Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Outposts: Human Rights? Not for You

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Outposts: Human Rights? Not for You

Article excerpt

It flashed briefly on the world's radar screens 20-odd years ago as a staging post in Margaret Thatcher's effort to regain the Falkland Islands, but by and large Ascension Island, that little speck of volcanic land halfway between West Africa and Brazil, is not normally a place that makes news.

In the parlance of the Foreign Office, it is an "overseas territory", quietly administered by a British governor, complete with ostrich plumes, from St Helena, far to the south. Its position as a communications centre long ago made it a Cable & Wireless company town, while the airport and other facilities are important both to the Ministry of Defence and the US air force.

Now trouble is brewing in mid-Atlantic, thanks to an edict issued from London last November by Lord Triesman, a Foreign Office minister.

This edict relates in turn to a white paper issued in 1999 by Robin Cook on the subject of overseas territories, in which the then foreign secretary promised the Ascension Islanders the basic rights accorded to all other British subjects, which they had not previously enjoyed.

Just over 1,000 people live there and though they are not a historic community, some are natives and quite a few want to make it home. Acting on Cook's promise, therefore, they bought houses, started businesses, elected a local council and even began paying taxes.


Lord Triesman has now gone back on the promise. "In considering the right of abode and property rights," he declared, a little opaquely, "the UK government has had to balance the aspirations of those living on Ascension against the risks to the UK in terms of contingent liabilities, security and developmental costs. …

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