The Rights of Islanders – remember Chagos

Thirty years ago this week Argentinean armed forces invaded the Falkland Islands resulting in the 74 day Falklands War. While the war is commonly referred to as “Thatcher’s war”, few now mention the passionate support Labour leader, Michael Foot offered to the islanders, stating that the United Kingdom should “uphold the rights of our country throughout the world, and the claim of our country to be a defender of people’s freedom throughout the world” and furthermore “ensure that foul and brutal aggression does not succeed in our world.”

Some may disagree with his support for the Government’s subsequent action, few would disagree with his sentiments. Sadly, these are sentiments which have been sadly lacking from successive Labour leaders in their approach to the Chagos Islanders.

For those unaware of the history of the Chagos Islanders; in 1966 Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson agreed to lease UK territory Diego Garcia, one of the Chagos Islands, to the US for 50 years so that they could use the island as a military base (where it was subsequently used for rendition flights in 2002). His only problem was that the island was inhabited by approximately 2000 native inhabitants. In a cynical act of ethnic cleansing, the Chagos Islanders were simply deported to Mauritius or the Seychelles in 1967 with only a bag of possessions each. They have not been allowed to return home since. John Pilger tells the islanders story much better than I could ever wish to in his brilliant documentary Stealing a Nation.

While it was the Wilson Government that deprived the Chagos Islanders of their homes in many ways it was the New Labour Government of Blair and Brown who deprived them of their hope. In 2000, the islanders won a victory in the High Court granting them the right of return. The Foreign Office, under Robin Cook decided not to appeal this verdict and began conducting a feasibility study into the return of the islanders. In 2004 however, after Cook had been replaced by Jack Straw at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Government used Royal Orders to ban anyone from setting foot on the Chagos Islands, cruelly depriving many of what they saw as their last opportunity to return.

This shameful decision was staunchly defended both in public and in the courts throughout Labour’s remaining years in office.

Since Ed Miliband became Labour leader, he has quietly moved to address some of the failures in Foreign Policy of the Blair/Brown years, most notably admitting that the Iraq war was wrong in his 2010 conference speech. It is now time to right one of the longest lasting wrongs in Labour’s history.

This week Ed has rightly championed the right of the Falkland Islanders to determine their own future and remembered those who gave their lives to allow them to do this. He should now declare that the same rights should be afforded to the Chagos Islanders and join those continuing to fight for their right to return home.