Dear David...

Sean Carey, who has written extensively on the plight of the Chagos islanders, pens an open letter t

Dear foreign secretary,

I notice that you have been involved in a diplomatic wrangle with the Israeli government about the export of avocados, herbs and cosmetically enhancing Dead Sea mud from Jewish settlements in the West Bank which the UK considers illegal under international law.

You will have known this was coming.

What you may not have anticipated, however, was the argument put forward by Michael Freund writing in the Jerusalem Post accusing you and Gordon Brown of "barefaced hypocrisy" for trying to put an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands while doing next to nothing for the exiled Chagos islanders.

Last month the law lords decided by a majority verdict to endorse your appeal and block the islanders’ right of return to their Indian Ocean homeland. You then issued a statement saying that the islanders had been paid "fair compensation".

I cannot agree.

Can I remind you that it was only when details of what happened to the Chagossians emerged after a US Congressional Committee hearing in 1975 that the then British government was shamed into offering any kind of financial help to the islanders.

Each adult received a little over £2000 in 1982 in "full and final settlement of all claims… with no admission of responsibility".

I don’t think that was a lot of money even in those days. In fact, I would go even further and say that no amount of money could compensate the Chagossians for what they have been through.

Since 2000, seven senior British judges unanimously found in favour of the islanders right of return and variously found the government's case "irrational", "repugnant", "unlawful" and "an abuse of power".

Unfortunately, for the islanders three of the five law lords did not agree. We can only speculate as to what the result might have been had a different panel of legal personnel been selected.

Nevertheless, some simple arithmetic reveals that nine senior British judges have found for the islanders and only three against.

So your government has won a narrow legal victory but I'm not convinced that it is a fair result. I am not alone.

Members of the Foreign Affairs Committee recently declared "there is a strong moral case for the UK permitting and supporting a return to the British Indian Ocean Territory for the Chagossians".

The question of how the Chagos Islands which had been an integral part of the colony of Mauritius since 1814 became part of the British Indian Ocean Territory – a land grab which is also illegal under international law (United Nations Resolution 1514) - just before the island's independence in 1968 is clearly relevant here.

For a variety of political and economic reasons successive Mauritian governments have been reluctant to press their territorial claim – but this might be about to change.

Perhaps it might be better for all concerned if you took seriously the suggestion of David Snoxell, the former British High Commissioner to Mauritius, who has asked repeatedly for a round table discussion between Britain, the US, Mauritius and representatives of the Chagos communities in Mauritius and the Seychelles in order to find a solution to what he has rightly called "one of the worst violations of fundamental human rights perpetrated by the UK in the 20th century".

I realise that dealing with the Bush administration has been difficult. It must have been very embarrassing for you earlier this year to come before parliament and admit that the UK had been misled by the US about the use of the military base on Diego Garcia for extraordinary rendition on two occasions.

Perhaps Barack Obama’s inauguration as US President in January will provide an opportunity to change current policy towards the Chagos islanders.

Of course, I understand that the fate of a small number of politically powerless black British subjects living in exile a long way from the American mainland won’t be high on the new administration’s agenda but you could try and put it there.

In any case, this might be a smart PR move since it would demonstrate that the special relationship between Britain and the US doesn’t always have to have a narrow military focus but might, just occasionally, serve the purpose of a progressive and ethical foreign policy. It would certainly help in making your criticisms of the Israelis stick.

Who knows it might even help your political career.

Sean Carey

Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow at CRONEM, Roehampton University.

Tags:Chagos