Is Britain making a big mistake with the Chagos Islands?

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Is Britain making a big mistake with the Chagos Islands? By Nick Harvey


Many people think that the marine park around the Chagos Islands is a way to make sure the people cannot return (Charles Sheppard and Anne Sheppard/University of Warwick, under a CC License)

The result of one of the most terrible actions in British history continued this week (June 12 2013). The British Government decided to make a marine park around the Chagos Islands. Some people think that this will stop the people from the islands from returning to their homeland. The High Court of Justice has agreed to the decision by the British Government.

The Chagos Islands are a group of islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean. In the late 1960s, the people living on the Chagos Islands were forced by the British to leave. This was so a US military base could be built on the largest of the islands, Diego Garcia. In 2006, the Chagossians won a case in the High Court which said they had the right to go back to the islands. In 2008 this decision was overturned after an appeal by the then British Foreign Secretary, David Milliband. Then, in April 2010, the government announced a new park, a marine protected area (MPA) around the islands. Many people think that the MPA is a way to make sure the Chagossians cannot return.

‘The MPA makes it very hard for us to go back,’ says Roch Evenor, who speaks for the UK Chagos Support Association. Roch Evenor also said that if they can go back, the MPA will stop them from fishing, which they need for food to live.

The islands are part of the British Indian Ocean Territory. The marine park is the world’s largest and is 545,000-sq-km. It was planned by the last Labour government. They said the park is to protect the area’s wildlife and corals from industrial fishing and deep-sea mining. This is why some environmental groups agree with the idea of the park.

William Marsden is the chairman of the Chagos Conservation Trust. He says there has been too much fishing in the world’s oceans in the last 30 years. And so the park is very good for the Indian Ocean. ‘It is an extremely good example given by the British government.’

But the government’s good plans were questioned after a new US cable. The cable was published by Wikileaks in December 2010. In the cable the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Director of Overseas Territories, Colin Roberts, is reported to say that the park should have no people in it. And that the park would make it ‘difficult, if not impossible’ for the people to try to return. An important moment in this week’s court case was when judges decided that the cable, or copies of the cable held by the media could not be used as evidence. This is because of the Diplomatic Privileges Act, 1964.

Roch Evenor says that they always thought that there were plans to stop them returning. But after the Wikileaks published the cable, the situation was very clear. ‘It’s just another way of keeping us away from our homeland….’

The Chagossians do not agree with each other. Many of the 1,500 to 2,000 Chagossians who were taken from the islands have died. But now there are more than 4,000 living in other countries. About half live in Britain and half live in Mauritius and the Seychelles. The Chagossians in Mauritius generally think the MPA is a bad idea and they do not trust the British government. But some Chagossians in the UK mostly in Crawley in southwest England are more positive.

Allen Vincatassin is the President of the Diego Garcia and Chagos Islands Council. He says people are very confused. He says the British Government says that if we are allowed to return, the MPA would be changed so that they can fish. ‘I believe they will make it good’, he adds.

This idea is perhaps too positive. British governments past and present have never really offered anything useful to Chagossians. This new decision by the court seems no different.

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