Diego Garcia has become yet another US military base. Flickr/U.S. Pacific Command. Some rights reserved.
Britain, perhaps unsurprisingly, remains stubbornly centre-stage in the growing UK election campaign rhetoric. Announcing the budget, the Chancellor told us Britain could again “walk tall in the world.” Ed Miliband frequently suggests “Britain can do better.” The other parties have their own variations on pledges to make the nation fair, respected and honourable.
And yet just before parliament concluded at the end of March, an opportunity to end decades of continuing human rights abuse, which mars Britain's reputation globally, was quietly missed. To put it more starkly, a choice was made to continue enforcing the exile of the Chagossian people.
A lengthy, dark chapter
Chagossians, UK citizens were forced from their homeland in late sixties and early seventies under UK orders. Deportation of the native population was a condition of a deal which gave the US military use of Diego Garcia, the largest Chagos Island, for a fifty year period.
Various government ministers have expressed “regret” over the deportation, the deliberate attempt to mischaracterise native Chagossians as migrant workers and their appalling neglect in exile. Very little though has actually been done to address Chagossians' key demand: the right to return home.
It has been argued that the US-UK agreement on the use of Diego Garcia expressly forbade resettlement of the island. This deal, however, expires in 2016. There is no better time than right now to offer justice to Chagossians and end a lengthy, dark chapter in both nations' histories.
Hope was offered when the government announced it would commission a feasibility study into Chagossian resettlement. When consultants KPMG published their final report this January hopes were raised further. The report demonstrated costs and environmental impact would be minimal, whilst no serious security or legal concerns were identified.
In reaction to the report the government commissioned a “policy review.” Days prior Parliament's dissolution, however, a “delay” was announced in a three-sentence written statement.
No timescale was given for the delay. Two “uncertainties,” of cost and demand were held up as justification, but neither stand up to serious scrutiny. Parliament in any case had no opportunity to scrutinise, whilst the media by and large chose not do to so. But let's consider them now.
Infrastructure projects inevitably have “uncertainties” over costs, but the in-depth KPMG study found resettlement could be accomplished for as little as £60m over three years. A recent freedom of information request confirmed that, if anything, KPMG regarded these estimates as made with “pessimism.”
Even if the full amount was taken from the UK's International Development budget, the £20m per year to support return would only amount to less than 0.002% of overall spending, from a budget protected by law. In practice though, a range of other sources would contribute.
If the US-UK agreement on using Diego Garcia as a military base is renewed, it seems obvious that support for Chagossian resettlement must be a fundamental condition. Adjusted for inflation, the £11 million discount the UK received on the Polaris Nuclear Weapon system as part of the original agreement would be worth almost £200 million today.
The EU's European Development Fund is another likely source of funding, whilst private and third-sector investment would be a significant factor.
Claims on “uncertainty” over the numbers wishing to return seem even more bizarre. It is highly difficult for Chagossians to make an informed decision on return when the Government has given absolutely no indication of the type of resettlement they'd be willing to support.
Despite this, however, at least 100 Chagossians have already volunteered to return as part of a small-scale “pilot” resettlement project to Diego Garcia. This is the option favoured by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Chagos Islands and is assessed favourably in the KPMG report.
An even greater number of Chagossians, including those based in the UK, Mauritius and the Seychelles have indicated they would like to return if the initial resettlement programme proves successful.
Political uncertainties, a real opportunity
The only “uncertainties”, then, emanate from the political establishment. Does any political leader have the moral conviction and political courage to finally deliver a measure of justice for Chagossians? Will the new intake of parliamentarians be dogged enough to hold the government to account on an issue far too often neglected by administrations of all colours?
Although the delay is most unwelcome, the election does provide an opportunity to ask these questions directly and meaningfully. UK Chagos Support Association is asking everyone standing for election to sign a simple pledge card, stating their commitment to ending almost half a century of human rights abuse which should shame the nation.
It takes actions, not words, for Britain to “walk tall” or “do better.” There can be no more excuses. If rhetoric about British values is to mean anything at all, supporting Chagossians long-denied right to return home must be an absolute priority for whatever Government is formed after 7th May.
On the 22nd May Chagossians and their supporters will be protesting in Westminster and handing in a petition to whoever is the new Prime Minister. You can add your signature here and support the protest here.