Return to Chagos: Brilliant Minister, duly noted of course

 By David Snoxell 

In a revealing answer on 8 September to a parliamentary question (PQ) from Andrew Rosindell MP, Vice-Chairman of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), Henry Bellingham, the FCO Minister responsible for Chagos, said that neither he nor the Foreign Secretary had had any recent discussions about BIOT with their Mauritian or American counterparts. I take ‘recent’ to mean since the government came to office, 16 months ago. There was, however, a preliminary meeting between Prime Minister Ramgoolam and William Hague in early June 2010 in which Mr Hague indicated that he would be reviewing all Chagos policies. But clearly there have been no discussions of substance between the two governments since the general elections in the UK and Mauritius, and nor has the Foreign Secretary personally discussed Chagos with Hilary Clinton. This looks inconsistent with Mr Hague’s promise before the election that “if elected to serve as the next British government we will work to ensure a fair settlement to this long standing dispute.”

Ironically on the same day as the PQ was answered, the Foreign Secretary gave a speech entitled, ‘The best Diplomatic Service in the world: strengthening the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) as an institution’. He talked about the FCO’s ‘renaissance’, commenting that “strong institutions are necessary in civil society to encourage participation and keep in check an over mighty state. They are necessary to our judiciary and Parliament so that the law is upheld and the making of it respected.” He referred to the flouting of international norms and laws by other states, adding, “we cannot ride roughshod over international opinion or neglect to ensure that our actions are seen to be as legitimate as possible in the eyes of the world.”
The Foreign Secretary pledged to put the FCO at the heart of government and make it a centre of excellence, commenting that “one of the axioms guiding our foreign policy is that the nation that is purely reactive in foreign policy is in decline.” British diplomats “excelled at finding deft, realistic and workable solutions that bridge the gap between countries with vastly different perspectives.” And finally, “we have set ourselves the goal of excellence in every crucial area of our work.”

I wonder whether the Foreign Secretary had the handling of Chagos issues over the past 45 years in mind for the FCO seems to have failed on each of his brave sentiments (there are more in the speech). Clearly this new approach has so far not filtered down to that crucial area of work concerning human rights, international law and environmental conservation. Surely Mr Hague would have to agree that fighting Mauritius and the Chagossians through the courts, at vast expense to the taxpayer, is a dead end and that we can only move on once an overall political settlement has been achieved through diplomacy and compromise.

So to avoid the accusation of hypocrisy and double standards, the FCO needs to get on with negotiating an overall settlement with all the parties – Mauritius, the US, and the Chagossians, not forgetting the interests of Maldives in the Marine Protected Area (MPA). I first put this suggestion to the FCO in November 2000 following the High Court judgment and a meeting with Prime Minister Jugnauth. Nearly eleven years later no progress has been made. Indeed in that time the situation has been much exacerbated by two big mistakes – the 2004 Privy Council Orders, overturning the High Court judgment and withdrawing the right of the Chagossians to return, and the 2010 declaration of the MPA. Both were unnecessary and done stealthily and in haste without parliamentary and therefore democratic consent.

These two actions are the main obstacles to a general settlement and have triggered three current court cases. These are the Chagos Islanders case at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, the Mauritian case at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), challenging the international legality of the Marine Protected Area and a pending Judicial Review of the MPA in the name of the Chagos Refugees Group at the English High Court.

The case at Strasbourg goes back to 2005, over six years ago, and even at this late stage the FCO has asked for a further month’s delay for final submissions, taking the deadline to 30 September. The FCO could withdraw from the case at any time, and indeed has been invited by Strasbourg to settle out of court. It is to be hoped that the Court will endorse the widely held view of parliamentarians and the public that the Chagossian exile, one of the longest exiles in world history, should be ended.

The MPA cases are also amenable to an out of court settlement which could keep the MPA in place but acknowledge and entrench both the rights of Mauritius and the Chagossians to be operational partners in it. After all the FCO Observations to Strasbourg state: “The Government notes its Treaty obligations with Mauritius require the United Kingdom to cede sovereignty over the BIOT to Mauritius when the territory is no longer required for defence purposes.”

So if the Foreign Secretary’s fine words are not to be seen as mere platitudes and hypocrisy, the FCO response to the speech needs to move from ‘Yes Minister, not yet’ to ‘Brilliant Minister, it shall be done.’
I fear, however, that it is more likely to be ‘Brilliant Minister, duly noted, of course.’

David Snoxell

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

* Published in print edition on 16 September 2011

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