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22 October 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:10am

Chagos: when Bancoult met Bellingham

Leader of the Chagos Refugees Group in Mauritius meets Foreign Office minister for the overseas terr

By Sean Carey

Yesterday, Olivier Bancoult, leader of the Chagos Refugees Group in Mauritius, as well as Roch Evenor, chair of the UK Chagos Support Association, together with two representatives from the thousand or so Islanders and their descendants who have settled in Crawley, Sussex, met Henry Bellingham, minister for Africa and the overseas territories, and his officials at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Interestingly, no lawyers from either side were present at the meeting, which lasted about an hour. This reflects the all-round sensitivity of the case concerning the Islanders’ right of return which is now before the European Court of Human Rights, and perhaps also a recognition that, in the end, there will be a need for a political accommodation regardless of the outcome of the case.

Both sides are playing their cards close to their chest – the FCO, for example, has indicated that it will not be issuing a statement. But it was clear that the Chagossians found Bellingham friendly and far more open than any of his predecessors with whom they have had contact.

This won’t come as a surprise to seasoned observers, as Bellingham is well liked by his parliamentary colleagues – think of him as the political equivalent of another Old Etonian charmer, the chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (not to mention David Cameron). But it seems he had nothing new to offer the Islanders other than tea and sympathy.

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Indeed, the Mauritian newspaper Le Matinal reported this morning that Bellingham was certainly not going to halt the coalition government’s commitment either to carry on the legal case in Strasbourg or backtrack on the 1 April announcement made by the former Labour foreign secretary David Miliband that the British Indian Ocean territory is to be made into the world’s largest marine reserve, which would in effect block any returning Islanders making a living from fishing.

Nevertheless, the two sides have agreed to a further meeting, probably in the third week of November, when it is likely that the bestselling novelist Philippa Gregory and the TV presenter Ben Fogle, patrons of the UK Chagos Support Association, will also attend.

In the meantime, Bellingham has a meeting in the Commons with the Chagos All-Party Parliamentary Group on 15 November. When I interviewed Vince Cable in January 2009, he said that knowledge among MPs of the forced removal of roughly 2,000 Islanders from the Chagos Archipelago by the British authorities between 1968 and 1973 was “about zero”. This is no longer the case. Thus, Bellingham will need more than charm to escape the scrutiny of the 41 APPG members, who include three former Foreign Office ministers – Baroness Kinnock, Lord Luce and Tony Lloyd – as well as five members of the current government.

In particular, they will be interested to know why the minister stated, in a written answer on 18 October to Henry Smith, the new Conservative MP for Crawley, that resettlement was ruled out because:

Full immigration control over the entire British Indian Ocean Territory is necessary to ensure and maintain the availability and effective use of the territory for defence purposes of both the UK and the US with whom the UK has treaty obligations. US authorities have always made clear their concerns about the possible restoration of a settled civilian population in the territory which, they have said, “would severely compromise Diego Garcia’s unparalleled security and have a deleterious impact on our military operations”. In October 2010, the US reconfirmed that they remain concerned about the implications of any resettlement of the outer islands.

But could it be that Henry Bellingham is misinformed about current US views on resettlement in the outer islands of the Chagos Archipelago, such as Peros Banhos and Salomon, which lie over 140 miles from the US base on Diego Garcia? It is certainly a possibility, as there have been no public comments on Chagos by members of the current Obama administration.

Instead, the suspicion is that Bellingham’s advisers at the Foreign Office are relying on statements made by US state department officials in the Bush administration in 2004 for use in the courts, about the dangers of a “settled civilian population” to the security of the US military base (dismissed as “fanciful speculation” by the law lords in the 2008 case). If the US really had security concerns, it would not hesitate to say so publicly, as Hillary Clinton did last week over the UK defence cuts. It is unlikely that Washington would leave it to the Foreign Office to speak on its behalf. That could lay the government open to the grave implication that parliament has been misled.

Don’t say you haven’t been warned, Henry.

Dr Sean Carey is a research fellow at CRONEM, Roehampton University.