwilling to recognise that the Orders were an aberration, have pursued policies and legal actions which reinforced the ban. But last year Jack Straw did admit, in a BBC radio interview (What’s the use of the Privy Council?), that by not consulting Parliament over the Orders he had sacrificed legitimacy for speed. Will the new Foreign Secretary, William Hague, take a different approach?
Let us see what Coalition members said before the election. In March Mr Hague wrote to a supporter of the Chagossians: “I can assure you that if elected to serve as the next British Government we will work to ensure a fair settlement of this long standing dispute.” And last June to a constituent he wrote: “As Mr Simpson stated (in a parliamentary debate) this was clearly a moral issue and the rights of the Chagossian people should be recognised.”
Keith Simpson, at the time shadow foreign affairs minister, said in that debate: “There is a great deal of sympathy from those on both sides of the House for the plight of the Chagossians and their interests must be placed at the heart of any decisions made about their homeland… there should, at the very least, be a timetable for the return of those people to the outer islands. The FCO should recognise that the House of Commons feels very strongly on that.”
In more recent debates (9 March, 6 April) Conservative MPs have spoken strongly in favour of the Chagossians. The Lib-Dems have been equally supportive in debates (as have Labour parliamentarians) — many signed Diane Abbott’s Early Day Motion in March calling for an overall settlement of the issues, including resettlement and sovereignty. Four are now ministers. Nick Clegg’s office wrote just before the election: “Nick and the Liberal Democrats believe that the Government has a moral responsibility to allow these people to at last return.”
Since Parliament resumed four new MPs ( three Conservative, one Lib-Dem) have joined the Chagos Islands All Party Parliamentary Group (of whom four are now ministers) and also Baroness Kinnock, who until the election was the Minister of State in the FCO in charge of Africa. She is the fourth former FCO Minister with responsibility for Mauritius, to have joined the Group. That makes a powerful statement. On 9 June the Group will have its first meeting of this Parliament.
The approach of the new Coalition Government on Chagos looks clear and there are high expectations that they will reverse the policy of no return. The new political climate makes an early resolution of the issues, which encompass human rights, conservation and sovereignty, possible. The Foreign Secretary should engage with the Chagossians, Mauritius and the US to bring about an overall settlement. To the Coalition will thus go the credit for wiping out this shameful stain on the UK’s human rights record. They will have overwhelming parliamentary and public support. But first the new government should withdraw from the Strasbourg case, due to be heard this summer, at the European Court of Human Rights, and agree an out of court settlement with the Chagossians, as already suggested by the Court.
At the same time the Government of Mauritius is taking a firm line. It has made clear that Mauritius wants to resume the bilateral talks with the UK on Chagos providing the imposition of the Marine Protected Area is suspended and the UK recognises the right of the Chagossians to return. It is now up to the Foreign Secretary and his Lib-Dem deputy, Jeremy Browne, the Minister responsible for the Overseas Territories, to exercise political will, judgment and imagination and finally bury this relic of the Cold War.
Recent British governments have treated Mauritius with disregard. I hope that this government will fully engage with Mauritius, a member of the Commonwealth, an old friend of the UK, home to a large Mauritian community and which shares with the UK common interests, democratic ideals and human rights principles. There should be an early meeting at foreign minister level, followed by a meeting between the two Prime Ministers. Perhaps Dr Ramgoolam’s visit to London today will provide an opportunity to relaunch discussions between the two governments.
High Commissioner to Mauritius, 2000-04 and Coordinator of the Chagos Islands All Party Parliamentary Group