Return to Chagos: Yes Minister but not yet 

By David Snoxell  

Sean Carey’s two recent articles – “Clock is ticking for UK over Chagos” (22 July) and “Return to Chagos: No Minister” (5 August) make interesting reading. Perhaps I could offer a perspective, drawn from my own experience of dealing with the issues, first as Deputy Commissioner of BIOT, 1995-97, then as High Commissioner to Mauritius, 2000-04 and currently as Coordinator of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All Party Parliamentary Group. This is not exactly an insider’s view but more that of a ringside seat, for indeed the image of both circus and boxing contest come to mind. The interplay of the artful, deceitful and labyrinthine characterises the handling of Chagos issues since 1965 when the Archipelago was detached from Mauritius to become the British Indian Ocean Territory.

I agree with Sean Carey that UK Ministers (Robin Cook excepted) are rarely in the driving seat of policy towards Chagos. They are more often unwilling passengers, gagged and bound in the backseat. The duty of officials is to brief Ministers, provide advice and recommendations and then to carry out their decisions. The problem is that with highly diverse and complex historical issues new Ministers are not in a position to challenge that advice. They may instinctively feel that a proposed policy or defence of existing policy is not in the UK’s interest, is not compatible with the UK’s human rights stance, or the right way of dealing with a situation but without a detailed knowledge of the issues and the resources to confront legal advice, which to the uninitiated may appear unassailable, they can do little. 

And with rapid staff turnover officials can find themselves in the same position, briefing ministers from a low knowledge base, inherited from their predecessors. Bureaucratic inertia and the revolving door are important factors. No wonder then that Chagos policy remains static. This is why Parliamentarians can play an important role in bringing to bear different perspectives derived from their own experience, public opinion, NGOs and the media, and from the views of academics, lawyers and scientists, outside government inner circles.  But it is up to Ministers to reach out and harness that support in standing up for principles and challenging officials. Unfortunately there is an ingrained suspicion of Parliament amongst officials and new Ministers can quickly absorb the culture of their departments so that parliamentary debate and Questions and Answers become an eternal game of ping-pong.

No more so than when it comes to Chagos. Why is it that in recent years most major decisions and developments on Chagos have been held over to the start of a parliamentary recess? Here are two recent examples – the Marine Protected Area was designated the day after the 2010 Easter recess though it sparked unprecedented emergency debates in both Houses when Parliament returned the following week. Parliamentarians were indignant at the way the MPA was rushed through at the start of the recess and before a general election.

On behalf of the Conservatives Keith Simpson said: “There is a great deal of sympathy from both sides of the House for the plight of the Chagossians, and their interests must be placed at the heart of any decisions made about their homeland”.
In the House of Lords debate, Lord Howell (now an FCO Minister leading on Chagos in the Lords) asked the Minister “Is she aware of the considerable anger and dismay that has been expressed by the Mauritian Government about how they were not consulted and not involved in the whole process that the Minister described?”

The Coalition came to power in May 2010 committed to bringing about a just and fair settlement of the Chagos issues. Dr Ramgoolam and the Foreign Secretary had an encouraging meeting on 4 June 2010 in London in which Mr Hague seemed to indicate that he would not be taking the MPA forward. But Coalition commitments were gradually eroded during the summer recess last August, notwithstanding the Foreign Secretary’s expressed intention to review policy towards Chagos, the outcome of which has never been announced to Parliament. Ministers now say that Chagos policies are constantly under review. My advice to Chagos watchers is never take leave in August!

It is not so long ago that William Hague was writing to constituents that “if elected to serve as the next British Government we will work to ensure a fair settlement to this long-standing dispute” and quoting Keith Simpson MP, then shadow foreign affairs minister, in a parliamentary debate that “this was clearly a moral issue and the rights of the Chagossian people should be recognised”.

And we should not forget that Mr Hague’s Cabinet colleague, Vince Cable, announced in a letter to a constituent last September that the Coalition Government was dropping the case in Strasbourg, opting instead for a friendly settlement and that steps had been taken to ensure the return of the Chagossians. He was quickly whipped into line, presumably by the Foreign Office.

It is clear that Ministers do want to bring about a resolution of these difficult issues including resettlement, the MPA and sovereignty but they are being held back by a handful of officials who fear that any move towards a resolution of the issues could prejudice their defence at the European Court of Human Rights in the impending Chagos Islanders case.

From a bureaucratic point of view I can understand their desire to defend and vindicate the policies of their predecessors and to maintain the status quo, but from a moral, ethical and democratic standpoint I cannot. This is more a case of “Yes Minister but not yet” than a straight “No Minister”.

* Published in print edition on 12 August 2011

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