“I think the Conservatives would fully accept that sovereignty over the Chagos should be passed on to Mauritius”

Interview David Snoxell

David Snoxell spent the last week in Mauritius, giving lectures at the invitation of the University of Mauritius, the Société de l’Histoire de l’Ile Maurice and the English Speaking Union in the context of the commemoration of the bicentenary of the British conquest of Ile de France and what it means to Britain and to Mauritius. As it happens, the Princess Royal was also here for that purpose, and it unfortunately coincided with the WikiLeaks leaks, which have somewhat eclipsed everything else going on in Mauritius, not least the royal visit.“That is sad really. What has happened over Chagos Islands really has nothing whatever to do with the royal family or the Queen – they are above politics,” said David Snoxell to the Mauritius Times, adding that the fact that Mauritius has a dispute with the British government over the Chagos does not really affect Mauritius’ relationship with the royal family, indeed with the British public. What we have here is a dispute between a tiny group of officials in the Foreign Office and the Mauritian Government over two main issues: first, the return of the Chagossians to the Chagos Islands, and the restoration of their right to return; second, the long-held commitment by the British government to cede or to return sovereignty to Mauritius when the Chagos will no longer be needed for defence purposes.” 


* You wouldn’t have wished to be in the shoes of the British High Commissioner in Mauritius presently during these particularly embarrassing WikiLeaks-times, would you? The more so when the host country’s PM qualifies the UK government’s position (he talked in terms of “indifference” towards the Chagossian exiles as a “crime to humanity” and called them “hypocrites”?

I think that’s fair. Nobody would want to be in the (Nick) Leake’s shoes at this time. There is nothing really he can say or do. He is here, as I was during my tenure as High Commissioner, to promote the views of the British government, and all he can do is either not comment or try to make some defence of what has happened.

As for the words used by the Mauritian Prime Minister, I am not surprised that he feels very strongly about these issues given that statements made by the British government over time have misled him. Some of the language he used perhaps is a bit on the strong side. I do think he had a point in qualifying the UK government’s position towards the Chagossians in terms of “indifference” – that has indeed been the case, though I am not sure that is still the case.

We should bear in mind that these leaks actually refer to telegrams from the US embassy in London to Washington, which were sent in May 2009, that is a whole year before the coalition government came to power. I get the feeling that the attitudes of the present coalition government, at least those of politicians towards parliamentarians, are quite different from those of the preceding one and they want to bring about some kind of settlement in the long term. I feel they feel more supportive towards Mauritius. I am not very sure whether the attitude of officials who control policy have changed from when those telegrams were sent.

* It does not look like it has changed. Hasn’t the British government’s position towards the Chagos issue been more or less consistent down the years? And quoting from The Times (4 Dec 2010), we have the islanders’ lawyer, Richard Gifford, saying, “The devious misrepresentations of the Sixties and Seventies continue today, as does the crude racism.”…

I think you have a strong point there. In fact, if you look at what is said in that particular leak, the language used (taken from a minute written by Denis Greenhill in 1966) is very reminiscent of that used in 1965, as for example to characterize the Chagossians as ‘Man Fridays’. That’s unacceptable, and I suspect that the official who used it was actually trying to make a joke, but you simply cannot use that kind of language in relationships with foreign governments. This sort of slur, with its colonial and almost racial undertones, really has no place in 20th century Britain.

I was also shaken by the cavalier attitude revealed in these leaks towards Parliament. The position of officials in any government is to advise their ministers, they do not make policy; it is ministers who do so on the recommendations of officials. Their position towards Parliament is to advise ministers as to how to respond to parliamentary questions and during debates; they have a duty to be as helpful, as constructive and as positive as they can be towards parliamentarians. That duty is laid down in instructions to all officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). What these leaks tend to reveal was an aspect of cynicism towards the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), of which I am the coordinator, as if its views did not count for anything. Let me say that the APPG is actually a rather powerful parliamentary group, with 42 members, 4 of whom have been FCO ministers. Currently we have 3 former FCO ministers, with two of them particularly well known – Baroness Kinnock, who was Minister of State in the Foreign Office until the election, and Lord Luce, who was a Conservative minister in the FCO in the 1980s and who negotiated the compensation for the Chagossians in 1982. The Group also had as one of its members the Speaker of the House of Commons; another was Vince Cable, a very senior minister until this day. In fact there are still five members of the APPG who are members of the current coalition government. To dismiss this Group as being persistent – yes, of course, it has been persistent and rightly so – is to treat Parliament with mépris, contempt.

* Navin Ramgoolam charged former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and his Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, with bad faith because of their failure to keep the promise made at the last Commonwealth Summit in Trinidad at the end of last year to consult the Mauritian government about the plan to turn Chagos into a marine protected area (MPA). One would have thought the word of a Prime Minister would do, but from what you are saying it’s the FCO officials who are calling the shots in this matter. Is that right?

I can well understand Navin Ramgoolam’s feelings towards the British government of the day. This because certain people who were present at the meeting between Gordon Brown and Navin Ramgoolam have confirmed privately that Gordon Brown did say to the Mauritian PM that he would suspend the MPA and put it on the backburner. I imagined that Gordon Brown intended what he said to Navin Ramgoolam, but unfortunately that commitment was set aside in the Foreign Office as if it had not been made.

To understand policy making in the FCO is quite difficult. There are a lot of inputs from different people, but when it comes to the Chagos it has been controlled by a very small group of officials – probably three or four – and their legal adviser. That was the case in my day, when I was Deputy Commissioner of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) in the 1990s, so I know how policy is made and recommended to ministers. What we don’t know now is what other policies were recommended to ministers and whether they were given a choice of other viable policies. I fear that a number of officials very much control the policy of the government of the day, however I wouldn’t be surprised if those WikiLeaks do not jolt the government into taking much more control of the Chagos issues. Indeed the Foreign Secretary said at the time of assuming office that he wanted to revisit all the policies towards the Chagos and that he was reviewing them. As yet we have not yet seen what the result of that review is.

But to come back to Gordon Brown’s failure to keep the promise he made at the last Commonwealth Summit in Trinidad, I would like to draw attention to what the WikiLeaks reveal: a sense of extreme cynicism on the part of officials in the preparation of the Marine Protected Area. They clearly were using the MPA as a sham to deprive the Chagossians of the right to return. They also no doubt believed that the MPA was good for Britain, for Mauritius and for the world in general – that is true, and I suspect that ministers of the last government, especially Gordon Brown and David Milliband, wanted to leave a legacy in terms of the protection of the environment rather than a device for depriving the Chagossians of their right to return.

* Would you say it’s an opportune time right now in the wake of the WikiLeaks to make the right moves to get the British government to the negotiating table?

It’s not for me to advise the Mauritian government on the policies it should adopt or the legal channels it would want to use, but it is indeed an opportune time for Mauritius to pursue these issues in the international arena through the UN, the African Union, possibly through the International Court of Justice, and other means at its disposal to bring home to the British government that it should listen to the views of not only the Mauritian but of many other governments, not least the members of the Commonwealth, about these issues.

The Mauritian government has always down the years made its views known about sovereignty to the UN General Assembly. But what as far as I know it has never done is to take it beyond the UN General Assembly. I don’t think that Mauritius took it beyond statements even when it was a member of the Security Council. Now there are certain legal channels which Mauritius could consider, one of which is to seek an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), for which Mauritius would need to get a resolution of the UN General Assembly, asking the ICJ to give an advisory opinion. That would require an enormous amount of diplomatic and legal efforts.

* Why would you think the Mauritian government did not go beyond statements?

If we go back to the time when Paul Bérenger was Prime Minister, I think they had hoped it would not be necessary. They instead hoped that following the Orders in Council 2004, when the Mauritian government had made its position very clearly to the British government, negotiations could take place without the need for recourse to international legal channels, including the ICJ. I think that Navin Ramgoolam, who took over a year later, equally felt that the best way forward was to negotiate with the British. That was in 2005, and not much seems to have happened in the last five years.

* What about the Americans in that equation? Aren’t they who can really untie the knot?

Personally, I do not think the US plays anything like the media and indeed the Foreign Office would have you believe. As far as I can tell, in fact I have had a lot of contacts as coordinator of the APPG with the Americans, they have no real problem with resettlement of the outer islands, that is 140 miles from the base, nor with Mauritius’ sovereignty over at least the outer islands. They may have strong views though with regard to Diego Garcia. The best way forward, I think, is to initially come to an agreement with Britain over the future of the outer islands and to leave the question of Diego aside until the question of the outer islands is resolved.

* In concrete terms, what is it that the Mauritian government could try to achieve in the present circumstances? Get the British government to freeze its plan for the MPA? Forget Diego for the time being, and bring the British to agree to jointly manage the Chagos with Mauritius just as the French has done with regard to Tromelin?

I would not use the word ‘forget’, because I think Mauritius’ claim to Diego Garcia remains just as valid. And let’s not forget that every British government since 1965 has made the commitment to return the islands, including Diego, when they are no longer needed for defense purposes. That indeed is an acknowledgement by Britain of Mauritius’ claim to sovereignty.

I also think the French have offered us a good example with the ‘co-gestion’ of Tromelin with Mauritius. Both France and Mauritius have demonstrated that it is possible for mature states to come to an agreement like that. I strongly suspect from what I have heard that the President Sarkozy and his government think that is the way Britain should also go with regard to the future of the Chagos.

* What is going to happen next especially after the WikiLeaks revelations?

Frankly, I do not know. But I think this is the time for the British Parliament to become much more involved. The House of Commons already had a number of emergency debates; the APPG have asked endless PQs and they also want to have a wider debate on all issues pertaining to the Chagos in the new year. There will be another short debate on 14 December in the House of Lords. Only on Thursday last, Lord Luce brought up in the House of Lords the question of the Chagos islands as a major human rights issue. Lord Luce reminded the members of the Lords Article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile”. He made this point quite strongly; the minister took note of what Lord Luce said and did not comment further. Clearly this is a human rights issue that remains unresolved, and which makes Britain’s stand on human rights look rather hypocritical. We are always promoting human rights, but here we have a human rights issue for which we are responsible, and all we are doing is perpetuating the exile of the Chagossians from their homeland.

* Are you optimistic about what will come out of the European Court of Human Rights?

I suppose it could go either way, but it would be very difficult, especially in the light of the WikiLeaks, to conceive the European Court of Human Rights not finding Britain in breach of four of the fundamental Articles of the Convention. Personally I would expect the European Court to find Britain in violation of those rights, and it will then order a solution which would probably include the payment of compensation to the Chagossians. The British government would then, I think, accept and acknowledge the judgment of the Court and restore the right of return. Indeed I think that’s what the British government is waiting for at the moment. If however finds in their favour, then the FC will be emboldened to negotiate a settlement with the Chagossians…

* … which may go against the interests of Mauritius, especially with regard to its claim of sovereignty over the Chagos?

No, I don’t think so. I think the Foreign Office, if they do win that judgment, will negotiate with Mauritius as well an overall settlement that will include all the parties. I do not know what shape this will take, but the very obvious result should be the restoration of the right to return of the Chagossians, a further study into the practicalities of return, discussions with the Chagossians about how many would like to return, a timetable agreed with Mauritius about the return of sovereignty, and an agreement with Mauritius to go jointly to UNESCO to have the Chagos islands declared a world heritage site.

* You mentioned in your lecture on ‘The Capture of Ile de France to the Chagos Archipelago’ that the Indian Ocean is today of immense strategic importance. Do you see the UK make way on the question of sovereignty?

Yes, despite the fact that Diego Garcia is a most important American base in the Indian Ocean, indeed almost in the world. The fact that Mauritius has the sovereignty of the outer islands – we really are not talking about Diego at this point – would have no effect whatsoever on the security and management of the base by the Americans. I cannot say whether Diego would at that point continue to be British or whether there would be an arrangement, some sort of co-sovereignty over Diego Garcia (that was once talked about in the Falkland context). There are permutations to take that forward… Anyway, Mauritius is an ally of Britain and of the USA, so I can’t see any real problem with Mauritius’ claim to sovereignty over the Chagos islands.

I would like to add that the present British government, especially because it is partly Conservative, actually believes in honouring Britain’s commitment towards Mauritius — although some members of the government might actually prefer British sovereignty to continue because they would not wish to see the overseas territories of the UK reduced anymore than we have already. But I don’t think that is a real obstacle when looked at rationally and logically; I think the Conservatives would fully accept that the sovereignty should be passed on to Mauritius.

* Published in print edition on 10 December 2010

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