The whiff of colonial arrogance still lingers in the Foreign Office

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The Independent Online

The High Court struck a welcome blow for justice yesterday on behalf of the islanders of the Chagos Archipelago - which includes Diego Garcia, the British coral atoll that acts as an anchored super aircraft carrier for the United States. This ought to be the beginning of the end of a shameful chapter of late British colonialism. But sometimes the doors of history are mighty difficult to close.

The High Court struck a welcome blow for justice yesterday on behalf of the islanders of the Chagos Archipelago - which includes Diego Garcia, the British coral atoll that acts as an anchored super aircraft carrier for the United States. This ought to be the beginning of the end of a shameful chapter of late British colonialism. But sometimes the doors of history are mighty difficult to close.

The miserable story of British governments' morally repugnant and - it now turns out - unlawful treatment of the Indian Ocean islanders offers depressing support to the thesis of civil-service conservatism. The original decision in 1966, by the then Labour government, to ship the 2,000 islanders off to the Seychelles and Mauritius where, in the words of their lawyer yesterday, they were "dumped on the dockside", was reprehensible enough.

It is all very well to analyse the pressures on ministers, the fear of Soviet influence around the Indian Ocean and the trade-offs that enabled Harold Wilson to keep Britain out of the Vietnam war. But the decision was an unnecessary obeisance to the US and a dying gasp of colonial arrogance.

The present government's conduct, however, shows how the institutional momentum of the Foreign Office, the Department for the Custody & Defence of Past Mistakes, has persisted over the past 34 years. In opposition, today's Labour ministers were prominent and unanimous in support of the right to compensation of the Chagos refugees. The moment they were translated into government, however, they found themselves instantly persuaded that it would be unwise to concede the precedent.

Thus the Foreign Office resisted the case brought by Louis Bancoult, arrogantly assuming that, because the Chagos islands had been a colony, the British government could do what it liked. And thus it decided immediately yesterday to appeal against the High Court's ruling. Once again, we are left asking, first, what happened to Robin Cook's ethical foreign policy, and second, whether the Foreign Secretary knows what is going on in his own department.

The Foreign Office should drop the appeal and negotiate with the islanders on the matters of compensation and, where desired, resettlement. Menzies Campbell, the spokesman on foreign affairs for the Liberal Democrats, said yesterday that the islanders should be compensated because resettling the islands was sadly impractical because of the military base. For once, Mr Campbell does not go far enough. It should be asked whether the US and its allies need a base in the middle of the Indian Ocean any more. If it had not been possible to fly sorties to Iraq from there two years ago, surely they could have been flown from somewhere else? And surely the cost of restoring the islands to their pre-1966 state would be trivial in the big picture of public spending?

Eighteen months ago, Mr Cook set out the Government's "renewed contract and modern partnership" with the scattered red dots on the map that remained of the Empire, renaming them British Overseas Territories and offering citizenship rights to their inhabitants. There was a catch, however: the package only applied to the inhabited islands, from Anguilla to the Turks and Caicos Islands. For these purposes, Diego Garcia, with its transient population of 3,500 US and British military personnel and support staff, is uninhabited. Mr Cook cannot take full credit for that welcome act of modernisation until he makes amends for the historic wrong of forcibly expelling the Chagos islanders from their homeland.

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