the Disillusioned kid: You Were Saying?
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Saturday, August 28, 2004

You Were Saying?

Sometime ago, I suggested that readers write to their MPs to encourage them to support Early Day Motion 1355 which related to the plight of the Chagossians, forced from their home by the British government of the day to make way for a US military base. For my troubles I got a pro forma response (thank you for bringing this to my attention, there's not much I can do given my position, I will contact the relevant minister and get back to you etc.) which promised a further communication from Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell. This arrived subsequently and contained little of interest. This communication however referred to further information sheets, which arrived yesterday. For the most part, as I expected, the document, accredited to the Overseas Territories Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), reflects Bill Rammell's contribution to the Parliamentary debate on the issue which took place in July. As it extends to three pages I won't deal with everything it covers, but I thought it might be constructive to highlight a few points.

The document begins with some historical background to how the islands came to be inhabited, which seems to be essentially accurate and reflects the government's recent acceptance that there was a settled population on the island, where they had previously claimed it was inhabitted only by transient labourers. The first thing which particularly struck me was a statement at the beginning of the third paragraph:
Prior to Mauritius achieving independence and with the agreement of the Mauritius Council of Ministers, the islands were detached in 1965 to form part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), together with some other small island groups that were detached from (but later reverted to) Seychelles.
This might sound fair enough, but the UK Chagos Support Association (hereafter UKCSA) point out (in a recommended backgrounder on the issue, from which most of the claims attributed to them in what follows are taken) that the dismemberment of the islands
was a violation of UN Declaration 1514 of 1960 stating the inalienable right of colonial peoples to independence, and Resolution 2066 of 1965 (which Britain never signed), instructing Britain to "take no action which would dismember the territory of Mauritius and violate [its] territorial integrity".
Indeed the FCO document notes, "Since the 1970s successive Mauritian governments have asserted a sovereignty claim to the islands arguing that they were detached illegally" (my emphasis).

The document then explains that "a series of bilateral agreements" were entered into with the United States. The first of these "to which the later ones are essentially supplementary" was signed in 1966 and provided that the Territory would "remain available for the defence needs of the two countries for an initial period of 50 years." To suggest that a base thousands of miles from either country has anything to do with genuine "defence" seems pretty ridiculous. The bases true purpose, as its use in the two Gulf Wars and the bombing of Afghanistan has demonstrated, is offensive. The "defence" euphemism, of course, is virtually ubiquitous and I would expect nothing less in a government document.

The document then moves onto the "relocation of the population". This is presented as an easy process. We are told, "In the late 1960s/early 1970s arrangements were made for the islanders to be relocated to Mauritius and the Seychelles" with the vast majority being sent to Mauritius. The UKCSA offers a very different interpretation:
With no warning or consultation, the islanders, numbering about 2000 at this time, were told that they were all being evicted. Those who tried to flee to the outer islands were rounded up. The islanders were isolated, intimidated, and tricked into believing that they would be settled into a similar environment with their own land and houses.

Armed men put the islanders in groups of 300 or more on to a ship designed to carry 50 and shipped them off to Mauritius or the Seychelles. They were forced to abandon their homes and all their possessions except one small bag each. These men slaughtered their livestock and destroyed their homes. Many of the exiles witnessed all of this.
They continue:
After a voyage of six days in what must have been appalling conditions, the exiles were dumped on the quayside at Port Louis, Mauritius, homeless and penniless. No-one from the British High Commission in Mauritius even came to the quayside to offer help. Yet these were Commonwealth subjects. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has never explained why. (When we asked them recently, they simply pointed to the £650,000 compensation granted in 1973, and the court decision in 2003 to grant nothing further).
And indeed, true to form, the FCO document emphasises the "£65,000 available to the Mauritius Government for the express purpose of assisting resettlement." Note that it was given to the Mauritian Government, rather than the Chagossians forced from their homes, no more is said on whether guarantees were obtained that this would be invested to help the refugees. In fact, as the UKCSA point out, this payment was not made until 1973 (recall that the "relocation" had begun in 1965). They note,
Some of this money was intended to be used to resettle the exiles on farm land but there was much disagreement and the exiles were so desperate for money, that the resettlement plan was abandoned and, eventually, in 1978 the money was disbursed. Although this money helped some of the exiles to obtain better housing, most of them were left no better off. All of them had been forced to borrow money in order to survive and their share had to be used to discharge their debts.
All of which goes some way to taking the shine of the government's supposed generosity.

Quite apart from how they had been removed from their homes and questions of compensation the conditions in which they were reduced to living after the "relocation" were dreadful, to say the least. The UKCSA comment,
Mauritius was the worst possible destination for the Chagossians. It was over-populated and had high unemployment. The exiles, without formal education and not fluent in the local language, had little or no hope of finding work. They were not welcomed by the Mauritian people and suffered, and are still suffering, racial abuse. Many have turned to alcohol and drugs, there have been several suicides, whole families have perished from malnutrition.
All of which suggests that the "arrangements" made for the "relocation" of theChagossians did not have the islanders well-being as their top priority.

The document then moves onto the various claims brought against it over its conduct with regard to the Chagossians. It begins with a claim brought in the mid 1970s, which reached an agreement in 1982. In this they say,
Britain make an ex gratia payment of £4 million for the benefit of the Chagossian community in Mauritius [note: no mention of those Chagossians living in the Seychelles or the UK] and the Mauritian government agreed to make land worth £1 million available for their resettlement. It was agreed that the payment by the British Government was in full and final settlement of all claims against the Government arising out of their relocation of the Chagossians to Mauritius and their preclusion from returning to the Chagos islands.
The requirement that they sign away their right to return to the islands in order to access the compensation does not appear to have been popular amongst the Chagossian population and in 1983, the year after the agreement, the Chagos Refugee Group was formed. Various further cases were brought against the government and the FCO document runs through them, up to the Court of Appeal's decision to uphold a High Court ruling denying their right to repatriation and compensation in July of this year.

In closing the document goes on to discuss "possible resettlement of the islanders". As is the government's wont, it presents as an argument against resettlement the study they commissioned "by independent experts into the feasibility of resettling the Chagossians in the islands (other than Diego Garcia)" in June 2002. This report, however, has been widely criticised. Harvard resettlement expert Jonathan Jenness described the study's conclusions as "erroneous in every assertion" and also criticised the lack of data, lack of objectivity, and a complete failure to consult with the Chagossians themselves.

Furthermore, it appears that the government has distorted some of the report's findings. (I have been unable to obtain a copy of the report, what follows is drawn from the Parliamentary Debate on the issue.) The government claims that the report cites climate change as a barrier to resettlement, but in fact it notes, "At the present time it is not possible to quantify the risk associated with climate change for the Chagos Islands." This lead Tam Dayell MP to comment that any conclusions that climate change made resettlement impossible had "crept in from somewhere else." The presence of the largest US military base outside the continental United States, which the US government are currently seeking to extend permission for until 2016, would also seem to discredit suggestions that the archipelago is about to disappear beneath the waves. Government assertions that the report makes clear that the cost of resettlement is likely to be prohibitive are similarly unsupported, as the consultants make clear in the report they had "not been tasked with investigating the financial costs and benefits of resettlements".

The document asserts that the two Orders in Council made on June 10, which prevent the Chagossian traveling to the islands, were a response to the conclusions of the report and the UK's treaty obligations, the concerns of the refugees, presumably being irrelevant. It also claims that the "two Orders restored the legal position to what it had been understood to be before the High Court decision of 3 November 2000." In that case the High Court ruled that the expulsion of the Chagossians had been illegal and that the order which had expelled them must be amended to allow those born their and their children to resettle. A decision which the government argued needed to be balanced with treaty obligations to the US, a balancing act where the likely victor is obvious.

The story does not, by any means end here. The FCO document mentions at the end that Chagossians plan to apply for judicial review of the two Orders, although it seems unlikely, to me anyway, that they will be quashed. The Mauritians are also making noises about asserting their sovereignty over the islands and there is talk of the case being taken to the International Court of Justice. Elsewhere the UKCSA reports that the Chagos Refugee Group has written to the Queen, Tony Blair and Bill Rammell stating that if the government does not take steps to help them by the end of August they "will have no choice but to go and live and sleep in front of the British High Commission in Port Louis to ask for our rights and start a hunger strike if we are not being given appropriate consideration by the UK Government. Meanwhile plans for a "peace flotilla", calling for the closure of the military base and the return of all the islanders, led by Mauritian socialist group Lalit, continue.

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