Yesterday, The Staggers revealed exclusively that, according to the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, the UK government was about to drop its case against the right of return of the Chagos Islanders at the European Court of Human Rights. Instead, it would seek a “friendly settlement” — something that seemed to have taken everyone by surprise.
The NS was then contacted by an official from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, informing them that the letter from Dr Cable had been “sent in error by his constituency office” and that another letter, saying something different, would be sent out as soon as possible, and asking that this be acknowledged in the original post.
This “administrative error” has had significant ramifications for those involved in the fight. David Snoxell, former British high commissioner to Mauritius (2000-2004), who is co-ordinator of the Chagos All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), commented: “Chagossian hopes have been raised and dashed several times over the last decade — but never before in a single afternoon.”
Before he became a minister, Vince Cable was well known for his strong anti-racist views, but not necessarily for his interest in the remaining 14 British overseas territories. However, he was an active member of the Chagos APPG. “His support for the Chagossian cause is well established,” notes Snoxell. “Dr Cable is a very honourable man, and it is clear that his convictions on this matter are deeply felt.”
It was also evident from the views expressed in the letter that Cable was not just speaking for himself, but expressing a general policy commitment towards the Chagos Islanders by the Liberal Democrats. Indeed, this was made plain before the general election by one of Nick Clegg’s staff who told me:
Regardless of the legal arguments . . . Nick and the Liberal Democrats believe that the government has a moral responsibility to allow these people to at last return home. We have actively supported their cause in the past and we will continue to aid their campaign to see justice done.
We have been appalled that the [Labour] government has wasted time, money and effort defending the indefensible. It is a disgrace that £2m of taxpayers’ money has been squandered by the government in order to uphold this injustice.
Snoxell thinks that the government is now obliged to make a statement as a matter of urgency. “Obviously a candid explanation to the Chagos Islanders, parliament and the media is now required,” he said. And he is not at all impressed by the clumsy attempts at damage limitation by civil servants.
“It is almost beyond comprehension how the staff of a senior cabinet minister can describe a letter of such certainty and conviction as an ‘administrative error’,” he said.
“Lord Bingham, one of the law lords who heard the case in 2008, and who died on Saturday, said that the government ‘would not persist in treating the Chagossians as it had reprehensibly done since 1971’. But what is this episode if it’s not a repetition of that reprehensible treatment?” he pointed out.
The leader of the Chagos Refugees Group, Olivier Bancoult, 46, who launched the marathon legal battle against the UK government in 1998, welcomed Cable’s unfiltered intervention. “It’s something very positive and we are delighted,” he said from his home in Port Louis, the Mauritian capital. “The contents of the letter are crystal clear and no one can pretend that he didn’t mean what he said because he has signed it.”
Bancoult said that he and his supporters were not celebrating yesterday evening when first they saw the news on the New Statesman website. “Knowing how the British government has acted over the years and the contents of the letter that I received from Foreign Office Minister Henry Bellingham on 12 August, which informed us that the new coalition government would follow the policy of the previous administration, meant we were a little bit sceptical.”
It seems the islanders were right to hold off on the celebrations. But Bancoult reported that he is due to meet Bellingham in London on 21 October. What will he say to him?
I will raise many issues, but the main question I want an answer to is: how come he and William Hague when they were in opposition criticised the Labour government over the treatment of our people, but that now they are in power they are backing the same old policy?
In any case, he and his fellow Chagossians remain defiant. “One other thing I will tell Mr Bellingham is that we will never give up. We will continue our fight to return to our motherland.” He paused and added: “But I think the British government knows that very well.”
Dr Sean Carey is research fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM) at Roehampton University.