If a week is a long time in politics, surely it is an age since the UK’s coalition government was formed. And it’s also the summer holidays, which is usually the time when civil servants conspire with ministers to smuggle unpopular items into the public domain in order to escape parliamentary scrutiny and public debate.
Both these factors might well explain why the government appears to have ditched the pre-election commitment made by William Hague and Nick Clegg to change the former Labour government’s shameful policy towards the former inhabitants of the Chagos Islands, forcibly removed from their homeland to make way for the US military base on Diego Garcia.
A recent letter written by the minister responsible for British Overseas Territories, Henry Bellingham, to the leader of the Chagos Refugee Group, Olivier Bancoult, leaves little ambiguity about the new government’s policy:
The UK government will continue to contest the case brought by the Chagos Islanders to the European Court of Human Rights. This is because we believe that the arguments against allowing resettlement on the grounds of defence, security and feasibility are clear and compelling.
Interestingly, despite his hesitation when pressed in parliament in late May to endorse the initiative announced by the former foreign secretary David Miliband, to turn the Chagos Archipelago into a marine protected area, and therefore uninhabitable territory, on 1 April — Maundy Thursday afternoon (another device to wrong-foot parliament) — Bellingham seems to have become an enthusiastic convert. He also tells Bancoult:
The Government also believes that a Marine Protected Area (MPA) is the right way ahead for furthering environmental protection of the Territory and encouraging others to do the same in important and vulnerable areas under their sovereign control.
This will come as a shock not only to the Chagos exiles, who were led to believe that their fortunes were about to change, but also to the government of Mauritius, which has been told on numerous occasions that the territory will be returned when it is “no longer needed for defence purposes”.
The intention was reiterated when the new Foreign Secretary, William Hague, met Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam during a private visit to the UK by the Mauritian leader in early June.
However, as an old hand at the political game, Ramgoolam remained sceptical and was wise enough to pay a visit to the offices of his London lawyers about reclaiming the archipelago, which was detached from the colony of Mauritius in 1965, in breach of international law, before independence from Britain in 1968.
Perhaps the Mauritian premier should consider giving them another call.
Dr Sean Carey is research fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM) at Roehampton University.