David Miliband ignored the advice of diplomats in his final weeks as Foreign Secretary to rush through the establishment of a controversial marine park around the British-controlled Chagos Islands, according to new documents.
The decision to set up the vast Indian Ocean conservation area during the dying days of the last Labour government dismayed evicted islanders who claimed it was a tactic to thwart their longstanding campaign to return.
Residents were forcibly removed in the 1960s to make way for a key US Air Force base on the largest island in the archipelago, Diego Garcia.
Newly published documents show the Marine Protection Area (MPA), which bans any commercial fishing and removes a potential source of income for any returning islanders, was declared five weeks before the general election in May 2010 on the personal orders of Mr Miliband. However, senior officials expressed strong misgivings that it represented making “policy on the hoof for political timetabling reasons”.
A series of emails between senior diplomats dealing with the British Indian Ocean Territory (Biot), as the islands are known, reveals that civil servants were unhappy that the scientific case for the conservation zone, which at 640,000 square kilometres is roughly the size of France, had not yet been proven.
In a memo written the day before the MPA was announced on 1 April 2010, Andrew Allen, the head of Southern Oceans at the Foreign Commonwealth Office (FCO), said: “This approach risks deciding (and being seen to decide) policy on the hoof for political timetabling reasons rather than on the basis of expert advice and public consultation.”
He added: “We have a better chance of getting a better result if we give ourselves a chance to work the many risks through. Some will never go away. But there are a lot we ought to be able to manage down if we don’t get pushed by an election timetable.”
The concerns about being seen to rush the decision were shared by the official in charge of the Biot section. Anticipating a High Court complaint that the conservation area was illegal, Joanne Yeadon wrote: “Our best defence against the legal challenges which are likely to be forthcoming whenever we establish an MPA is to demonstrate a conscientious and careful decision-making process. A rapid decision now would undermine that.”
The documents were released by the FCO as part of judicial review proceedings, which last year declared the MPA lawful.
Another diplomat – Colin Roberts, who was at the time commissioner for the Biot – acknowledged that the MPA would “create a context for a raft of measures designed to weaken the [resettlement] movement”. Campaigners said the documents were further proof that Britain was committed to ensuring that the Chagossians could never return to the islands.
Sabrina Jean, chairwoman of the Chagos Refugees Group, said: “Now we know that David Miliband was so determined to have the MPA he even ignored any advice. It proves that the consultation was a sham. We Chagossians we will continue our fight to return back home.”
Mr Miliband, who is now based in America as president of the International Rescue Committee, did not respond to requests from The Independent to comment. The FCO said it did not comment on documents relating to the actions of previous governments.
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