the Disillusioned kid: Torture, Lies and Chagos: It's Gotta Be A DK Blog Post
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Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Torture, Lies and Chagos: It's Gotta Be A DK Blog Post

Talk Politics has a post linking Blairite duplicity, complicity in torture and the plight of the Chagossians, the latter being something he (?) has taken quite an interest in lately. Towards the end there's a suggestion that a blogswarm around the issue might be appreciated. I have to confess that I'm not entirely sure what a blogswarm is, but I guess it's got something to do with blogging and swarming, so I suppose a contribution by myself wouldn't be unreasonable.

Apparently Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean isn't just a lady with a stupid name who nobody's ever heard of before. She's also now responsible for negotiating with regimes in countries we want to deport recalcitrant Muslims and from whom we first want to obtain sincere and heartfelt guarantees that the aforementioned recalcitrants won't be tortured. Too much. You know the kind of democratic paradises were talking about: Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco etc.

The idea that were going to take assurances from the leaders of anybody on that list is bad enough in itself, but that isn't the central point here. What Symons said the the House of Lords last December is. Because it wasn't true.

At this juncture it might be prudent to chuck in TP's get out of jail card:
Now, before I go on, I'm not alleging that Baroness Symons has deliberately or knowingly misled the House of Lords - I simply do not know whether the untruthful statement made is one of her own crafting or the product of a briefing received from her Civil Service advisors; that is ultimately a matter for the House of Lords to decide, but what I do know is that she did mislead the House of Lords and that at no time has she offered the House the correction required by the Ministerial Code - she may, to this point in time, genuinely be unaware of her error.
Those of you wondering why something which sounds as thoroughly uninteresting as the Ministerial Code sounds should be of any interest to anybody might care to recall the consequences which have just befallen David Blunkett for breaching it. The specific passage which is relevant here readeth thus:
It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.
Not so unreasonable I'm sure you'll agree.

Symons breached the Code on december 13 last year while responding to a question by Lord Beaumont of Whitley who asked (somewhat naively in my opinion, although the actual phrasing may be a reflection of the machinations of Parliament): "Whether [the government] will reconsider their decision to prevent the British people of the Chagos Islands returning to their original homes." Symons responded with the following comments:
The expulsion of the people from these islands took place in the late 1960s and, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, is aware, the Government have already paid compensation to the Chagossians. There were two payments, which altogether amounted at the time to almost £5 million. In today's value that amounts to some £14.5 million. At that time, the Chagossians' own lawyers advised them that that represented a fair and reasonable settlement. It is important to remember that when the noble Lord implies—as he managed to do in his Question—that we have somehow behaved dishonourably.
Symons' attempt to deflect criticism by drawing attention to the payment of compensation should not be a surprise to anybody who has followed this story as it is the government's stock answer to any criticism of their policy towards the islanders. In fact the compensation which was paid had little effect on the lives of the Chagossians and did nothing to mitigate the underlying and ongoing injustice done to them.

The first compensation payout was to the tune of £650,000 which was transferred to the Mauritian government for the aid of Chagossian exiles. The UK Chagos Support Association suggests that the money was intended to allow the islanders to relocate the islanders from the slums where they had ended up after being expelled from Chagos to farm land. The islanders were so desperate for the money, however, that the relocation plan was eventually abandoned and the money distributed amongst the islanders in 1978.

TP notes that the population at the time numbered around 1,500 and that "Britain's 'generous' settlement was, therefore, a little of £400 per head." In fact money was not equally distributed and children received less. Mark Curtis suggests, in the pamhlet produced to accompany John Pilger's documentary on the Chagossians, that adults received 7,590 rupees (around£650) and children 356-410 rupees depending on their age. Curtis also quotes secret a Foreign Office file which comments that "we must be satisfied that we could not discharge our obligation... more cheaply." While the money helped some islanders obtain better housing, many had been forced to borrow money to survive in the preceding years and much of the compensation ended up discharging debts. Lawyers acting on behalf of the islanders assert that the sum given in compensation "would in no way be adequate for resettlement." None of this prevented the government of the day from trying to claim that this "represented a full and final discharge of HMG's obligations."

The idea of a second payment was first raised in 1979 when the figure of £1.25 million, but consistent campaigning by the islanders and their supporters saw this raised to £4million in 1983. It is at this point that we get to Symons' misleading of Parliament, although we will first have to take a minor detour through Tim Slessor's Lying in State:
Something must have pricked (just a little) the conscience of the Foreign Office, because in 1979 it tried another 'full and final settlement'. This time the amount was £1.25 million. But there was a condition: each Ilois [Chagossian] had to sign a binding agreement to renounce any claim ever to eturn to the Chagos Islands. Some of the most destitute families signed without appreciating what they were doing [many were illiterate]. One imagines that it was a case of 'if you want some money, then sign here'. But when other Ilois realised what was happening, they sent the English lawyer charged with the arrangements back to London - with a flea in his ear. Strangely, it was a law firm started by this same lawyer, Bernard Sheridan, which later became the legal champion of the Ilois.
TP explains the significance of this in case anybody's missed it:
Note the critical discrepancy between Symons's statement and Slessor's account - back in 1979, the Chagossians were indeed advised to accept the government's compensation offer by the lawyer who is, today, the head of the law firm which has, since the mid-late 1980's, represented their interests in taking British government to court (although it is a lawyer named Richard Gifford and not Bernard Sheridan, himself, who has actually represented them during this period) - however, at the time they were advised by Bernard Sheridan in relation to this offer, Sheridan was not acting for the Chagossians but for the British government.

All rather different from Baroness Symons contention that "the Chagossians' own lawyers advised them that that represented a fair and reasonable settlement".

So can we now expect Symons or her successor Lord Triesman to fufill their obligations under the Ministerial Code and correct their misleading statement or better yet resign? Can a hippo fly under its own power?

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