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Ocean Island

Volume 931: debated on Wednesday 4 May 1977

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asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what progress is being made in the discussions between Her Majesty's Government and the Australian and New Zealand Governments towards a satisfactory settlement for the Gilbert Islands and the Banabans.


asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement about the Ocean Island situation; and the recent visit of a Foreign Office emissary to Fiji.

Close consultations are continuing with the Australian and New Zealand Governments. Mr. Richard Posnett, the emissary appointed to visit the area and to report to my right hon. and noble Friend, had discussions in Fiji with the Prime Minister and with the Banaban community. He also had talks in the other countries concerned. As soon as our consultations are complete, we will advise the House of their outcome.

I welcome that reply, but does not the hon. Gentleman accept that a satisfactory financial settlement is vital to the Gilbert Islands and to the Banabans, especially when phosphate revenue ceases? Can he give the House an assurance that the Government are seeking the agreement of the Australian and New Zealand Governments about the future of the accumulated reserves of the Phosphate Commission?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the position that will come about when the phosphates are exhausted in about two years' time will create a difficult condition not only for the Banabans but for the Gilbertese. We have been pursuing consultations with the Australian and New Zealand Governments on precisely these questions, including the possibility that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Whilst also welcoming the statement made by my hon. Friend, may I remind him of what he said earlier about accepting certain international obligations in respect of human rights? Will he please apply that to the Banaban situation, bearing in mind that Britain has already been morally condemned for not providing compensation? Will he also let us know how much longer this affair will drag on before there is a solution?

I do not know that I should accept that we were guilty of a great violation of human rights in this case. We are, of course, concerned not about the condemnation but about the amount of criticism by the judge. It is largely for those reasons that Mr. Posnett was sent out to discuss the situation in the area. As a result of that visit, we are now considering what action we should take, and note that the possibilities include some kind of compensation of the kind that my hon. Friend suggested.

Does the Minister recall that five months have elapsed since, in his judgment in the case of the Banabans versus the Crown, the Vice-Chancellor drew the Government's attention to a grievous wrong done to a small and defenceless people, which his court—in his words—was powerless to put right? How much longer have these people to wait before justice is done? Can the Minister give the House a firm assurance that, as the final act of reparation. Her Majesty's Government will heed the Banabans' claim to the separation of their homeland. Ocean Island, from the Gilbert Islands?

I do not think that the judge used the words "grievous wrong", but he did suggest that the conduct of Her Majesty's Government at an earlier period had not, perhaps, been all that it might have been. The hon. Gentleman asked when we would be able to announce a decision. My noble Friend hopes to be able to do so, and a statement will be made in both Houses within the next month or so. The constitutional future of Ocean Island is one of the important matters that have been considered. I think that it can be taken that the statement will cover that point.

Is my hon. Friend aware that this miserable saga is now souring our relations with a friendly Commonwealth country—Fiji? Do the Government appreciate that only a really magnanimous and generous settlement to the Banabans will satisfactorily conclude that saga?

It is true, as my hon. Friend has said, that the Government of Fiji are concerned about this matter. We hope that when the statement is made it will have the effect of finally resolving this long-standing and difficult problem.

Does the Minister accept that the only way to solve the problem is by engendering confidence among all parties and that that process is not assisted by attempts made from official sources, exemplified even this afternoon, to minimise and underestimate a very serious criticism made by the learned judge in the recent proceedings?

I certainly was not intending to minimise the effect of the remarks made by the judge. It is precisely because we take those remarks extremely seriously that we have been having this very intensive consultation and will be announcing a decision that I hope will be satisfactory to everybody in the House.