December 2004 update

After only a month, we think there is already enough material for an update.

Olivier Bancoult (Leader of CRG in Mauritius) visited the UK in November. On the 16th. he had a meeting with Bill Rammell of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who subsequently announced that he had persuaded the Americans to allow a humanitarian trip for a hundred Chagossians plus two priests to visit family graves at East Point on Diego Garcia. (We have heard promises like that before…) The minister resisted any idea that resettlement of the islands was possible and said there was no chance of further compensation.

Later that day there was a public meeting at the House of Commons organised by the Minority Rights Group International – “Diego Garcia : A Crime Against Humanity?” This brought together members of the community, lawyers, MPs, human rights experts, academics and the media. The event was sponsored by Jeremy Corbyn MP and an account can be seen in the news section of the Minority Rights Group website: www.minorityrights.org. Olivier Bancoult, Richard Gifford (Lawyer), Allen Vincatassin (Leader BIOT Islanders Movement), Chris Martin (producer, “Stealing A Nation) and Laura Jeffery (an anthropologist) all addressed the meeting. (Long-time members will recall that Laura spent time on Mauritius working with the Chagossians as part of her studies.)
Minority Rights Group International is helping to support the Chagossians in their legal case through its long experience in international human and minority rights law and standards.
Still on the 16th.November, Olivier met with Robin Cook (former Foreign Secretary) who expressed sympathy and intends to keep abreast of the issue.

The next day, Olivier and others had a meeting in Portcullis House with Donald Anderson MP who is Chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee. He asked for further briefing in order to help where he could. Laura thought this a very positive meeting.

Further legal action, following the Orders in Council, is in the pipeline.

Given the government’s track record, reactions to Bill Rammell’s “promise” of a visit are not exactly joyful. We have heard this before. One member wondered “if Mr. Rammell could explain the use of the words ‘stop the repopulation’ when there is a community living in the very area in question – the US military”. He also wonders if the government will now support policies of displacing populations elsewhere such as Sudan and Zimbabwe. Obviously not – hypocritical or what?

A Norwegian member, Steffen, sees the promised trip as a means of legitimizing the early wrong decisions by the FCO. “Look how good we are being” whilst forgetting they CAUSED the problem. The smugness of Rammell’s “I am pleased that I have been able to agree this (visit)” rankled with many members as he has been one of the main obstacles.

Steffen, who has spent time with the Chagossians in Mauritius, also let us know that “Stealing A Nation” caused some public interest in his country. John Pilger’s article from 2 October’s Guardian was translated and published in a major Norwegian newspaper “Morgenbladet”. Steffen wrote to the paper and was given almost a full page coverage.

The generous Scottish couple, having a joint birthday celebration mentioned in the November Update, collected a handsome sum of money in lieu of presents which is being used to make Christmas more enjoyable and comfortable for the elderly and poor Chagossians on Mauritius. We are most grateful to them as we are for any donations, large or small. One member (who is not on email) has kindly sent me stamps.

A new member discovered us in Mauritius! She had seen the Pilger programme shortly before going away on holiday and, having a little time in Mauritius, she looked for the Chagos Refugee Group and saw our November Update on Olivier’s desk. She made contact with us on her return. She is also, incidentally, collecting the beans from Nescafe jars so, if that is your tipple, please will you save these towards funds – they can be sent to me.

A member from East Anglia had a brilliantly simple idea : why don’t we all contact ITV and ask them to repeat “Stealing A nation” at an earlier time? Can you help with that please and get others to do the same? Contact details are near the end of this Update.

We, on the committee, and many members, have written to the Queen to complain about the Orders in Council and the appalling way the Islanders have been treated. Here is part of one letter sent to Buckingham Palace by a lady in Leeds : “It seems to me that the present government have defied the UN and neatly side-stepped the issue by manipulating Orders in Council, thus diminishing the authority of the High Court and laying the ultimate responsibility at your door. The Chagossians have been disgracefully treated for forty years by the American and British governments. For the first time in seventy years, I am ashamed to be English. Hitler would have been proud of this ‘Final Solution’.”

Sadly, all letters to the Palace get the same standard reply, thanking us for our concern and saying that she cannot interfere. (If the papers are to be believed, as Commander in Chief, she is making her feelings known about the future of the Black Watch.) Our letters are sent to the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, and we then get a standard letter from the FCO. If you get one of these, please point out (through your MP and directly to the FCO) that:

the Chagos Islands are NOT unfit for settlement as the US are settled in nicely and extending their base facilities for stealth bombers.
the cost of resettlement by Chagossians has not been investigated and it need NOT be expensive since they could do non-military work on the base. This works in Cyprus (as Paul, our chairman, noticed at a British Sovereign Base when he visited lately) and in US bases elsewhere. While we are talking costs, let’s remember how much the Department for International Development has spent on refurbishing their offices this year – £45million. $500million has been spent on rebuilding Monserrat since the volcano and St. Helena is getting a runway. Two out of these three expenditures are acceptable!
how would having the indigenous population living near a base prevent “the effective use of the Territory for defence purposes”? The US seems to manage in Cuba – a communist country!
We also wrote to Prince Charles who, as Lord of the Isles, is keen to keep the indigenous people in place and to support their culture – but this is in Scotland. Similar non-helpful reply as was received from the Queen.
John Madeley (author of Minority Rights Group Report on Chagos Islanders, 1980) had a piece published in The Church Times on 15th.October. (This excellent article can be emailed on request.)

In the Methodist Recorder (October 21st.), David Budge wrote “If politicians want to know why they are held in such low regard by the British public, they could do no better than ask for a tape of ‘Stealing A Nation’.” (Since an ITV merger, this video is now available from Video Library, Yorkshire TV, Leeds LS3 1JS or ring 0113 2438283.)
Most Chagossians are Roman Catholic, can anyone get something published in THEIR journal?

It is good to note that Private Eye is still printing items about Diego Garcia and the Chagossians (Oct 15th) even though we lost a good friend when Paul Foot died.

Back to Bill Rammell again : on 6th.October in New York he said “It is especially important…that justice systems are sensitive to the needs of victims, and that those responsible for war crimes and other atrocities are dealt with appropriately.” How, exactly, would he deal with a government that cleared a nation from its homeland, gassed their dogs, shot their animals and refused to allow them to return?

We hear from Olivier that a Canadian film crew will be in Mauritius from the 12th to the 18th December to make a programme. They are also visiting the community in Crawley.

Allen Vincatassin (Leader of BIOT Islanders Movement) has been negotiating with different councils in Crawley for support for the Islanders until they get on their feet. Central government says they should stay in Mauritius but they have little future there and ARE British passport holders. A government minister was heard to comment that they are not entitled to help as they “made themselves homeless”. Actually, of course, they were made homeless by the government who exiled them from their homeland and which has done almost nothing for them since.

The plan to make an oral record of the Islanders lives and experiences is being put on hold until next year when things should be more settled in Crawley.

Finally, practically ways in which you can help:

1. Spread the word, badger your MP and the FCO and get everyone you know to do the same.
2. Badger ITV to repeat the Pilger programme at an earlier time and get everyone you know to do the same. Nigel Pickard is in charge of scheduling and his address is ITV Network Limited, 200 Gray’s Inn Road, London WC1 8HF. His email address is Nigel.pickard@itv.com and his phone is 0207 843 8000.
3. Raise funds to help with our work, if possible. (Does anyone know how to set about turning ourselves into a registered charity?)
4. Get in touch with Donald Anderson (Chair of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee) to express support for the Chagossians at House of Commons, LONDON or fax him on 01792 650766.

Thank you for all you help and interest – please can you let me know you have received this Update? All comments and ideas welcome.
With very best wishes for Christmas and 2005 from all of us on the committee,

Celia Whittaker
Secretary