Thursday, 14 March 2013

Two colonial relics

The people of the Falkland Islands, (numbering 2,841 according to last years' census) recently voted overwhelmingly to remain British. Seamus Milne is predictably wrong-headed in thinking that Argentina's competing colonial claim to the islands is somehow more important than the clearly expressed wishes of the people who actually live there.

Milne is right about the sickening hypocrisy of British policy towards its remaining overseas possessions, though. Contrast the consideration successive British governments have given to to the Falklanders' rights and wishes with their vile treatment of the Chagos islanders:
In 1965, as part of a deal to grant Mauritian independence, the Chagos Archipelago was split off from the Colony and came to form the British Indian Ocean Territory. The territory's new constitution was set out in a statutory instrument imposed unilaterally without any referendum or consultation with the Chagossians and it envisaged no democratic institutions. On April 16, 1971, The United Kingdom issued a policy called BIOT [British Indian Ocean Territory] Immigration Ordinance #1 which made it a criminal offense for those without military clearance to be on the islands without a permit.

Between 1967 and 1973, the Chagossians, then numbering some 2,000 people, were expelled by the British government, first to the island of Peros Banhos, 100 miles (160 km) away from their homeland, and then, in 1973, to Mauritius... The forced expulsion and dispossession of the Chagossians was for the purpose of establishing a United States air and naval base on Diego Garcia, with a population of between 3,000 to 5,000 U.S. soldiers and support staff, as well as a few troops from the United Kingdom.

After the islanders had been forcibly expelled from their homes, some of them petitioned for the right to return, at which point politicians and civil servants conspired in a disinformation campaign, aimed at convincing the rest of the world that the deported islanders had been migrant workers, rather than permanent residents. As a Foreign Office memo from 1970  put it:
We would not wish it to become general knowledge that some of the inhabitants have lived on Diego Garcia for at least two generations and could, therefore, be regarded as ‘belongers’. We shall therefore advise ministers in handling supplementary questions about whether Diego Garcia is inhabited to say there is only a small number of contract labourers from the Seychelles and Mauritius engaged in work on the copra plantations on the island. That is being economical with the truth.
The scheming goes on on to present times. On April the First 2010, the British government established the Chagos Archipelago as the world's largest marine reserve. As one of the Wikileaks cables revealed, this idea wasn't all about the laudable aims of preserving biodiversity and fish stocks but would also, rather conveniently, make it impossible for the displaced population to return:
He [a senior Foreign and Commonwealth Office official] said that the BIOT's former inhabitants would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos Archipelago were a marine reserve.
Earlier this week David Cameron came out with a ringing defence of the Falkland Islanders' right to choose for themselves:
The Falkland Islands may be thousands of miles away but they are British through and through and that is how they want to stay. People should know we will always be there to defend them.

We believe in self-determination. The Falkland Islanders have spoken so clearly about their future and now other countries right across the world, I hope, will respect and revere this very, very clear result.
We may see how committed he really is to defending the inhabitants of British territories overseas and promoting ther right to self-determination in 2014, when the 1966 UK/US agreement which determined the future of the Chagos Archipelago (without any consideration for the rights of the people living there), can be reviewed. The Territory was leased to the USA for an initial period of 50 years (until 2016), but the lease will automatically extend for a further 20 years (until 2036), unless terminated by either party between the years 2014 to 2016.

I don't expect Cameron to do right by the islanders, any more than any Labour or Conservative leader since 1966 has done, but wouldn't it be great if the principles he rightly upholds on behalf of the Falklanders could be extended to all the people we Brits are supposedly always there to defend?