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Britain seeks to unite overseas territories

world Updated: Oct 03, 2011 01:32 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

They are fourteen territories of wildly different sizes and shapes scattered across the globe, but bound by a shared history: they are all remnants of the British Empire. Now Britain wants to tie them in more closely with London in matters of governance, finance and law and order.

From tiny Pitcairn Islands (pop: 50) to Bermuda, one of the world's largest tax havens, the so-called British Overseas Territories span an area of more than 1.7 million sq km, most of it made up of the scientific research station, British Antarctic Territory.

Their total population is only around 239,000 but the territories include some key strategic, financial and biodiversity interests that are prompting London's review of its relationship with the self-governing colonies.

The British government on September 14 launched a consultation for a White Paper on the territories to be published next year - the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II's reign. The main objective - to ensure the security and good governance of the territories and their peoples - has been agreed by the National Security Council, consisting of senior ministers, military chiefs and heads of the secret services.

In the past Britain has been willing to go to war to defend the interests of its dependencies - some of the smallest and most remote communities in the world - as during Argentina's invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982. The military threat has receded now, although Argentina and Britain continue to exchange hot words.

But there have been other, more recent, developments that appear to have made London sit up and take a closer look at the affairs of these distant outposts.

In August 2009, Britain had to suspend the government of Turks and Caicos Islands, a tax haven in the Caribbean, after corrupt local leaders misused public money and profited from the sale of government-owned land. In July 2010, Britain agreed to lend the bankrupt island £10mn.

"There was a potential risk there - that scale of financial mismanagement can lead to huge debts," a British official told HT. There is a recognition that restructuring such debts with aid could have an impact on British finances at an economically difficult time.

The health of tax havens such as Turks and Caicos, Bermuda and Cayman Islands is important to Britain as they are closely linked to London's financial centre. In general, Britain's financial aid to the dependencies goes mainly to Montserrat and far-flung St Helena.