Let them return: human rights should be Gordon’s legacy in Chagos

By Peter Harris / @ChagosUK

Yesterday’s post from Kieran Roberts, entitled Gordon’s Great Barrier Reef, correctly argued that a marine protected area (MPA) in the Chagos islands offered Labour a chance to fortify its environmental legacy. However, his article neglected to give full consideration to another way that Gordon Brown could add to Labour’s legacy: by giving justice to the exiled Chagos islanders.

In his post, Roberts does mention the experiences of the Chagossians – the indigenous people of the Chagos islands who were cruelly, inhumanely, and quite unnecessarily deported to the slums of Mauritius and the Seychelles by the UK in the 1960s and 1970s – but refers to their campaign to return home only as something that could “stall the process” of creating an MPA. Not only does this scant treatment of the Chagossians’ plight reflect badly on Labour, but it is also a dangerous misrepresentation of the facts.

Far from being an obstacle to the creation of an MPA in Chagos, making restitution with the Chagossians is actually wholly necessary in order to ensure the legitimacy, workability and durability of any environmental protection regime. This is because Mauritius, which stands to inherit sovereignty of the Chagos islands at some point in the future, has made it clear that it will not consent to an MPA unless the Chagossians’ right to return is dealt with.

Contrary to the view of some in the conservationist community, the UK Government cannot act unilaterally to create an MPA in Chagos. In the words of eminent conservationist David Bellamy:

“the preservation of this unique Archipelago requires everyone to work together – Chagossians, the British and Mauritian Governments, scientists, environmentalists and conservationists.”

Besides these pragmatic considerations, there are also some obvious and compelling moral reasons for why the Government should take action on behalf of the Chagossians. It was Harold Wilson’s Labour Government that signed off the deportation of the Chagossians in the 1960s, which essentially makes their 40-year ordeal of Labour’s making. What is more, it was a Labour Government that re-imposed the Chagossians’ exile in 2004, by undemocratically using two Orders-in-Council to overturn an earlier High Court decision that had temporarily restored the Chagossians’ right of abode.

As Roberts mentions, 2010 will see the Chagossians’ legal struggle progress to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where it is likely that the Government will be shown to be in breach of its obligations under international human rights law. However, it is not too late for Labour to make amends; a “friendly settlement” with the Chagossians could be agreed before the ECtHR has made its ruling.

Gordon Brown is now presented with a precious opportunity to go down in history as the Labour Prime Minister who put right these past injustices. If he acts now, with foresight and with decisiveness, he will be remembered as the man who finally did the decent thing in Chagos.

Environmental protection and human rights must go hand-in-hand. The future of the Chagossians, of the Chagos marine environment, and of the Labour party’s collective conscience depends upon it.

So go on, Gordon: let them return. Let your legacy in Chagos be one that we can all be proud of.

Labour party members can contribute to the FCO’s consultation on whether to create an MPA in Chagos by emailing [email protected]. The Marine Education Trust’s petition calling for the Chagossians’ rights to be remembered can be accessed here.

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