Human rights? Not for you

Observations on outposts

It flashed briefly on the world's radar screens 20-odd years ago as a staging post in Margaret Thatcher's effort to regain the Falkland Islands, but by and large Ascension Island, that little speck of volcanic land halfway between West Africa and Brazil, is not normally a place that makes news.

In the parlance of the Foreign Office, it is an "overseas territory", quietly administered by a British governor, complete with ostrich plumes, from St Helena, far to the south. Its position as a communications centre long ago made it a Cable & Wireless company town, while the airport and other facilities are important both to the Ministry of Defence and the US air force.

Now trouble is brewing in mid-Atlantic, thanks to an edict issued from London last November by Lord Triesman, a Foreign Office minister.

This edict relates in turn to a white paper issued in 1999 by Robin Cook on the subject of overseas territories, in which the then foreign secretary promised the Ascension Islanders the basic rights accorded to all other British subjects, which they had not previously enjoyed.

Just over 1,000 people live there and though they are not a historic community, some are natives and quite a few want to make it home. Acting on Cook's promise, therefore, they bought houses, started businesses, elected a local council and even began paying taxes.

Lord Triesman has now gone back on the promise. "In considering the right of abode and property rights," he declared, a little opaquely, "the UK government has had to balance the aspirations of those living on Ascension against the risks to the UK in terms of contingent liabilities, security and developmental costs." Put bluntly, the government had decided it couldn't be bothered giving the islanders the rights of abode and to own property.

"I am dumbfounded," says an Ascension councillor, Lawson Henry, "that in the 21st century a modern British government should treat British citizens the way it has done."

Councillor Henry might have been less shocked had he known about the government's decision in 2004 to overturn a high court victory by the people of another remote British territory, Diego Garcia, who had won the right to return to the Indian Ocean island from which they were deported in the 1960s.

During their enforced absence their islands were turned into a US military base, and recently a new site was added to it, called, ominously perhaps, Camp Justice. British ministers deny that terrorist suspects are being "rendered" on to what is still British soil.

The Ascension Islanders, through their elected councillors, have fired off a letter of protest to Lord Triesman. Was he saying, they asked, "that the inhabitants of Ascension have willingly forfeited human rights by accepting employment on Ascension Island, that any children born to us here have also forfeited those human rights by virtue of their parents' actions, and that we have no right to expect real democracy"?

His Lordship remains imperiously mute.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Iran: the next war