The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has been criticised for appearing to take sides in a dispute between the government of Botswana and the Gana and Gwi Bushmen in the country.
In 2006, the Botswana High Court ruled that the country’s government had behaved illegally and unconstitutionally in forcibly removing the Bushmen from their ancestral lands in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
But a description of the issue on the FCO's website attracted sharp criticism today (11 March) from the barrister Gordon Bennett, who represented the Bushmen in their four-year legal battle, the longest and most expensive court case in Botswana’s history.
Bennett said the FCO website “refers to arguments advanced by the government to justify its relocation of the Bushmen, but it does not explain that the court ruled that the relocation was indeed unlawful”.
Bennett also challenged the Foreign Office’s reference to a “constructive dialogue” between the Bushmen and the government, which it describes as “ongoing”.
“I remain in regular contact with Bushmen who have returned to the reserve” said Bennett, “But do not believe that any of them have participated in discussions with the government”.
The NGO Survival International says that the Botswana government continues to prevent many of the Bushmen from returning home by banning them from accessing a water borehole on their lands, at the same time as drilling more boreholes for wildlife and allowing the opening of safari lodges with swimming pools on the Bushmen’s lands. Bushmen have recently launched legal proceedings in a bid to gain access to their borehole.
“The FCO will understandably not want to take sides in this dispute, but its website is in danger of misleading the public,” said Bennett, “I am surprised that it makes no reference at all to the difficulties faced by Bushmen denied their human right to water”.
Survival International compares the UK Foreign Office’s approach with that of the US State Department, which describes the Bushmen as “economically and politically marginalised”.
The UN Special Rapporteur for indigenous peoples, Professor James Anaya, also recently condemned the Botswana government for denying the Bushmen access to water which he describes as not in keeping with the “spirit and underlying logic of the [2006 High Court] decision, nor with the relevant international human rights standards”.
Anaya also called on the government to reactivate the borehole “as a matter of urgent priority”.
Survival International’s director Stephen Corry added, “The Foreign Office is failing in its duty to give the British public an accurate picture of Botswana’s human rights record. Anybody considering going to Botswana should be aware of the government’s continued persecution of the Bushmen so they can make an informed decision about whether or not this is a country they want to visit.”