David Snoxell – Coordinator of the Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group
“The APPG has argued for a separate agreement on the future of the base on Diego Garcia between the UK, Mauritius and the US”
What happens next after the UN’s International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion on the unlawfulness of the continuing detachment of Chagos from Mauritius by the UK? However significant it may be, the ICJ Opinion is not enforceable. If we go by the official response from the UK government to date, it does not seem the British government would be willing to let go of the Chagos Archipelago any time soon.
David Snoxell, former British High Commissioner to Mauritius & Coordinator of the Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group, says that “clearly the way forward can only be through discussion, compromise and negotiation, as is the case with all political disputes”. He welcomes the fact that “UN General Assembly will now continue to be fully seized of Chagos issues and maintain the pressure on the UK to settle them”. As regards the US base on Diego Garcia, he says the All-Party Parliamentary Group, has argued for a separate agreement on the future of the base on Diego Garcia between the UK, Mauritius and the US. “As confidence between the parties increases through diplomatic consultations I don’t see why the US should not become accustomed to and be at ease with the idea of sovereignty of Diego Garcia being transferred to Mauritius.” Read on:
* How does the Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) react to the ruling of the UN’s International Court of Justice with regard to the legal status of the Chagos Islands?
Members have not yet met to discuss it but I would imagine that, based on their previous views and the Group’s statements, they will welcome the ICJ Advisory Opinion as providing the basis for a negotiated settlement with Mauritius. The Group’s 73rd meeting is on 24 April. There are currently 53 members from all 7 political parties. In a short debate in the House of Lords on Tuesday (26 Feb) APPG members who spoke urged the Government to seize this opportunity to engage in serious discussions with Mauritius for an overall settlement of the issues.
* Almost 40 years of diplomacy have not been able to achieve what has been obtained from the ICJ. Moreover there is no indication that the UK would budge from its earlier stand with regard to Mauritius’ claim of sovereignty over the Chagos and the resettlement of the Chagos islanders. What do you think?
I am doubtful that on the UK side there has been any real attempt over the last 40 years to use diplomacy to achieve a solution. Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) has continued to maintain that Chagos will be returned to Mauritius when no longer needed for defence purposes. The ICJ Opinion on the unlawfulness of the continuing detachment of Chagos from Mauritius will be a powerful incentive to the UK to have serious discussions with Mauritius.
There is no immediate indication, but we have only just received the Advisory Opinion, that HMG will budge though I am optimistic that with mounting pressure on the FCO they will take a magnanimous and constructive approach.
* If we go by the only official response from the UK government as expressed by a Foreign Office spokesperson, who stated: “This is an advisory opinion, not a judgment… The defence facilities on the British Indian Ocean Territory help to protect people here in Britain and around the world from terrorist threats, organised crime and piracy”, it does not seem the UK would be willing to let go of the Chagos Archipelago any time soon?
I don’t think you should go by this immediate response which I agree is disappointing. The FCO response in the Commons on Tuesday was petulant and lacking in commonsense and diplomacy. You need to make some allowance for the fact that the UK is not used to being found in the wrong in international law and violating human rights, by the World’s Court. I accept we need to develop some humility now that we are no longer an imperial power!
* You had mentioned in an earlier interview that “UK Ministers are rarely in the driving seat of policy towards Chagos. They are more often unwilling passengers, gagged and bound in the backseat. The problem is that with highly diverse and complex historical issues new Ministers are not in a position to challenge the advice from officials, and that is why the UK’s Chagos policy has remained static”. This is not likely to change, is it?
I said that some time ago though I still find the analogy relevant.
Policy making on Chagos has for decades been disastrous. If the UK had been more amenable towards Mauritius and less overbearing towards the UN General Assembly, Chagos would not have gone to the ICJ.
“The APPG has argued for a separate agreement on the future of the base on Diego Garcia between the UK, Mauritius and the US. As confidence between the parties increases through diplomatic consultations I don’t see why the US should not become accustomed to and be at ease with the idea of sovereignty of Diego Garcia being transferred to Mauritius. It makes sense to start with the 53 Outer Islands and see how that goes first…”
Moreover there have been five major policy failures – the 2002 feasibility study; the 2004 Orders in Council overturning the High Court judgement; the 2010 declaration of the Marine Protected Area; the 2016 rejection of the KPMG feasibility study; and the automatic rollover for a further twenty years of the 1966 UK/US Agreement on 30 December 2016. The APPG had argued that a condition of rollover should be a commitment by both parties to support and facilitate resettlement.
This litany of policy failures has its origins in the subterfuge of the 60s and early 70s which was due to a combination of a culture of colonial superiority and secrecy, a disregard for ethical and moral values and low public awareness.
In recent years there has been a lack of political will and foresight, against a background of successive international crises, low level handling of the issues, lack of ministerial engagement, official zeal, defending past mistakes, buying time through the legal process and a constant turnover of staff and ministers. There have been 14 ministers responsible for BIOT since 1998.
* You had also mentioned in that 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?
The APPG has argued for a separate agreement on the future of the base on Diego Garcia between the UK, Mauritius and the US. As confidence between the parties increases through diplomatic consultations I don’t see why the US should not become accustomed to and be at ease with the idea of sovereignty of Diego Garcia being transferred to Mauritius. It makes sense to start with the 53 Outer Islands and see how that goes first.
* What is the view of Chagossians in the UK and how do they and those in Mauritius benefit from the ICJ Advisory Opinion?
There are mixed views amongst Chagossians depending upon whether or not they would like to resettle in Chagos. Some in the UK see the ICJ Opinion as against their interests which mainly concern family reunification, visas and UK citizenship as they will prefer to remain in the UK rather than settle in Chagos.
In Mauritius Chagossians seem pleased with the ICJ result, especially Olivier Bancoult and the CRG. They see that while the UK may remain opposed to resettlement Mauritius, as your Prime Minister reiterated after the judgment, will support and facilitate resettlement of Chagossians where ever they live, once sovereignty has been restored to Mauritius. It is now obvious that Chagossians stand a far higher chance of going back to Chagos under Mauritian rather than UK sovereignty.
* A favourable opinion of the ICJ as well as another UN resolution will be significant but neither will be enforceable, so what can Mauritius do about all this?
That is true but the only way the UN is able to enforce its will is through the Security Council which has enforcement powers and that doesn’t always work either. In any case it would require the agreement of all five Permanent Members. The UK and US are Permanent Members. Clearly the way forward can only be through discussion, compromise and negotiation, as is the case with all political disputes. But it is good that the General Assembly will now continue to be fully seized of Chagos issues and maintain the pressure on the UK to settle them.
* What about winning British parliamentary support for Mauritian sovereignty on the Chagos Archipelago?
This would be difficult in the current preoccupation of Parliament over Brexit. Chexit will not get anything like the air time required. However there are many Parliamentarians who support Mauritius’ position. This was evident when Pravind Jugnauth addressed the APPG in April last year.
I suggest that the Mauritian High Commissioner be charged with building support with Parliamentarians. He has been invited to meet the APPG. Most countries have APPGs devoted to enhancing Anglo-‘Ruritanian’ relations. There used to be an Anglo-Mauritian APPG.
* Published in print edition on 1 March 2019