“Mauritius must, in the next 6 months, focus its diplomacy on winning international and British parliamentary support for Mauritian sovereignty…

Interview: David Snoxell, Former British High Commissioner

… there will not be a similar opportunity again”

“There is not really scope for Mauritius to be a party to UK/US discussions (on Chagos) since they will not be formal negotiations”

“If the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea rules in Mauritius’ favour this will be a powerful, though not decisive influence”

David Snoxell, former British High Commissioner to Mauritius 2000-04), is Coordinator of the Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group. He has been an ardent advocate of the Chagossians’s right to return to Diego Garcia. Linked to this is the question of sovereignty over Diego Garcia and the 55 islands of the archipelago, and whether the continuation of the use of Diego Garcia for defence purposes by the US with British approval impacts on the territorial integrity and sovereignty claimed by Mauritius. David Snoxell feels that there is an opportunity to press these issues. The detailed interview follows:

Mauritius Times: The Chagos issue has again hogged the headlines here following what looks like a cock-up by the communications unit of the PMO – it had to rectify its initial suggestion that the Prime Minister would have proposed a Tromelin-like ‘cogestion’ arrangement for the Chagos Archipelago to the US National Security Adviser, Dr Susan Rice, earlier this month in Washington DC. The Government Information Services (GIS) indicate that Dr Ramgoolam would have instead “proposed that Mauritius be involved in negotiations” due to start between the UK and the US about the renewal of the lease on the Chagos Archipelago ending in 2016. Does that sound feasible to you?

David Snoxell: I doubt there is a need for formal sit-down negotiations between the UK and US because officials on both sides have always had the opportunity to discuss the future of BIOT (Chagos Islands).

Relations between the two allies on security, intelligence and defence are naturally close. There are annual “Pol-Mil” talks, usually in October, in Washington at which the situation pertaining to BIOT is from time to time reviewed. I expect BIOT will be on the agenda this coming autumn. The 1966 UK/US agreement provides, after 29 December 2014, for termination or extension of the agreement for a further twenty years from 2016. This is also an opportunity to discuss modifications.

I think we can assume that the agreement will be rolled over, so the focus should be on what changes will be discussed. The UK can raise with the US the question of future sovereignty, although as the sovereign nation, the UK could also make its own decision and so inform the US.

But it is more likely that both sides will discuss the issue and reach an agreed conclusion. As the 1966 agreement set aside the entire territory for defence purposes discussions will include all aspects of BIOT. Of course it is clear that the 55 Outer Islands are not and never will be needed for defence.

* It would appear however that there might be a misinterpretation of the renewal process of the 1966 UK-US agreement. Opposition leader Paul Berenger has indicated that the Exchange of Notes relating to the UK-US agreement provides for its automatic renewal for another 20 years as from 2016 subject to any amendment that the two parties might wish to bring to the agreement. If such is indeed the case, there isn’t really any scope for Mauritius to join in the “negotiations”, isn’t it?

I agree that there is not really scope for Mauritius to be a party to such discussions since they will not be formal negotiations. Dr Ramgoolam is, however, fully entitled to put his views to both parties. Mauritian Prime Ministers have been doing so for many years. They may well, in confidence, have suggested potential options with either the US or the UK. That is diplomacy. But one would not expect to read about it in the press afterwards.

* The GIS adds (in its 5th August press release) that “Mauritius claims the right to participate in the negotiations while pledging commitment of not questioning the military base of Diego Garcia.” Wouldn’t it be fair to ask: What’s there to negotiate from what looks like a self-imposed posturing of willing subordination of Mauritius to US interests?

I don’t agree that Mauritius has ever subordinated its national interests to that of the US or the UK. Indeed successive governments have been single-minded and forthright in putting forward their positions on a range of issues, not least on the sovereignty of Chagos. Mauritius is quite right at this time to be raising its interests and concerns with the US and the UK, albeit separately, given the imminence of the date from which changes to the UK/US Agreement can formally be discussed.

So it is more about reminding the UK and US of Mauritius’ position on sovereignty and emphasising that Mauritius is a solid and reliable ally and a member of the Commonwealth, than it is about negotiation. Obviously this is the time to make suggestions which will help bring about a resolution of the sovereignty issue.

* Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright had apparently confided to a former Mauritian diplomat that she had obtained whatever she had come for within five minutes into her discussions with her Mauritian counterpart, who had also pledged commitment of not questioning the US military base of Diego Garcia. Isn’t Mauritius weakening its legitimate sovereignty claim over the Chagos by adopting such an accommodating stance towards the USA?

As regards the strength of the Mauritian claim to sovereignty this is not in doubt, although it has not yet been endorsed by an international court or the Security Council. The UN General Assembly, however, adopted Resolution 2066 in 1965 directing the UK “to take no action which would dismember the territory of Mauritius and violate its territorial integrity”. The African Union, the Non-Aligned Movement and SADC which include many Commonwealth countries, have strongly supported Mauritius’ right to territorial integrity.

Discussing a way forward with the UK, which could include co-management of the Outer Islands (e.g. environment, conservation, resources and the MPA, once the case is determined) or even co-sovereignty, does not undermine Mauritius’ claim. But clearly such an arrangement should be understood by both parties as a step towards eventual sovereignty. The Mauritian-French talks leading to a compromise over Tromelin is a good example for both countries to emulate.

Sovereignty has become such a vexed issue for both sides over the years that there needs to be confidence building measures along the way. Mauritius’ position on sovereignty is regarded as entirely legitimate since the UK has always said that it will return the islands to Mauritius when no longer required for defence purposes. That undertaking is recognition of the legitimacy of Mauritius’ claim.

* The apparent willing subordination to US interests might amount to a pragmatic realism on the part of Mauritius of the power relations at play in this matter. For the USA seems intent on digging its heels in Diego Garcia and has in the past subtly put across to Mauritius the consequences that might result from a review of trade agreements pertaining to Mauritian textile exports to the American market. What’s your take on that?

I was not aware that the US had used trade or textile agreements to put pressure on Mauritius to accept the American ‘occupation’ of Diego Garcia. Nor would there be any need to do so since successive Mauritian governments have accepted the need for the continuation of the US base in the defence of western interests, which includes Mauritius.

* The recourse of Mauritius to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to determine whether Britain had the right to declare the Chagos marine protected area has been qualified by the Mauritian government as the “next logical step” in view of its unsuccessful negotiations with the British government during the last 40 years. Even if the Tribunal will not be called upon to consider Mauritius’ long-standing sovereignty claim on the Chagos Archipelago, what will be, in your view, the consequences of the ruling the Tribunal one way or the other?

There have not been any negotiations with Mauritius on sovereignty over the past 40 years. The UK has consistently avoided requests to discuss sovereignty. Although the Mauritian case at the international Arbitral Tribunal is about the legitimacy of the Marine Protected Area (MPA), declared by the then Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, on 1 April 2010, the underlying motif is sovereignty.

Mauritius brought the case because the MPA had been a unilateral decision which did not take into account Mauritian interests, such as traditional fishing rights, and partly out of frustration that the UK continued to avoid discussing sovereignty. UK rights of reply in the UN and other international organisations always repeated the mantra that “We remain open to discussions regarding arrangements governing BIOT or the future of the Territory”.

If the Tribunal rules in Mauritius’ favour this will be a powerful, though not decisive influence, and probably lead to dialogue and compromise. But even if it does not I can envisage that FCO officials would want to open discussions with Mauritius on the future of BIOT, including sovereignty. A similar situation applied to the Chagossians. Their case at the European Court of Human Rights was ruled inadmissible in 2012. The Foreign Secretary immediately announced that he would take stock of the policies towards resettlement which then led to the current feasibility study.

* Former Foreign minister Anil Gayan has earlier stated that instead of going to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, Mauritius should have instead sought to obtain an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice on the excision of the Chagos Archipelago by Britain in 1965 – even if the UK does not recognize the jurisdiction of this Court. An advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice in favour of Mauritius would have an extraordinary impact on international relations and also at the level of the Security Council of the United Nations, he said, “because nobody goes against an advisory opinion”. What do you think?

The idea of seeking an advisory opinion of the ICJ was suggested by Sir Ian Brownlie, QC in 2004 but there was a drawback. In order for the issue to be referred to the ICJ a UN General Assembly resolution with a two-thirds majority was required.

It would have been a huge undertaking for the Mauritian Foreign Ministry and Mission in New York, whose resources are clearly limited, to lobby, in the face of British opposition, over a hundred states to vote for such a resolution and to be sure of obtaining a two-thirds majority.

I suspect that was the main obstacle to taking this idea forward. An advisory opinion of the ICJ, in favour of Mauritius, if that is what the Court were to decide, would be highly significant though not enforceable.

* The Chagos Islands All-party Parliamentary Group (APPG) has pressed for a settlement of this “Cold War legacy” and for a resettlement feasibility study, now in progress by KPMG. The study is to be concluded in January, according to the APPG, “in time for Ministers to make decisions, before the election, on resettlement and on the future of the Islands”. What are your expectations from that feasibility study?

I expect the feasibility study to conclude that resettlement, especially on Diego Garcia, is viable and that conservation interests can be protected. It then comes down to cost, the source of funding and the number of Chagossians wanting to return for settlement. I don’t expect there to be any real defence and security objections.

* As a matter of fact, the granting of British citizenship to Chagossians and the insistence of the United Kingdom on the right to self-determination raises questions about its motives, given that Mrs Thatcher had used the argument of the right to self-determination of the inhabitants of the Falkland Islands to justify the dispatch of British troops in 1982, and the holding of a referendum in the Falklands in 2013. Aren’t these questions justified?

Those Chagossians who return for resettlement should have the right to express their preference as to whether they want the UK or Mauritius to be the sovereign power. The principle of self-determination does not necessarily trump the principle of territorial integrity, especially if only a few Chagossians decide to resettle. In any case there will be too few to make independence a viable option.

The Falklands analogy is false because the situation is entirely different. The Chagos Islands were until 1965 a dependency of Mauritius; Falklands was never part of Argentina. You could argue that any referendum on the future of Chagos should include all Mauritians living on Mauritian soil, since if the UK had not detached the Chagos Archipelago it would today be a part of Mauritius.

* You have mentioned in your June article for ‘Conservative Home’ that “although not part of the (resettlement) study, Ministers will also consider the UK’s long-standing commitment to restore sovereignty to Mauritius when the Territory is no longer needed for defence. Since only one of the 56 islands, Diego Garcia is required there is no reason why an accommodation with Mauritius should not be reached. Do you think the latter can be envisaged or are we in for a very long haul given the increasing reliance of the West on the Diego base?

As regards Diego Garcia, it would not be surprising if the US preferred British to Mauritian sovereignty, given the enormous importance of the American base. Realistically I do not expect any change over the sovereignty of Diego in the foreseeable future but I see no reason why there should not be progress next year on transferring the Outer Islands to Mauritius.

FCO Ministers have indicated that following the feasibility study all issues concerning the future of the Islands will be considered in good time for decisions to be made before the election in May. Mauritius must therefore, in the next six months, focus and concentrate its diplomacy on winning international and British parliamentary support for Mauritian sovereignty and the right of the Chagossians to return. There will not be a similar opportunity again.

* Published in print edition on 23 August 2014

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