Given their repeated pronouncements before the election, it was perfectly reasonable that human rights campaigners would expect the coalition to reverse the UK’s unjust position on the Chagos Islands, whereby the previous government had refused to repatriate those former residents of the archipelago forcibly expelled from 1968. But a series of bizarre U-turns culminated yesterday with the Foreign Office appearing to slap down Vince Cable’s office after the Business Secretary came out in support of the Islanders.
While in opposition, William Hague is on record as saying: “I can assure you that if elected toserve as the next British government we will work to ensure a fair settlement of this long-standing dispute”. In the same letter to Chagos campaigners Hague referenced a speech by then shadow foreign affairs minister Keith Simpson:
“There is no doubt that there is a moral imperative … there should at the very least be a timetable for the return of those people at least to the outer islands, if not the inner islands. The Foreign Office should recognise that the House of Commons feels very strongly on that.”
The Liberal Democrats’ policy on the issue was even more categoric, with Nick Clegg’s office having assured exiled Chagossians: “Nick and the Liberal Democrats believe that the Government has a moral responsibility to allow these people to at last return home”.
But a bewildering series of announcements have given ministers the appearance of spinning tops, cruelly dashing the hopes of those hoping to return to their homeland.
U-turn 1 (August): In a letter sent to Olivier Bancoult, chairman of the Chagos Refugees Group, Foreign Office minister Henry Bellingham reneged on assurances given by the governing parties before the election:
“The UK government will continue to contest the case brought by the Chagos Islanders to the European Court of Human Rights. This is because we believe that the arguments against allowing resettlement on the grounds of defence, security and feasibility are clear and compelling.”
U-turn 2 (9 September): Vince Cable writes to his constituent George Beckmann saying that the government “are dropping the case in the European Court of Human Rights and opting instead for a friendly settlement”.
U-turn 3 (13 September): After the letter to Beckmann is publishes, Cable’s Department of Business, Innovation and Skills tells the New Statesman that it “was issued by Dr Cable’s constituency office in error” and that a new letter will be sent out.
Perhaps, sooner or later, the government might get round to explaining to the Chagossians what its policy is?