Chagos: when Bancoult met Bellingham

by Sean Carey

The New Statesman

Leader of the Chagos Refugees Group in Mauritius met Foreign Office Minister for the Overseas Territories yesterday.

Yesterday, Olivier Bancoult, the leader of the Chagos Refugees Group in Mauritius, as well as Roch Evenor, chair of the UK Chagos Support Association, and two representatives from the thousand or so Islanders and their descendants who have settled in Crawley, met Henry Bellingham, the FCO Minister for Africa and the Overseas Territories and his officials at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Interestingly, no lawyers from either side were present at the meeting, which lasted about an hour. This reflects the sensitivity on both sides about the case concerning the Islanders' right of return which is currently before the European Court of Human Rights, and perhaps a recognition that in the end there will be a need for a political accommodation, regardless of the outcome of the court case.

Both sides are playing their cards close to their chest -- the FCO, for example, has indicated that it will not be issuing a statement. But it is clear that the Chagossians found Henry Bellingham friendly and far more open than any of his predecessors with whom they have had contact.

This won't come as a surprise to seasoned observers as Henry Bellingham is well liked amongst his parliamentary colleagues - think of him as the political equivalent of another old Etonian charmer, chef, Hugh Fearnley -Whittingstall (not to mention David Cameron) - but it seems that he had nothing new to offer the Islanders other than tea and sympathy. Indeed, Mauritian newspaper, Le Matinal, reported this morning that Bellingham was certainly not going to halt the coalition government's commitment either to carry on the legal case in Strasbourg or backtrack on the announcement made by former foreign secretary, David Miliband, on 1 April that the British Indian Ocean Territory is to be made into the world's largest marine reserve, which would effectively block any returning Islanders making a living from fishing.

Nevertheless, the two sides have agreed to a further meeting, probably in the third week of November, when it is likely that bestselling novelist, Philippa Gregory and TV presenter Ben Fogle, patrons of the UK Chagos Support Association, will also attend.

In the meantime, Bellingham has a meeting in parliament with the Chagos All Party Parliamentary Group on November 15. When I interviewed Vince Cable in January 2009, he said that knowledge of the forced removal of around 2000 Islanders from the Chagos Archipelago by the British authorities between 1968 and 1973 amongst his parliamentary colleagues was "about zero". This is no longer the case and thus Bellingham will need more than charm to escape the scrutiny of the 41 APPG members, which includes three former foreign office ministers -- Baroness Kinnock, Lord Luce and Tony Lloyd and five members of the current government.

In particular, they will be interested to know why the minister stated in a written answer to Henry Smith, the new Conservative MP for Crawley, on 18 October that resettlement was ruled out because:

"Full immigration control over the entire British Indian Ocean Territory is necessary to ensure and maintain the availability and effective use of the territory for defence purposes of both the UK and the US with whom the UK has treaty obligations. US authorities have always made clear that their concerns about the possible restoration of a settled civilian population in the territory which, they have said "would severely compromise Diego Garcia's unparalleled security and have a deleterious impact on our military operations." In October 2010, the US reconfirmed that they remain concerned about the implications of any resettlement of the outer islands.

But could it be that Henry Bellingham is misinformed about current US views on resettlement in the outer islands of the Chagos Archipelago like Peros Banhos and Salomon, which lie over 140 miles from the US base on Diego Garcia? It is certainly a possibility since there have been no public comments by members of the current Obama Administration on Chagos.

Instead, the suspicion is that Bellingham's advisers at the FCO are relying on statements made by State Department officials in the Bush administration in 2004 for use in the courts, about the dangers of a "settled civilian population" to the security of the US military base (dismissed as "fanciful speculation" by the Law Lords in the 2008 case). If the US really had security concerns it would not hesitate to say so publically, as Clinton did last week over the UK defence cuts. It's unlikely that they would leave it the FCO to do speak on their behalf. That could open the government to the serious implication that parliament has been misled.

Don't say you haven't been warned, Henry.

Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow at CRONEM, Roehampton University

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