Saturday 20 December 2014

The Very Least We Owe Them

John Prescott writes:

Last year I wrote about one of the worst cases of forced repatriation in British history.

Two thousand people were scared into fleeing their island ­paradise after their dogs were rounded up and gassed to death.

The Chagos Islands were leased to the US for 50 years by the Harold Wilson government as part of a squalid deal on nuclear weapons.

The islanders were made to flee because the US wanted to turn one of the islands, Diego Garcia, into an ­American ­military base.

The Chagossians who fled found themselves without a country or home. Many went to Mauritius where they had to live in slum areas while some made it to the UK.

Neither could ever replace their island home.

That lease is up for renewal next year and the Americans want to renew the agreement for another 20 years. Britain must give notice soon if it wishes to grant the extension.

The Foreign Secretary is now looking at all the options, from extending the lease to compensating the islanders or even allowing them to go home.

Sadly the chance of them returning was made slimmer by the last Labour government.

In 2010, David Miliband – then Foreign Secretary – declared that the waters around the islands were to become a marine protected area. It was ­implemented by an Order in Council without a parliamentary debate.

While this was claimed to be good for the ­environment, it also meant anyone returning to the island would be banned from fishing – ­stopping them earning a living and feeding their families.

So why is America so keen to keep Diego Garcia and the Chagos Islands? Well, it’s effectively become a key American airbase.

That’s what they mean by a “special relationship”.

It’s been used for bombing missions to Afghanistan and Iraq. Presumably if the lease is extended, it could be used against Iran.

There are even allegations it had been used in the “rendition” – i.e. illegal abduction – of terrorist suspects, many of whom turned out to be innocent.

Our Intelligence and Security Committee investigated and reported that there was no evidence of such rendition flights stopping at Diego Garcia.

But the Americans later admitted that certain unlogged planes had landed there.

Now the US Senate Intelligence Committee has revealed a great deal of their torture operations took place in bases outside America, such as Afghanistan, Cuba and a number of European states, Poland, Lithuania and Romania.

This confirms a report from the Council of Europe, which I sit in, that first made the claims about rendition flights some years ago.

For Britain the question is: “Do we continue to allow this base to be used for what could be criminal activities, including the possible abduction and torture of innocent people?”

Before we start to think about extending the lease on Diego Garcia and the other Chagos Islands, we should uncover the truth to see if it was used for criminal activity.

But we also carried out a major injustice to those islanders.

Now is the time to assess, as attempts are being made to at the moment, whether those people can have the opportunity to return, even during any possible future ­agreement with America.

Of course there’ll be some concern as to whether the Chagossians are motivated by a genuine desire to return to their homeland or are simply looking for ­compensation.

The best way to assess that is to give them what we gave the Falkland Islanders – a referendum on their future.

Giving a referendum to the Chagossians is the very least we owe them for our part in this disgraceful episode.

And allowing them to return to their island paradise would be the greatest Christmas present Britain could ever give.

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