WikiLeaks, a forgotten people, and the record-breaking marine reserve

The British government used “marine-protected areas” as a means to preserve the Chagos Archipelago a

A US embassy cable, released by WikiLeaks last week, revealed the real reason why a British territory in the Indian Ocean was designated a "marine-protected area" (MPA) earlier this year.

The leaked documents show that the MPA had been dreamt up by Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials to preserve the Chagos Archipelago – officially part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) and and home to one of the world's most abundant coral reefs – as a military outpost, and prevent the native Chagossians from returning.

The indigenous population of the archipelago was deported in the late 1960s and early 1970s to enable the US to build a military base on Diego Garcia, the largest of the islands and home to most of their inhabitants. Britain paid £3m to the Mauritian government in compensation after excising the archipelago, with the proviso that the territories would be returned when they were "no longer needed for defence purposes".

After pointing out that the islands' strategic usefulness would not be hampered by the establishment of a marine reserve, the cable goes on to state that "the BIOT's former inhabitants would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands".

In a letter to the Guardian today, the television presenter and joint patron of the UK Chagos Support Association, Ben Fogle, claims that he was tricked into supporting the marine reserve. He writes:

As a long-term advocate of conservation, I am horrified that the UK government has used this to keep the islanders from returning to their rightful home, and that I was duped into supporting the creation of the marine sanctuary under false pretences.

Meanwhile, the Mauritian prime minister, Dr Navin Ramgoolam, told fellow parliamentarians yesterday that his government was carefully considering its options to counter the unilateral declaration of the marine-protected area. The MPA was instituted on 1 April – despite an undertaking from the then British prime minister, Gordon Brown, and his foreign secretary, David Miliband, that the Mauritian government would be consulted.

Ramgoolam said this was particularly important, given that the UK's coalition government has shown no sign of deviating from the course set by the previous government "about the MPA and the sovereignty of Mauritius over the Chagos Archipelago".

He continued: "With regard to the marine-protected area, it is now clear, in light of what WikiLeaks revealed last week, that there is a Machiavellian agenda behind this project, to prevent the Chagossians [from returning] to their homeland and to defer discussion on the sovereignty of Mauritius indefinitely, as I have always maintained. Ce qui prouve, à ce stade, que notre position était justifiée!"

Nick Leake, the new British high commissioner to Mauritius, probably thought he had got a posting to paradise when he took up the position in June. He must have other thoughts after being summoned to appear at the ministry of foreign affairs in Port Louis this week to explain the duplicitous behaviour of the British government. He won't get a comfortable ride from the foreign minister, Dr Arvin Boolell.

These revelations did not come as a surprise to Olivier Bancoult. One of a lost generation of Chagossians, born on Peros Banhos, an island in the archipelago, to a family of refugees, Bancoult grew up to become the most prominent activist on behalf of this forgotten people. He was one of the founders of the Chagos Refugees Group, and eventually he took the British government to court.

He began legal proceedings against the UK government in 1998 and won a series of judgments at the high court and Court of Appeal before losing his case by a narrow 3-2 majority in the House of Lords in 2008.

"It's all very consistent with the way British officials have behaved towards us in the past," he told me, speaking from his home in the Mauritian capital. "Our fundamental rights have been trampled upon for years."

Nevertheless, he thinks that the WikiLeaks cable might be the smoking gun the Chagossians need. The new evidence of the real reasoning behind the establishment of the MPA has significant implications for the Chagossians' case, which is before the European Court of Human Rights.

"This is very important for our cause and we have instructed our lawyers to submit the new evidence contained in the WikiLeak to the court in Strasbourg," he continued.

Bancoult also revealed that he and other Chagossians has been inundated with messages of support from well-wishers, both in Mauritius and elsewhere, since the WikiLeak was released. And like many others, including no doubt the 42 members of the Chagos all-party parliamentary group in Britain, he is particularly keen to know more about the clearly racist reference to the Chagos Islanders as "Man Fridays" used by Colin Roberts, commissioner for the BIOT.

"This is very shameful for the British government," says Bancoult. "I am going to ask Henry Bellingham [the Foreign Office minister responsible for Africa and British overseas territories], who I met a few months back when I came to London, whether he approves of the use of this sort of language.

"This is not a way to treat people. We are human beings – we should not be insulted in this way."

Dr Sean Carey is research fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM), Roehampton University.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.