Former Ambassador, Human Rights Activist
“We do not agree the right of self-determination applies to the Chagossians”, says Foreign Office minister Alan Duncan, who later clarifies that they are not “a people”. If you can stand it, you can watch the urgent question in the Commons today which forced the government to defend the decision they had sneaked out via a written answer.
The debate starts at 10.34 – if you put the cursor to the bottom of the picture a slider appears. It is excruciating to watch. In an unusually full House of Commons (not a high bar) there is indignation and real anger on all sides, with even Tories describing the decision to continue the eviction of the Chagos islanders as “dishonourable”.
The government argues that the Chagossians are not “a people” distinct from the Mauritians, therefore they do not have a right of self-determination. This piece of sophistry is designed to answer the obvious question of why the Chagossians have less rights than the Falkland Islanders or Gibraltarians. The actual answer – that the Chagossians are not white – is not one the government wishes to give. It also begs the question, if the Chagossians are Mauritians, why are the islands not a part of Mauritius?
The government produced a paper on prospective resettlement, imposing arbitrary conditions on where and how the Chagossians could live designed to make life as difficult as possible. Those conditions included that there could be no civilian use of the airstrip – which I am glad to see Alex Salmond challenged in the Commons. Chagossians could work at the US airbase, but only on condition their partners and children would not be permitted to be with them. Fishing – their traditional activity – will be banned by the UK government’s marine reserve.
Given these conditions, Duncan kept reiterating, only 223 Chagossians actually wanted to return. And that was not a viable population (which will be news to many inhabited islands).
Support for the government was very thin. The most notable contribution was from the Rt Hon Sir Desmond Swayne MP, who oozing contempt for dusky foreigners intervened solely to state that it would be impossible to return the islanders because the government would be put to the expense of building a prison for them. (He really did say this, I am not making it up, you can see it on the link.)
It takes New Labour however to win the lying through your teeth prize, which the unctuous Chris Bryant duly did. He deplored the deportation of the islanders, ignoring the fact that he had served as a minister in the 13 year Blair/Brown governments which did nothing to right the wrong and indeed fought against the islanders as hard as the Tories. But Bryant wished it to be known that the Labour government’s introduction of the marine reserve had no connection at all to denying the islanders the right of return, as was frequently wrongly claimed. Having said that the lying little bastard sat down.
The most amusing moment was when Kate Hoey stated that she knew Alan Duncan personally and he was a decent chap whose heart was secretly not in this despicable decision. Duncan felt the need to deny this vehemently, knowing that being less than totally heartless, particularly in matters relating to Imperial treatment of foreigners, was career death in the May government. I must say, from Duncan’s demeanour I saw no sign he has ever been troubled by humanitarianism.
I was proud that no less than five SNP MPs intervened and many more bothered to turn up, while another Scottish MP. Alistair Carmichael made a very good and principled point on the absolute right of the islanders to live on their islands. It was the SNP who made the most obvious point of all, that it made no sense for the government to claim that a population which had sustained itself on the islands in the 1960’s quite happily could not do so again. Indeed modern technology will make it rather easier.
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