Breaking the Chagos logjam

By David Snoxell

A public debate on 10 March, the last day of the highly successful play, ‘A Few Man Fridays’, took place at the Riverside Studios in London. It was entitled “Land and Law – the Future of the Chagos Islands”. The debate was on stage between performances, in front of an audience which then asked questions.

Adrian Jackson (writer and Director of the play), Jeremy Corbyn MP (Chairman of the Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group), Hengride Permal (Chair of Chagos Islands Community Association), Bernadette Dugasse, (UK Chagos Support Association) participated. It was chaired by Laura Jeffrey (Anthropologist and author of ‘Eviction from the Chagos Islands: Displacement and Struggle for Identity against two World Powers’). David Snoxell, Coordinator of the Chagos Islands APPG and former British High Commissioner to Mauritius set the scene with the following introduction:

 2012, when the eyes of the world are on London for the Olympic Games and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, is a fitting year in which to break the Chagos logjam. Since 2002 a resolution of the issues has been deadlocked and there has been no progress. Indeed further obstacles have been erected, making it more difficult now than it was then to bring about an overall settlement of the many intertwined issues which have for so long stymied the future of the Chagos Islands and its people. The issues break down into five interrelated areas – human rights, defence, feasibility and cost, conservation and the MPA and future sovereignty. All need to be treated separately as well as collectively for an overall settlement to be reached. They involve four Chagossian groups, three governments (UK, US and Mauritus), the UN, Commonwealth, conservation and human rights organisations. Seychelles and Maldives also have an interest in the outcome. The issues are as follows.

Human Rights

The Foreign Secretary has said that he wants to know the outcome of the case at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg before deciding how to move forward. The case was first lodged with the Court in 2004 but stayed, pending the judgment in the House of Lords in 2008. There could be a result by the summer. Either the Court will decide it does not have jurisdiction to hear the case and thus declare it inadmissible or it will decide it is admissible and give judgment. If admissible, the overall judgment is likely to favour the Chagossians since it is self evident that the UK is in breach of one or more of the articles of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court may then order compensation and the restoration of the right to return. But it would be much better if the FCO were to withdraw from the case and settle out of court.

If the Court decides for the Chagossians it is to be hoped that the Foreign Secretary will abide by the judgment, restore the right to return and go for an overall settlement. If the Court decides the case is inadmissible we have only our own views on whether or not the UK is in breach of the Convention. But the Foreign Secretary could still make amends on other grounds, not least that the UK would remain in violation of UN human rights instruments, such as the UN Human rights Covenants and the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Also that the UK’s international reputation continues to be badly damaged by accusations of double standards over HMG’s failure to restore a fundamental human right to the Chagos Islanders, who are British and for whom the UK is responsible.

Defence, Security and review of 1966 UK/US Agreement

It is now generally accepted that a well planned and limited resettlement on two of the 54 Outer Islands, 140 miles from the US base on Diego Garcia, would not prejudice the security of the base or interfere with military operations there. However the security argument has been deployed since 2002 as a reason for not allowing resettlement. The UK and US need to agree that there is no longer a problem. If necessary the Foreign Secretary should personally convince Hillary Clinton, if she needs convincing, that the base, like other US bases around the globe, can safely co-exist with neighbours, in this case a small group of British people living 140 miles way. Clearly security was not a problem in 2000 when the then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, restored the right to return to the Outer Islands, following the High Court judgment. The Ministry of Defence, which has never said publicly that there was a defence concern, could help out by discussing the matter with the Pentagon.

In any case the UK/US Agreement of 1966, which made BIOT available to the US for defence purposes, provides in 2014 for the agreement to be terminated after 2016 or continued for a further 20 years. This is the opportunity for the UK to renegotiate that agreement and to make provision for resettlement and the future management of the islands which have never been used for defence purposes. There is nothing to stop the Foreign Secretary raising these issues with the US in advance. Indeed the US may well welcome the opportunity to resolve them earlier. The US has never said publicly that resettlement is a problem.

Feasibility and cost of resettlement

Since 2004 feasibility and cost have also been deployed by the FCO as reasons against resettlement. These arguments were based on a 2002 feasibility study but a decade later that study is regarded by many experts as out of date, some of it incorrect, unnecessarily pessimistic and lacking independence and objectivity. For example, the study predicted sea level rise which would, within a few decades, make the islands uninhabitable. The latest research shows that there has been no detectible rise over the past 22 years and that there appears to be no other climatic factors which indicate that life on the Islands would now be more precarious than when they were last inhabited. Parliamentarians have since 2008 urged the FCO to commission a truly independent study into the practicalities of resettlement and the number of those who would wish to live in Chagos permanently, given that many will only want to visit without restriction, the land of their birth and their homeland. Such a study could draw upon earlier studies and report quickly, following the restoration of the right of return. The experts would this time take account of the experience and views of the Chagossian people who were not consulted in the 2002 study.

The supposed “inordinate” cost to the taxpayer has also been deployed by officials against resettlement. Huge sums have been suggested but until it is known how many the settlement is to cater for, what facilities and communications are to be provided, what work will be available and how durable it will be, nobody really knows. It seems sensible to start with an experimental resettlement and see how that works before making a massive investment which may not be needed. Funding does not need to fall entirely on the British taxpayer. The EU Commission has already indicated that if asked they would consider sympathetically a request for funding. Also the US, international development agencies, NGOs and the private sector could be asked to contribute.

Conservation and the Marine Protected Area

It is only since about 2009 that conservation has been deployed as a factor against resettlement. If carefully controlled there is no reason why a settlement should have much of an environmental impact. The Chagossians have said that they wish to take on the responsibility for protecting their own environment. With suitable training they could easily be employed in a conservation role. It is well known that for MPAs to be effective local people have to be involved and take on monitoring and guardianship roles. A proposal was put forward at a conference in May 2011 for the creation of a research and monitoring station for visiting scientists which would be supported by Chagossians living in an eco-village nearby. This was rejected by certain scientists opposed to resettlement and then by the Foreign Secretary.

Although an excellent initiative, the MPA was declared in haste almost two years ago on 1 April 2010, in the face of mounting concern amongst many Chagossians and Mauritius. As Wikileaks have shown, marine protection was clearly not its only motive. The MPA disregarded the legitimate interests both of other states and of the people directly concerned. It is unenforceable under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS article 73) and thus lacks international legitimacy. It remains a ‘paper park’, still without the necessary management structure. It cannot be properly implemented and enforced until two legal cases are concluded – a judicial review brought by the Chagossians and a case brought by Mauritius under UNCLOS. Instead of fighting it out in court the FCO needs to consider a settlement with both parties, allowing the MPA to be modified to take account of the traditional fishing rights of Mauritius and the Chagossians and to make it compliant with UNCLOS. In fact the UK allows sustainable fishery areas inside other MPAs in the Overseas Territories. Also the implementation and management of the MPA should involve all stakeholders.

Future sovereignty and management of the Archipelago

Since the creation of BIOT in 1965 HMG has remained committed to returning the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritius when no longer needed for defence purposes. The fiftieth anniversary of BIOT in 2015 makes an obvious date to aim for. In the absence of any requirement since 1966 to use the Outer Islands for defence it is obvious that they are no longer needed and could, like the return of Aldabra, Farquhar and Desroches to the Seychelles in 1976, be transferred to Mauritius. Or there is no reason why the two governments should not negotiate a new status for Chagos . That status could, for example, be a joint-management arrangement of the Outer Islands, such as France and Mauritius have agreed over Tromelin, followed by a timetable for the return of sovereignty. Mauritius has said that under Mauritian sovereignty Chagossians, who return to Chagos, would be given autonomous status with a local Assembly, as is the case in Rodrigues. There were two rounds of UK/Mauritius talks in 2009 but the third round scheduled for 2010 was cancelled by Mauritius over the MPA dispute. The FCO needs to agree with Mauritius the conditions in which those talks could be resumed which no doubt would include discussions on the future of the MPA and sovereignty.

* Published in print edition on 22 March 2012

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