10th anniversary of the restoration of the right of Chagossians to return to their homeland
By David Snoxell
David Snoxell, Coordinator of the Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group, was the British High Commissioner to Mauritius, September 2000-November 2004, during which tenure the British High Court delivered its judgment on the judicial review, brought by Olivier Bancoult in 1999, of the 1971 Immigration Ordinance which had effectively barred the Chagossians from their homeland.On 3 Nov 2000, he was waiting at his desk in the British High Commission for the verdict and Robin Cook’s decision on it. To mark the 10th anniversary of the High Court judgment, which restored the Chagossians’ right to return, David Snoxell gives here an insider’s view of how things unfolded on that day. Read on:
I arrived in Mauritius on 18 September 2000, following the usual briefings in Whitehall. The Chagos Islands (British Indian Ocean Territory) had featured significantly in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) briefing.
It was Friday 3 November 2000. For some days we had been expecting the High Court judgment on the judicial review, brought by Olivier Bancoult in 1999, of the 1971 Immigration Ordinance which had effectively barred the Chagossians from their homeland. At about midday Mauritius time I received a call from the FCO telling me that the High Court had delivered its judgment and ruled that the Ordinance was unlawful. Two hours later another call informed me that the Foreign Secretary had decided to accept the judgment and a new Ordinance would be substituted to allow the Chagossians to return to their islands, except for Diego Garcia. I was instructed to inform the Mauritian Government and the Chagossian community at the earliest opportunity. On the Monday I was summoned by the Foreign Minister, Anil Gayan, to discuss the matter.
As soon as Olivier Bancoult returned from London, in triumph, a meeting at the British High Commission was arranged with him and the CRG Committee. After consulting the FCO I told them that in theory they could start returning. Not surprisingly their first question was “and how are we to get there?” to which of course I had no answer. It was obvious that without assistance, transport and basic infrastructure this hard-won birthright would remain theoretical. These were a dramatic few days of high emotion for the Chagossian Community, the joy of which was shared in the British High Commission. Robin Cook’s ethical foreign policy was being put into practice, whatever his legal advisers might be saying.
The High Court had been unequivocal in its condemnation of the Ordinance which had removed this most fundamental of human rights, the right to live in one’s own homeland. Mr Justice Gibbs said: “Section 4 of the Ordinance has no colour of lawful authority. It was Tacitus who said ‘They make a desert and call it peace’. The peace, order and good government of the Territory provided in its Constitution was not a mere formula conferring unfettered powers on the (BIOT) Commissioner. It carries with it the implication that the citizens of the Territory are there to take the benefits. Their detention, removal and exclusion from the Territory are inconsistent with these words. It is clear from some of the disclosed documents that the official zeal in implementing those removal policies went beyond any proper limits.” Lord Justice Laws added: “I entertain considerable doubts whether the prerogative power extends so far as to permit the Queen in Council to exile her subjects from the territory where they belong.”
A few hours after the judgment the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, made the following statement:
“I have decided to accept the court’s ruling and the Government will not be appealing. The work we are doing on the feasibility of resettlement takes on a new importance… Furthermore we will put in place a new Immigration Ordinance which will allow the Ilois to return to the Outer Islands while observing our treaty obligations (to the US).The Government has not defended what was done or said thirty years ago.”
And so for 3 years and 7 months this remained the position until on 10 June 2004 the judgment and Robin Cook’s acceptance of it was, without consulting Parliament, overturned by means of Orders in Council. Cook was no longer in government, having resigned over Iraq in 2003. This is not the moment to dwell on the machinations that have followed the use of that most undemocratic of Tudor governance devices but rather to remember a just and fair judgment which has become a landmark for human rights. I have no doubt that sooner or later it will be honoured. The third of November will be marked by a Chagossian vigil in front of the Houses of Parliament.
* Published in print edition on 29 October 2010