Interview David Snoxell – Coordinator of the Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group, UK

“Mauritius’ claim to sovereignty has been much strengthened by the Tribunal Award”

* ‘I think that the British Government would take serious note of a UN General Assembly resolution with a two thirds majority which supported Mauritius’

David Snoxell, former British High Commissioner to Mauritius (2000-04), is Coordinator of the Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). He has been an ardent advocate of the Chagossians’s right to return to Diego Garcia. He made considerable efforts while he was British High Commissioner to Mauritius at the turn of the new century to make smooth an acceptable return to Mauritian sovereignty of the Chagos.

He has worked, after becoming Coordinator of the APPG, to find common ground to reconcile Britain’s and Mauritius’ interests in the Chagos. The issue has remained unresolved the last 48 years. He says in this interview that the amount of diplomatic effort that should have been made to reach a mutually satisfying solution to the matter has been absent. At a time the government of Mauritius seems to be setting a deadline for settling this long outstanding issue, with Mauritius proposing to go to the UN General Assembly for a majority vote and to the International Court of Justice against the UK, the question is whether it would not, in the light of the favourable decision delivered by the UN Arbitral Court recently, have paid off for Mauritius to obtain the support of the 47-member APPG, some of whom may be sympathetic to the cause of Mauritius and could have helped reach a honourable settlement for both sides.

* How would you expect the British government to respond to the request of the current Mauritian government, as announced by Sir Anerood Jugnauth in Parliament here, last week, as regards the return of the “Chagos Archipelago by the UK to the effective control of Mauritius by a precise date” as well as to his proposals for the “joint management of the Archipelago pending its return to Mauritius”? In the absence of any response, he added, “Mauritius would take appropriate actions at the international level”, including the UN and the International Court of Justice…

Unfortunately I think the British Government will ignore this demand and fight it out if Mauritius takes the issue to the UN General Assembly in September. Mauritius will need a two thirds majority vote for a resolution referring the dispute to the ICJ for an advisory opinion. I would expect the international community largely to support Mauritius but it will place a heavy burden on Mauritian diplomatic missions to lobby 193 member states and secure the required majority.

No doubt the resolution would refer to the Award to Mauritius by the UNCLOS Tribunal, which upheld the legally binding rights of Mauritius to eventual sovereignty of the Chagos Islands, and the ICJ would take this into account in rendering their advisory opinion. It should be remembered that an advisory opinion is not legally binding but would be a powerful endorsement of the Mauritian position at the highest legal level of the UN, assuming the ICJ supported Mauritius. Joint management of at least the Outer Islands would be a positive confidence building measure towards transfer of sovereignty.

* The statement and the tone of Sir Anerood Jugnauth in Parliament translate a feeling of exasperation vis-a-vis the UK’s attitude towards Mauritius’ sovereignty claim on the Chagos Archipelago. But, as Coordinator of the Chagos Islands All-party Parliamentary Group (APPG), which has been pressing for many years now for a settlement of this “Cold War legacy”, would you say that the approach adopted by Jugnauth’s government is the right one?

After being strung along for nearly 16 years by the Foreign Office, SAJ had little alternative if he wants to see the issue settled in his lifetime. Perhaps the tone might have been more diplomatic and the deadline longer! Perhaps also the British Government should first have been asked if they could see an alternative to taking the matter to the UN and the ICJ. Threatening language tends to be rather unhelpful in seeking solutions.

* We have earlier, in previous interviews, spoken about the drawback involved in seeking an advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the excision of the Chagos Archipelago by Britain in 1965, namely the requirement of a UN General Assembly (GA) resolution with a two-thirds majority for the issue to be referred to the ICJ. A favourable opinion of the ICJ as well as another UN resolution would be significant but neither would be enforceable, so what can Mauritius do about all this?

This time Mauritius’ claim to sovereignty has been much strengthened by the Tribunal Award. I think that the British Government would take serious note of a GA resolution with a two thirds majority which supported Mauritius. At that stage they might be willing to negotiate even before the ICJ considered it. If not, and the ICJ also supported Mauritius, I don’t believe that the British Government would hold out any longer. They would negotiate a settlement.

* Except for the ruling of the Arbitral Tribunal in favour of Mauritius, diplomacy hasn’t worked either: there have not been any negotiations with Mauritius on sovereignty over the past 40 years, the UK has consistently avoided requests to discuss sovereignty. It does not seem the UK would be willing to let go of the Chagos Archipelago any time soon?

Yes diplomacy has been in short supply. For me, as a former diplomat, it is hard to understand why FCO officials continue to oppose even discussing the issues let alone resolving them. That surely is the purpose of diplomacy. My feeling is that the UK will discharge its commitment to return the Islands to Mauritius, I venture to suggest sooner rather than later.

* What about winning British parliamentary support for Mauritian sovereignty on the Chagos Archipelago?

Little effort has been made by Mauritius to win British parliamentary support since the APPG was established in December 2008 although Dr Ramgoolam had said he wished to address the Group. The APPG has 47 members with representatives from all ten political parties in Parliament. Jeremy Corbyn, now the Leader of the Labour Party, is its honorary president. There are members who support Mauritius but the current focus has to be on resettlement since the Government aims to give its decision before the summer recess at the end of July. We shall also have a judgment from the Supreme Court by then.

* You had mentioned in a previous interview that “it would not be surprising if the US preferred British to Mauritian sovereignty, given the enormous importance of the American base”. The importance of the base has grown over the years given the new circumstances in this part of the world, so any change over the sovereignty of Diego in the foreseeable future might not be envisaged. It also does not seem there has been any progress made as regards the transfer back of the 55 Outer Islands to Mauritius. Would this deadlocked situation suggest that Mauritius is not following the correct strategy to get back its own?

I don’t expect a transfer of sovereignty over Diego Garcia in the foreseeable future but there is no reason why discussions for a gradual transfer of sovereignty over the Outer Islands could not have started a decade ago. Even if the US was opposed following 9/11 (2001) I doubt the Americans would any longer have a problem since neither they nor the UK need the Outer Islands for defence.

* At a time, the UK has put on the table a proposal to disengage from its next-door EU, what considerations would it be having, on the other hand, to hold on to a remote territory in the Indian Ocean which it excised from Mauritius in the pre-independence period?

The British Government has not made such a proposal. David Cameron and his government are strongly behind remaining in the EU. The issue will be decided in a referendum of the British people on 23 June. Of course the Government is almost entirely focused on the referendum campaign, so I doubt there will be any movement on either resettlement or sovereignty until after then. Hence it would be sensible if SAJ’s deadline were extended to the end of July.

* How, do you feel, this whole matter will resolve itself for the UK? What will it gain by continuing to pitch the former residents of Chagos to overturn the legitimate claim Mauritius has to its unfairly excised territory?

The long term resolution is that the Chagossians are allowed to return to their homeland and that the UK engages with Mauritius in agreeing to a staged process for a resumption of sovereignty by Mauritius over the Chagos Islands. I expected both to have happened while I was British High Commissioner to Mauritius (2000-04).

Of course Chagos Islanders, who are also Mauritian, especially those who decide to resettle, should be consulted in that process but the final decision is for the two Governments. Had the UK not excised Chagos from Mauritius in 1965 the islands would have remained part of Mauritius and the people would have continued to live there after Independence as Mauritian citizens. Their prolonged exile remains, as Olivier Bancoult said in a recent letter to PM Cameron, “a source of worldwide shame on the UK and a blot on the UK’s claim to respect human rights”.

Only when resettlement and sovereignty are resolved will Anglo-Mauritian relations be on a footing of mutual respect and equality.

* Published in print edition on 27 May 2016

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