July 2008 update

  • The most important event to report this month is the Appeal to the House of Lords which began on 30 June – the outcome will not be known until the autumn. The Appeal was well attended by Chagossians from Mauritius and the UK, and supporters present included former Mauritian president Cassam Uteem, former High Commissioner to Mauritius David Snoxell, Lord Avebury and many others.

    Jonathan Crow QC, who led for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, focused on the role and scope of Orders in Council and how they relate to the defence interests of the US and UK. He said that returning the islanders would be an unacceptable security risk but as David Snoxell asked in The Guardian on 3 July, “what risks would a small community of Chagossians who are British citizens, in a British jurisdiction, resettled in islands 130 miles from the US base on Diego Garcia, pose to its security operations?”

    The Chagossians were represented by Sir Sidney Kentridge QC (once a member of Nelson Mandela’s legal team) who read a passage from Magna Carta in support of the common law right not to be exiled from one’s homeland. There followed much discussion on being a “belonger” which simply means, in British Law, being linked by birth or descent to that political entity of which they are a part. For most British subjects, this would mean the United Kingdom. For the Chagossians, it is the Chagos Archipelago.

    Sir Sidney went on to deal with the issue of security and demonstrated the flimsiness of the FCO’s evidence. Looking at the practicalities he said that, far from providing cover for terrorists, in a settled Chagossian community, terrorists would stand out like a sore thumb.

  • The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee Report on Overseas Territories was made public on 6 July. Its conclusion stated:
    “There is a strong moral case for the UK permitting and supporting a return to the British Indian Ocean Territory for the Chagossians. We note the recent publication of resettlement proposals for the Outer Islands by Chagos Refugees campaigners. The FCO has argued that such a return would be unsustainable, but we find these arguments less than convincing. However, the FCO has also told us that the US has stated that a return would pose security risks to the base on Diego Garcia. We have therefore decided to consider the implications of a resettlement in greater detail.

    On Diego Garcia itself, we conclude that it is deplorable that previous US assurances about rendition flights have turned out to be false. The failure of the United States Administration to tell the truth resulted in the UK Government inadvertently misleading our Select Committee and the House of Commons. We intend to examine further the extent of UK supervision of US activities on Diego Garcia, including all flights and ships serviced from Diego Garcia.”

    The Government responded that it takes its responsibilities to the Overseas Territories seriously and that it would respond to the committee’s report in due course.

  • In Geneva, at the beginning of the month, the Swiss Chagossian Group gave evidence to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Georges Wuethrich made a speech thanking the Committee for asking the UK government in 2001 to return the Chagossians to their homeland, to compensate them properly and to include BIOT in its next Periodic Report. Unfortunately, he said, the UK has ignored all these requests from the UN Committee. The reason given for not including BIOT in the periodic Report was that no Chagossians live there. (You couldn’t make it up!)

    The Committee reminded the UK delegation that all people have rights in conformity with the provision of the UN Charter. Articles 1, 2 and 12 were given special mention. These articles cover basic individual rights and the responsibilities of the State towards its citizens.

  • Whilst in the UK for the House of Lords Appeal, Olivier Bancoult gave a lecture at the Centre for the Study of Colonial and Post-Colonial Societies, Bristol University. This was very well attended by many interested parties. Both the lecture and David Snoxell’s introduction are available via e-mail from celiawhittaker@chagossupport.org.uk.