Is the tide turning in Chagos?

CRG International Conference, Mauritius, 29-31 Oct, 2013:

Options for resolving the issues concerning the future of the Chagossians and of the Chagos Islands

I am delighted to be asked to speak at this conference and to be back in Mauritius. It is nearly 9 years since I left on retirement. Obviously, as British High Commissioner, from Sept 2000 to Nov 2004, I could not speak publicly on the way I personally thought Chagos issues and the Chagossian peoplehad been treated by successive governments. For much of the last 9 years I have, however, made my views clear in public through numerous articles, letters to and interviews with the media. But this is the first time I am addressing Chagossian people in Mauritius on this subject and I am glad to do so and also to congratulate the CRG and its Leader, Olivier Bancoult, on its 30 years of struggle for their noble cause which is to empower Chagossians to return to their homeland.

I leave the legal aspects to the lawyers with the comment that the law is the tool of diplomacy, not its master. Only when diplomacy fails should the law be invoked.

Before addressing the options and assessing the state of the tide I would first like to go back to my time as High Commissioner and my current involvement with the issues.

Just before I left Mauritius in Nov 04, Olivier came to see me at a farewell reception at the Martello Tower, La Preneuse, organised by Philippe and Gill La Hausse. Olivier told me that he had lately come to understand (I think from Paul Berenger) that I had, since my arrival, encouraged the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to grasp the nettle and negotiate an overall settlement with all the parties concerned. What no one knew was that in 2004 I had done all I could to try to persuade FCO officials that their proposed stratagem for dealing with the resettlement issue was plainly wrong and inconsistent with British democratic values and our international promotion of human rights. That secret plan was to overturn the 2000 High Court judgment and the decision of the former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook to restore the right to return to the Outer Islands, by means of an ancient device, known as Privy Council Orders, which would bypass Parliament.

In my valedictory despatch to the FCO of 16 Nov 2004 I noted that the ”UK was seen in Mauritius and international fora as behaving with colonial arrogance and compounding the human rights violations and deceptions of 34 years ago which both our courts and Parliament have castigated”. On the 5th anniversary of my departure, in Nov 2009 I wrote to FCO officials “I am struck by how many wasted opportunities there have been since 2000 to resolve these issues and the huge cost to the taxpayer of making policy on the hoof.”

I can tell you that amongst the increasing number of those in the UK who are aware of the plight of the Chagossians there is widespread support, not least in Parliament and the media. For example in a debate on the future of the Commonwealth in the House of Lords on 17 October Lord Ramsbotham said: “If I may end on a slightly depressing note, I thoroughly echo the remarks made by my noble friend about the Chagos Islands. I declare an interest as one of the vice-chairmen of the all-party group. Expulsion of people from their homeland is not only a contradiction of just about every human rights document that there is, from Magna Carta to the United Nations charter, but is contrary to the core values that we have mentioned and which are contained in the Commonwealth charter. Our continued procrastination over this issue is nothing less than a national disgrace and something that we really should move very quickly to deal with, if it is not to undermine our reputation among the very people with whom we wish to promote it. Can the Minister give an assurance that this issue will be tackled with urgency?”

In the same debate Lord Luce called on the Government to announce at CHOGM next month that “we plan to restore the right to return to BIOT to those Chagossians who in the late 1960s were expelled by us from their homeland to make way for Diego Garcia. This remains a blot on our copybook which we must rectify.” One of the big advances of recent years was the establishment of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) in the wake of the 2008 Lords’ judgment. The Group’s mandate is “to help bring about a resolution of the issues concerning the future of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) and of the Chagossians.” The Group has had 38 meetings since it was established. Its membership of currently 42 Parliamentarians has included the Speaker, 5 former FCO Ministers, a former Leader of the Lib Dem party, the last DPM and 7 members of the Coalition Government. So it is a heavyweight group of politicians that support Chagossian aspirations and are pressing for a diplomatic resolution of the issues which actually I first advocated to the FCO in Nov 2000, following the High Court judgment. Why then has it taken 5 years of meetings, interventions in debates, letters to Ministers and hundreds of PQs on Chagos issues for the FCO to begin to accede to parliamentary, public and media pressure? Having worked in the FCO for half my career and in the mid 90s as Deputy Commissioner of BIOT, I still find this a difficult question to answer.

In seeking the answer it is necessary to understand that it is FCO officials who explain and present the issues and recommend to Ministers the policy to be adopted. Unless it is a major international issue, going to the heart of Britain’s essential interests, Ministers generally accept what officials recommend. No Minister is able to take the time to get to grips with complex issues, such as Chagos, when there are international crises raging overhead as there have so often been in recent times. So in effect it is officials who make the policy but they like Ministers come and go with some frequency. FCO officials usually want “quick wins”, easy solutions and a straight run in office. In 2004 resettlement was seen as a long drawn out and difficult process, too complicated for the two officials (5 today) who were responsible for BIOT. Banning resettlement altogether seemed the easiest option. Now it is very difficult for officials and their legal advisers to admit that they or their predecessors made the wrong decision.

So they are obliged to defend the entrenched positions of the past with the same formulae and arguments they have inherited, without examining whether those arguments were or remain valid. The result is bureaucratic inertia and becoming victims of their own propaganda. Thus the policy stays frozen in time and officials defend it to the hilt against pressure from Parliament or any other source. Ministers are too busy and lack the expertise to challenge these entrenched positions, often bolstered by legal advice — the current Minister responsible for BIOT is the 9th since 2000. This is where an APPG can be of much help to a beleaguered Minister, challenging the accepted mantras of the past.

It is important to consider the four standard arguments deployed since 2004 by FCO against resettlement:

1.     The islands are set aside for defence purposes and in any case the US would not agree. But I have never seen a convincing explanation as to why resettlement of UK nationals, on the Outer Islands would pose a threat to military operations or to the security of the base on Diego Garcia (DG) 130 miles away, or indeed to resettlement on DG itself. The Outer Islands are clearly not required for defence since over the last 48 years no defence facilities have ever been built there. It is unlikely that if the British Government informed the US Administration that it planned to go ahead with a resettlement on the Outer Islands the US would disagree. They might, however, take a little more convincing if the settlement was to be on DG, in close proximity to the base, but this too is not impossible.

2.     The 2002 Feasibility Study concluded that resettlement was not feasible due to rising sea levels, increased storminess leading to flooding and erosion of the islands, the potential damage to marine life and corals and the lack of sustainable employment. But the FCO now accepts, 11 years later, that following years of critical analysis of the 2002 study by experts, a new feasibility study is required and by implication that the old one was flawed. We await an announcement soon of the draft ToRs of the proposed study and progress on the Policy Review.

3.     Then comes the cost argument, often much exaggerated, but the UK is a wealthy nation that has no trouble finding the resources for overseas defence operations and there are other sources – the US, EU, Commonwealth, International Community and NGOs.

4.        Human habitation is not compatible with the conservation of the unique bio-diversity and marine environment of the Islands. This argument of course ignores the fact that up to 4000 military personnel live on DG. But it is a powerful argument which appeals to some zealous members of conservation NGOs. The political influence, resources and reach of these groups should, however, not be underestimated. They have had a symbiotic relationship with the FCO which has used the NGOs to bolster their policy against resettlement and in turn has been used by them to maintain uninhabited the Outer Islands; scientists, environmentalists and conservationists of course excepted. The somewhat misleading campaign to create the MPA, waged by Pew and CEN in public and in private in 2009/10, was a manifestation of this relationship.

But I would now like to focus on the future rather than dwell on past mistakes. Clearly, after more than a decade of intransigence, the FCO needs a thorough and objective review of all its policies towards Chagos. And here I pay tribute to today’s FCO for recognising this. The Policy Review announced ten months ago by the Foreign Secretary on 20 December 2012 was a belated but welcome step forward. I believe that it is a genuine attempt to be open, objective and fair. In a debate in the Lords on 17 October the FCO Minister, Baroness Warsi said:

“On 18 December 2012 the Foreign Secretary said that he was going to review policy towards the resettlement of the British Indian Ocean Territory. This review has been under way since then and we have been in touch with all those with an interest, especially the Chagossian community here in the UK, in Mauritius and in the Seychelles. Ministers have agreed that we should have an independent study that will, with as much transparency as possible, properly explore what might be possible, what is realistic and what it would cost. I am sure that I will report back to the House when that is concluded.”

I do feel that current officials and their Ministers want to bring about a fair resolution of the issues in consultation with Chagossians and Mauritius. I am hopeful that it will be the breaking of the logjam and that it will lead to four principle results:

1.     The Feasibility Study concludes that resettlement is feasible, can be done economically and will not endanger the marine environment.

2.     The FCO accepts the findings, makes resettlement a condition of the renewal of the 1966 Anglo-American Agreement to include a financial contribution from the US; seeks funding from other sources (if necessary), resolves to start planning at least an experimental resettlement immediately, with a view to the first settlers returning in 2015, the 50th anniversary of the creation of BIOT.

3.     Given the UK’s oft repeated commitment that when no longer needed for defence purposes sovereignty will revert to Mauritius, the British Government proposes to Mauritius the start of fresh talks on the future of BIOT, to cover arrangements for Mauritian participation in the management of the Islands and the MPA, leading to a timetable for either joint sovereignty or a gradual ceding of sovereignty which may or may not include DG.

4.     All of this to be announced by end 2014, well before the general election in May 2015 and the CHOGM in Mauritius in Oct 2015 to bring the UK into conformity with the Commonwealth Charter, signed by The Queen and Member States in March.

I would also expect conservation organisations in the UK and Mauritius to start to work with Chagossians who wish to return by providing marine skills, training and education in conservation. Proper management of the MPA, especially if a scientific station were established, would result in the creation of jobs such as servicing visiting scientists, maintaining boats and equipment and patrolling the islands.

Having a Policy Review is a sea change in FCO thinking. The results will be seen as a political and moral test of the UK’s fundamental values. As the Foreign Secretary has said “It is not in our character as a nation to have a foreign policy without a conscience; neither is it in our interests”. If next year the Feasibility Study reports that resettlement is practical, as we know it is, I cannot imagine that the British Government will not make it possible. The vital thing is to ensure that the Feasibility Study, coming 12 years after the last, is this time truly independent, transparent and objective and takes account of the much more detailed scientific data now available. So to answer my question I believe the tide is turning.

David Snoxell
Coordinator of the Chagos Islands
(BIOT) All-Party
Parliamentary Group

29 Oct 2013


* Published in print edition on 31 October 2013

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