On 13 September, the Staggers exclusively revealed the contents of a letter from the new business secretary, Vince Cable, to his constituent, Dr George Beckmann, claiming that the coalition government was about to come to a “friendly settlement” with the Chagos Islanders, whose case concerning the right of return to their homeland is pending before the European Court of Human Rights. Then followed a frantic attempt by an official at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills to claim that the letter had been sent “in error by his constituency office”.
Dr Cable has now sent a second letter to his constituent (see above), also from his constituency office, apologising “for the mistake that was made” in “giving an incorrect impression of the actions of the British Government”. Nevertheless, it is highly revealing about the status of the new business secretary that Cable did not feel obliged to toe the conventional Foreign Office line and invoke the usual smokescreen about defence security and “treaty obligations” to the US (note: sorry but an exchange of letters does not constitute a treaty) much used by former British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, and the current minister responsible for British overseas territories, Henry Bellingham, particularly as regards the use of the military base on Diego Garcia, part of the British Indian Ocean Territory.
Instead, in his second letter, Cable makes it abundantly clear where his sympathies lie. He explains that while his busy ministerial role precludes him from “remaining as actively involved with this cause” he ventures, “I am sure that the Chagossian cause will continue to be championed by my colleagues within the Liberal Democrat party and campaigners such as yourself”.
Meanwhile, at the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week Mauritius foreign minister, Dr Arvin Boolell, demanded the unconditional return of the Chagos Archipelago, including Diego Garcia, to Mauritius as soon as possible.
It is a sign of the frustration that Mauritius feels with successive UK governments that Boolell was unusually forthright. “The Chagos Archipelago was excised from Mauritian territory illegally by the United Kingdom… this is a flagrant violation of United Nations resolutions 1514 and 2066,” he said, referring to the fact that it was illegal under international law for Britain to excise part of the colony of Mauritius in 1965 before granting independence in 1968.
Boolell also reiterated that his government remains fully behind the right of return of the Chagos Islanders and “greatly appreciated the unanimous and unflinching support from the African Union and the Non-Aligned Movement”. Further worries for the FCO will come from the announcement by Dr Boolell that his country had decided not to recognise the marine protected area in the British Indian Ocean Territory, which was announced by David Miliband on 1 April.
As for the future — given that David Miliband, who during his time in government stuck resolutely to Foreign Office policy on Chagos, is now to leave front bench politics to spend more time with his family, the question is whether there will be a change in attitude on the right of return of the Chagos Islanders at the top of the Labour Party. It is well-known that Ed Miliband was supported from early on in his bid for the leadership by the Kinnocks. Although as a FCO minister Baroness Kinnock was obliged to defend the Foreign Secretary’s policy towards the Islanders in the House of Lords on 6 April, she was clearly very embarrassed to do so. Perhaps, it is time for Glenys to make amends and use her famous Welsh charm to persuade Ed to follow Dr Cable’s lead on this one.
Dr Sean Carey is Research Fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (CRONEM), Roehampton University.