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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 10 March 2010

[Mr. George Howarth in the Chair]

British Indian Ocean Territory

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.-(Mr. Watts.)

Mr. George Howarth (in the Chair): It might be convenient for those present for this debate if I announce at the start that I intend to commence the wind-ups at 10.30 am, which is the usual time to commence the wind-ups in these debates. If those who wish to catch my eye bear that in mind when they make their contributions, that will be very helpful.

9.30 am

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I am very pleased to secure this debate today on the British Indian Ocean Territory. It is timely and very important, and I look forward with great interest to hearing the Minister's reply, because therein hangs the possibility of bringing about some real justice for people who, in my view, have been denied justice for a very long time.

The British Indian Ocean Territory consists of Diego Garcia and an archipelago of islands some distance away from Diego Garcia. The population of those islands have suffered a sorry tale of ill treatment, deception and injustice, caused by British and US policies and a high degree of secrecy and obfuscation by various Governments over a very long time. Everyone now recognises that the way that the islanders were treated was fundamentally wrong and many, many apologies have been offered to them. The islands were part of the British Indian ocean colonies throughout the 19th century. Essentially, they were places where copra was grown and some fishing was done. Their population had a virtually sustainable lifestyle.

In the 1960s, the United States was casting around for a base in the Indian ocean, to have a site that its cargo planes, ships and submarines could use as a naval facility in the Indian ocean as part of its Vietnam war effort. The then US President, Lyndon Johnson, and the then British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, came to an agreement that Diego Garcia could be used as a US base and a lease arrangement was agreed. That was done in a considerable degree of secrecy and additional requirements were made that the outer islands, as well as the island of Diego Garcia itself, should be depopulated.

The population was systematically moved away and effectively dumped on the Seychelles and Mauritius. The islanders' case was taken up in the British Parliament by Robin Cook, who in 1970 was a newly elected Labour MP, and Tam Dalyell, who was also a Member of Parliament at that time and who only retired at the 2005 election. Both of them showed enormous support for the principle of justice for the islanders and for the suffering that they had been through.

Many newspaper articles and some books have been written on the subject. I recommend a recent book by David Vine, "Island of Shame". It is a very good read
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for anyone who wants to go through the history of what happened and the situation facing the islanders. A film by John Pilger, "Stealing a Nation", was shown on television and it is continually shown at other places. It is an important film, because it describes the brutality of the removal of the islanders.

The islanders were paid some compensation and I will come back to that issue in a moment. However, I do not believe that the compensation was anywhere near satisfactory. So we then have to look at the legal situation facing the islanders and their unquenchable desire for the right of return to their homelands, which is a right that is set out in international law and which is certainly a moral cause and a justification.

The background is that when the new colony was formed in 1965, to make way for the US base, there was a separation of the administration from Mauritius and Mauritius became independent in 1968. The detachment of the islands from Mauritius was in breach of the UN General Assembly resolution 1514 of 1960. The compensation paid to the islanders was minimal and in any event much of it was taken away by dishonest land dealers and others from the population who continue to live in Mauritius and indeed in the Seychelles. I myself have been to Mauritius and I have met the islanders in their homes there. I must say that they live in considerable poverty.

One should pay tribute to the spirit of the islanders, both those who are living in Mauritius and in the Seychelles, and to the Chagos Refugee Association and its iconic leader, Olivier Bancoult. Indeed, one must also pay tribute to the members of the Chagos community who have more recently come to live in this country, predominantly in Crawley, which is represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt), who is present in Westminster Hall today for this debate. I understand that she wishes to contribute to the debate later on. Those Chagossians have also made their presence felt and raised a number of issues. However, as far as I am concerned, this is a debate about the legal process and the right of return.

In 1999, Olivier Bancoult, on behalf of the Chagos Refugee Association, sought a judicial review of the April 1971 Immigration Ordinance, which meant that anyone visiting the British Indian Ocean Territory required a permit. The High Court judgment of November 2000 found that ordinance to be unlawful. The then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, accepted that judgment and amended the British Indian Ocean Territory constitution to allow the Chagossians to visit BIOT, except Diego Garcia, and the Foreign Office said that it would press for resettlement feasibility studies.

Rather strangely, just under four years later on election day 2004, the then Foreign Secretary, who is the current Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), announced that the Queen had agreed on two Orders in Council, one on the constitution and the other on immigration, which effectively negated the High Court decision of 2000. The matter was never put before Parliament, because an Order in Council does not have to be put before Parliament.

Olivier Bancoult then applied for a judicial review in the summer of 2006. Lord Justice Hooper and Mr Justice Cresswell quashed the Orders in Council. Leave to appeal was granted to the then Foreign Secretary, my
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right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn. In May 2007, the Master of the Rolls and Lord Justices Waller and Sedley upheld the High Court judgment on the grounds that the Orders in Council were an abuse of power, repugnant, irrational and unlawful.

Leave to appeal was refused, but the then Foreign Secretary petitioned the House of Lords and eventually the House of Lords agreed to hear an appeal. In October 2008, three of the five Law Lords held that the Orders were valid because the right of abode may lawfully be displaced for the time being in the interests of defence, but there was no reason why the ban should not be lifted if circumstances changed. In fact, there is no defence or security reason why Chagossians should not resettle on the outer islands, which are, after all, 130 miles away from Diego Garcia. That verdict was a majority verdict by the Law Lords.

An application was lodged, which is now before the European Court of Human Rights, alleging breaches of articles 3, 6, 8, 13 and article 1 of protocol 1 of the European convention on human rights. That application was held pending and resumed in 2009. Last June, the Court suggested that an out-of-court settlement should be made, but that suggestion was rejected by the Foreign Office. The Foreign Office submitted its observations in July 2009, and subsequently in October 2009 and January 2010. The applicants submitted their observations on 23 October 2009 and in February 2010.

If the Court decides that the case is admissible, it will hear the case probably in early summer. There is no impediment to the Foreign Office settling the case out of court. I hope that, when the Minister replies to the debate, he can explain to all of us-the public as well as the House-why we are spending millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on endless legal cases, challenging every application made by the islanders and now challenging the case in the European Court of Human Rights.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): I very much agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said in his doughty defence of these people. Does he agree with me that, in the context of, for example, the Constitutional Governance Bill, which says that it seeks to deal with questions of prerogative and treaties to ensure that Parliament has a much greater say in these matters, it is simply outrageous to have a situation in which the prerogative is used to achieve this tangle and undergrowth of injustice and in which, as the hon. Gentleman said, millions and millions of pounds are being spent for reasons that do not seem to be clear to anybody, except to make the position worse for the inhabitants of the countries concerned?

Jeremy Corbyn: The hon. Gentleman is correct that a full democracy-I look forward to this country's becoming one-would allow Parliament the right to challenge decisions made by Ministers. In this case, the Foreign Secretary asked the Queen to authorise the Orders in Council, bypassing Parliament. That cannot be right under any circumstances.

Having sat through many of the High Court cases, I found it poignant to see the Foreign Secretary's barrister defending with great authority and gusto what I believe to be an unjustifiable, immoral position while a court full of Chagos islanders-now living in Mauritius or
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the Seychelles, or having made their homes in this country, mainly in Crawley-looked on as that expensive procedure went ahead. Why can we not recognise that a fundamentally immoral injustice has been done?

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): I agree with every word that has been said. I put it to the hon. Gentleman that it is not only immoral; it is also impractical. It will not work in the end, so the sooner we find a resolution, the better. Have the Americans given any indication whether they still support our Government's resistance, or have the British Government decided by themselves to dig in their feet and not move?

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and his support for the all-party group on the Chagos islands, which I chair and of which he is an active member. It looks increasingly as though the British Government on their own are pursuing the rather bizarre line that it is impossible to resettle the archipelago-as I said, it is 130 miles away from Diego Garcia-due to security issues. The case is being taken up in the United States. Members of the Senate and House are being lobbied heavily on the subject, as is the Administration. I get the increasing impression that the British Government are on their own in the matter.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is making a strong case. He is arguing on moral grounds at the moment. From a British perspective, I think that we all believe that Britain should uphold the highest moral standards. Does he agree that although we are debating the rights of the Chagossians, the British Government are lowering our own moral standards by associating themselves with actions on Diego Garcia? It was eventually wrung out of the Americans that they had been using the island for the rendition of prisoners. Surely, if we in this country are to uphold the highest possible moral standards, we must above all protect and fight for the islanders' right to return as well as opposing the use of the islands in that manner.

Mr. George Howarth (in the Chair): Order. I appeal to those who want to take part in this debate that, tempting though it is to make a short speech during an intervention, the convention is that interventions should be brief and to the point.

Jeremy Corbyn: Even if they are good short speeches, Mr. Howarth, I understand your point.

The hon. Gentleman is also an extremely active member of the all-party group. I have two points to make in response to his intervention. The first involves the moral case and the damage that such activities do to this country's moral standing. I was at the United Nations Human Rights Council a few years ago when the Chagos islanders came in considerable numbers as a delegation of indigenous people denied the right to return to their homeland. I found it embarrassing to be there as a Member of the British Parliament while a delegation stated that they had been denied the right to live on their own islands by a series of decisions made in Britain as part of a colonial legacy or hangover. The Chagossians were there to petition the United Nations. Of course they had every right to petition the United Nations-I was there to support them-but I wondered what it was doing to this country's moral standing in the world.

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My second point concerns Diego Garcia. It is not part of the case that the islanders should be able to resettle in large numbers, or indeed any numbers, on Diego Garcia, because of the arrangements to lease most of the island for the US base. However, we should remember that Diego Garcia is at this moment, in law, a British Indian Ocean Territory. It is a British possession, if that is the right word. The Americans were eventually forced to admit that they had been using the island for extraordinary rendition flights. When that came out, the Foreign Secretary, who had clearly not been informed of it by the United States, was forced to apologise to the House. I would imagine that he was extremely embarrassed, and probably very angry, at having to do so, as he had been told constantly that the islands were not being used for extraordinary rendition. A degree of openness is necessary on the issue.

Moving to the case at present, a legal debate is going on. I have argued that the legal case is strong for the islanders' right to return. I fervently hope that they win their case at the European Court of Human Rights. When the hearing takes place, some time this year, I intend to be there to support the islanders and watch the process in the Court. If the islanders win at the ECHR, as they probably will, the British Government-it will be after the election-will either have to accept that decision or introduce yet more legislation in the House to try to negate it. That can be avoided if the Foreign Office climbs down, accepts that there is an overwhelming case for the right of return and discusses with the islanders and the Chagossian community in the UK how it could be carried out, the cost, who would pay for it and the environmental impact on the islands.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): I commend the hon. Gentleman on the timeliness of this debate and his long-running campaign on the issue. Does he think that the problem for this and any subsequent Government is that they have got themselves on the hook of not wanting to resolve the issue? The European Court of Human Rights might find that the Government must move. Does he agree that having been boxed into a corner, the Government appear reluctant to get themselves off the hook rather than implicate themselves even further as the years go on?

Jeremy Corbyn: The box is of the Government's own making from 2004 onwards. The previous Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, who had a good record on the issue, declined to appeal against the decision in 2000, so it stood. In 2004, the Orders in Council were introduced. It seems necessary for all of us to help the Foreign Office get out of the box in which it put itself in 2004. Going through endless appeals and incurring incredible legal costs is not the way to do so. The way is through discussion, conciliation and arrangements for a proper return to the islands.

Proposals have been made, which I support, for the establishment of a marine protection zone around the Chagos islands. They are a unique and pristine environment. uninhabited except for itinerant yachtspeople who apparently call there from time to time. Some fishing also takes place, and an income is received from issuing fishing licences. The idea of a marine protection zone arises from the legislation passed by the House recently. In all other cases where marine protection zones are
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being established, they combine an absolute ban on the taking of organisms or fish and limited quotas and sustainable fishing arrangements.

Consultations on marine protection zones around UK islands rightly have to involve the local communities and fishing communities. It is obvious that to achieve such a zone, there must be consultation. The proposals for the marine protection zone around the Chagos islands include that there be no take and that, apparently, no consultation with anybody other than a fraternity of biologists and scientists. I have great respect for biologists and scientists and for what they are trying to achieve, but experience shows that conserving natural resources and ecosystems is best done by involving the local population. The experience of nature reserves in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean islands is that if a Government ordain that a certain area is a total environmental protection zone, which no one may enter, poachers come in and illegal activities happen. That leads to an army or security force creating a war zone to protect the zone. Achieving the co-operation of local people works very well, as in Madagascar.

I was happy to accept an invitation to Royal Holloway college in January to discuss these very matters.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): The approach my hon. Friend describes presumes that people want to destroy their own environment. They are fighting to get back so that they can protect their environment. Is this not colonialism gone mad?

Jeremy Corbyn: I suppose it could be called eco-colonialism. The best people in the world to protect the environment of the Chagos islands are the Chagos islanders; they are the people who love and understand the place, and the ones who would look after it.

Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Prime Minister of Mauritius hit the nail on the head in asking:

A less generous man than my hon. Friend might say that what is happening could be interpreted as a cynical move to negate any possible judgment of the European Court later this year.

Jeremy Corbyn: As my hon. Friend says, I am far too generous to impute such motives to others in these matters. I will leave hon. Members to form their views on that.

I support the zone and, as far as I am aware, the islander communities in this country and in Mauritius support it, too. It is in nobody's interest to destroy the environment or ecosystem. There should be sustainable living by the islanders who wish to return. I do not know how many there will be, but the number will be much smaller than tens of thousands. It is the right of return that is so important and that, in particular, is what this debate is about.

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