Chagos Islands – Resolving the sovereignty issue

By David Snoxell

The UK and Mauritius should start talking about the future of the islands and come to a compromise. Such an outcome would make the Mauritian case at the UN Arbitral Tribunal unnecessary. Discussions need to start this year

I was at a lecture recently in Lancaster House given by Lord (Peter) Hennessy, the renowned constitutional historian on ‘Britain’s place in the world: Boxing above our weight’.

He pointed out to the audience of over a hundred retired staff of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, that where they were sitting in the Long Gallery, was the scene of the Constitutional Conferences which brought about the independence of some 40 British colonies between 1947 and 1979. What he did not mention was that this was also the venue in 1965, at a time when decolonisation was in full swing, for the birth of a new colony, the British Indian Ocean Territory, the first since the first world war.

The Mauritius Constitutional Conference took place from 7-24th September 1965 and led to the independence of Mauritius in 1968. Paragraph 22 (vii) of the agreed record of the meeting at Lancaster House on 23 September between the Colonial Secretary and Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam and his Ministers stated “that if the need for the facilities on the islands disappeared the islands should be returned to Mauritius”. Para 22 (viii) stated “that the benefit of any minerals or oil discovered in or near the Chagos Archipelago should revert to the Mauritius Government”. There is also a reference in para 22(vi) to Mauritian traditional fishing rights which were subsequently confirmed and carried into force in BIOT legislation and practice. On 10 November 1965 the Colonial Secretary announced to Parliament, by way of an inspired Parliamentary Question, that the Governments of Mauritius and Seychelles had agreed to the creation of BIOT which had been established on 8 November by Order in Council.

On 11 July 1980 the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, announced to Parliament in an arranged PQ that “I had a useful exchange of views with the Prime Minister of Mauritius on political, economic and cultural matters. Diego Garcia was one of the subjects discussed. When the Mauritius Council of Ministers agreed in 1965 to the detachment of the Chagos Islands to form part of the British Indian Ocean Territory it was announced that these would be available for the construction of defence facilities and that, in the event of the islands no longer being required for defence purposes, they should revert to Mauritius. This remains the policy of Her Majesty’s Government”. In about 2000 the FCO began using the word ‘cede’ instead of ‘return’ or ‘revert’. The implications of this subtle word change are clear. But the FCO also added to the UK’s standard right of reply in the UN and other international fora that “we remain open to discussions regarding arrangements governing BIOT or the future of the territory”. Those discussions have not yet begun.

The Observations to the ECHR, drafted by FCO Legal Advisers, on the Chagos Islanders case contain a telling reference to the UK’s “treaty obligations” to Mauritius. It is stated that “The (British) Government notes that its Treaty obligations with Mauritius require the UK to cede sovereignty over BIOT to Mauritius when the territory is no longer required for defence purposes”. Clearly there is a continuing need for the US base on Diego Garcia. The question has always been whether any of the other 54 islands of the Archipelago are required for defence. That the US has never asked the UK for permission to establish facilities on those islands strongly suggests that the US and UK have never had any need for them. So in theory there is nothing to stop the UK agreeing with the US to hand over the Outer Islands.

But in practice there are constraints. Many Chagossians in the UK, though not all, would prefer that the islands remained British although those who are most likely to want to resettle there live in Mauritius and they seem to support Mauritian sovereignty. Moreover the Mauritian Government sees resettlement and sovereignty as inseparable issues. There are also some conservationists who prefer British control which makes it much easier for them to visit the islands and to keep others away. They had a preponderant influence on the FCO in bringing about the declaration of the Marine Protection Area. Then there are one or two British politicians who genuinely think that the Archipelago and those who resettle there would be better off under British Administration and that we should keep what’s left of our empire together. But as the well known Anglican hymn laments “earth’s proud empires pass away”!

None of this should stop the UK and Mauritius talking about the future of the islands and coming to a compromise. Such an outcome would make the Mauritian case at the UN Arbitral Tribunal unnecessary. Discussions need to start this year in order to meet the 2014 deadline for the review of the 1966 UK/US agreement. It would also be good to have agreed a way forward before the 2015 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Mauritius and the end of the Coalition Government mandate in May 2015.

David Snoxell

Coordinator of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group & British High Commissioner to Mauritius 2000-04

* Published in print edition on 15 February 2013

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