A year ago today, the former inhabitants of the Chagos Islands lost their UK legal battle for the right to return to their home in the British Indian Ocean Territories (see this post for a history of the case). The British Foreign Office has fought tooth and nail for 11 years to prevent a just conclusion to this apalling saga, and used every trick in the book to avoid democratic accountability at every turn. Even now, as it prepares to go before the European Court of Human Rights, the FCO refuses to be made answerable to anyone on this matter of basic human rights.
In 2004, the British Government used the Privy Council to issue two Orders in Council that effectively overruled the High Court, legislating that no one should be able to settle in the Chagos archipelago. This decision was never put before Parliament. It was nominally based on a feasibility study on which the Chagossians themselves were never consulted. The announcement was slipped under the radar on a big news day in the UK. All of this points to a shocking lack of engagement and accountability over a decision with grave consequences for the lives of many. The Privy Council officially advises the Queen on her use of the Royal Prerogative, but in practice evokes her powers to make executive orders quickly without consulting Parliament, in cases where time is of the essence. In May this year, Justice Minister Jack Straw admitted on BBC Radio 4 that he had "exchanged speed for legitimacy" when he chose to use Orders in Council in the Chagossian case, as they were "simpler" than putting the decision before the House of Commons.
The final House of Lords ruling, one year ago, cited arcane statutes in British law to justify the Orders in Council - for example, that "in a conquered or ceded colony the Crown, by virtue of its prerogative, has full power... to act both executively and legislatively" provided this does not contravene an Act of Parliament (which in this case it doesn't, because Parliament was never consulted). Indeed, the Lords ruled that the Queen may make law for any of her colonies, regardless of whether the laws are "for the benefit of the inhabitants of that colony."
Now, I'm no lawyer, and can't offer judgement on the legal complexities of the argument made in the ruling, but I do know bare-faced colonial arrogance when I see it. That the British legal system should be utilising such laws in the 21st century is disgraceful. That the UK legislates at all for these territories is questionable enough - that the Privy Council can do so without going through Parliament beggars belief. This was no national emergency requiring urgent government action. Legitimacy was the huge price paid for speed which was never really necessary.
The European Court of Human Rights asked the FCO to reply by 17 July this year indicating how it will respond to the Chagossians’ appeal. Jeremy Corbyn MP tabled a motion, signed by 47 MPs at the time of writing, calling on the Government to consult Parliament before submitting its response to the Court. However, the FCO sought an extension to the deadline which allowed it to delay its response until the summer recess, once again evading Parliamentary scrutiny. Not surprisingly, the FCO’s response was to decline the Court’s recommendation to reach a “friendly settlement” with the Chagossians, and instead to fight the appeal.
The Foreign Office’s efforts to avoid any democratic check on its actions in this shameful story represent a tacit acknowledgement that its decisions do not bear scrutiny. The environmental concerns used to justify this enforced exile are apparently totally undermined by continued military activity polluting the area, but the “cloak of secrecy” surrounding the islands makes it extremely difficult for anyone on the outside to judge for themselves. It is up to the European Court of Human Rights now to decide on the Chagossians’ fate. But as the Foreign Office spends even more of our money fighting this appeal, we should be asking, if its reasons are so decisive, why is the British Government so afraid of public debate?