“The only way out of the Chagos tragedy is diplomacy, negotiation, and compromise”

Interview: David Snoxell, Coordinator – The Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group

* ‘Mauritius strongly supports the continuation of the UK/US base. It is inconceivable that Mauritius would make the islands available to China’

* UK/Mauritius negotiations: ‘What remains is the more complex issue of how to ensure that the UK and US have confidence that the security and effective operation of the UK/US base will be maintained’

David Snoxell, needs no introduction as he has been a privileged witness, actor or advisor on the long humanitarian, legal and constitutional battles for the Mauritius claim to Chagos sovereignty, either as British High Commissioner or as Coordinator of the UK Parliament’s Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group. He offers valuable insight into the final steps towards resolution of the “Chagos tragedy” through diplomacy and compromises that would push through the necessity to implement Mauritius sovereignty while not undermining the current UK/US confidence in a continuation of the US Diego aero-naval base for regional security purposes. If the UK Foreign Minister’s time table for completion of the many complex issues by early 2023 was overly optimistic, his view is that, despite some opposition from motivated quarters, most if not all issues related to Chagos sovereignty transfer to Mauritius could be satisfactorily resolved within a couple of years.

Mauritius Times: We learnt last week about a coup engineered by a group of Tory MPs to take over the Chagos Islands All Party Parliamentary Group, perceived to have been controlled by “supporters of the FCDO” that would be planning “to give the islands away to Mauritius”. The coup’s organisers say, “giving the islands away will cut crucial access to the Indian and Pacific Oceans and give China undue influence in the region,” and they want the Mauritius-UK negotiations to stop. This looks like a rearguard action to scuttle any agreement that may be in the offing. What’s your take on that?

David Snoxell: What has been dubbed a “coup” was in fact an election of the Chairman by Parliamentarians. This process happens each year at the Annual General Meeting. For the last year the APPG has had a Labour Chairman together with vice-chairs from other parties. This year there was a much increased presence of Conservative MPs who voted in a new Conservative Chair, Henry Smith who was a vice-chair and has a large Chagossian community in his constituency.

It is normal practice to have a member of the party in government as the chairman of an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). The other 3 vice-chairs elected this year are from the Labour, SNP, and Lib-Dem parties. Members of the APPG have a range of views concerning the future of the Chagos. They are wholly supportive of the right of return for the exiled Chagossians but views differ as to whether this should take place under British or Mauritian control. Most of the 52 members support a negotiated settlement with Mauritius to include resettlement and security for the base on Diego Garcia.

* The China bogey has been canvassed earlier by former PM Boris Johnson, who stated to the Daily Mail, last September, that “Britain is surrendering UK-owned territory the Chagos Islands to a close ally of China.” It’s an “utterly spineless” decision to abandon the islands, he said. Johnson’s motives are clear, but the question really is whether he can influence the British government to turn the clock back in case any progress has indeed been achieved on the Chagos issue. What do you think?

When he was Foreign Secretary in 2016, Boris Johnson met PM Sir Anerood Jugnauth at the UN and agreed to talks about the future of the Chagos Islands. It is unlikely that today his views carry any weight with Rishi Sunak or the new foreign secretary David Cameron.

It is inevitable that there are some British politicians, academics and news reporters who see China as a major security threat to the UK. It is perhaps not surprising that they see any change in the status of Diego Garcia as a threat to security, especially when it concerns the return of the territory to Mauritius after nearly 60 years under British control.

The current UK/Mauritius negotiations address the exercise of sovereignty, including the base on Diego Garcia, the long-term future of which can only be secured by an agreement. Mauritius strongly supports the continuation of the UK/US base. Its closest ties are with India, not China, and it maintains excellent relations with the UK, US, and France. It is inconceivable that Mauritius would make the islands available to China or prioritise its relations with China over those with the US and UK.

The US fully supports a negotiated settlement to this long-standing dispute. The ICJ decision and the overwhelming UNGA resolution endorsing it makes an agreement on the basis of international law necessary and inevitable.

* It’s interesting to note that the Daily Mail appears to be the only paper in the UK to talk about the US’s alleged concerns about the transfer of the Diego Garcia base. Sam Greenhill, its Chief Reporter wrote in its 22 Sep 2023 edition that “Washington has been increasingly concerned by the growing relationship between Mauritius and China,” and “the (transfer) plan has triggered ‘serious concerns’ in the White House…” The suspicion here is that this line is being fed by the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, which is known to have a long-standing objection to handing over the archipelago. Your opinion?

The US Administration is firmly behind the negotiations although there may be some in Congress who are sceptical and would like the islands to remain under British control. There is no evidence that Washington has concerns over Mauritius’ long-standing economic relationship with China.

Mauritius however is not a close ally of China but is of the UK, US and EU. The Foreign Office is fully behind the negotiations and probably recommended as much to the new Government in September 2022.

* In a shock move this week, ex-PM David Cameron has been appointed by Rishi Sunak as Foreign Secretary. Cameron is not known to have been favourable to Mauritius’ claim of sovereignty over the Chagos and to any deal with Mauritius. Do you think he’ll pursue the policy of negotiating a settlement with Mauritius, or would a decision in that regard be taken at a higher level?

Since Cameron stepped down as PM in July 2016 the position of the Chagos Islands in international law has become clear following the ICJ Advisory Opinion (2019), the UNGA resolution endorsing it, and the ITLOS judgment (2021) on the delimitation of the maritime boundary between Chagos (as part of Mauritius) and the Maldives.

I do not expect David Cameron to diverge from the policy of his predecessor and of the Prime Minister which is to uphold international law and bring the UK/Mauritius negotiations to a successful conclusion. 

* The UK/Mauritius negotiations were due to conclude early this year. Why is there such a delay?

When the negotiations were announced on 3 November 2022, I thought the comprehensive agenda was overly ambitious to reach agreement by early this year.

I expect most of the issues have now been sorted out but what remains is the more complex issue of how to ensure that the UK and US have confidence that the security and effective operation of the UK/US base will be maintained as and when control of the territory is transferred to Mauritius.

I can see no insurmountable problems with beginning to transfer the MPA and the Outer Islands to Mauritius and establishing a trial resettlement for Chagossians who wish to return.

* There is also opposition to the negotiations from some Chaogssians living in the UK. Why is that so?

I am not surprised that some Chagossians now living in the UK would prefer Chagos to remain British. They are mainly second and third generation and see the UK as their homeland but nonetheless still want restoration of their right to return to the homeland of their ancestors and to visit the islands whenever they so choose.

Although opposition to Mauritius has increased over the last few years, the fact is the majority of Chagossians both in Mauritius and the UK want the Islands to be returned to Mauritius, and some of them will want to resettle in Chagos. Under international law self-determination belongs to the people of Mauritius including Chagossians.

* What do you make of the opposition from some British politicians. Daniel Kawczynski MP, for instance, tabled an Early Day Motion (EDM) in October to have you replaced with an administrator of the Chagos Islands All Party Parliamentary Group. He states in his EDM that you have “publicly promoted the interests of the Mauritian Government in relation to Chagos and (…) has promoted (your) personal views on Chagos to the members of the APPG”. That’s pretty serious, isn’t it?

The EDM was tabled on 16 October but only signed by its proposer, out of the 650 MPs. This is a strong indication that Parliament did not agree with it, indeed many saw it as an abuse of process. It was misguided and untrue.

However, I can understand why someone could feel a perceived loss of Britain’s influence in the world and direct these feelings at me as the Co-ordinator of the APPG and a former British High Commissioner to Mauritius who has devoted much of the last 15 years to the APPG’s aim which is “to help bring about a resolution of the issues concerning the future of the Chagos Islands and the Chagossians”.

This EDM no longer exists as EDMs are removed at the prorogation of Parliament which was on 26 October.

* The APPG was created some 15 years back, and a negotiated settlement has yet to be achieved. Would you say that the APPG has nevertheless been able to put the need for a settlement on the table?

Indeed, the APPG has advocated resettlement since 2008 and latterly a negotiated settlement with Mauritius. The APPG has members from all seven political parties of whom several have been ministers including some at the Foreign Office. It is the combination of continual pressure from the APPG in Parliament, domestic and international litigation, the UN and other transnational organisations and the media which have led the current British government to see that the only way out of the Chagos tragedy is diplomacy, negotiation, and compromise.

* How do you see the outcome for the future of the Islands and the UK/US base?

I expect the outcome to be resettlement, a transfer of the Outer Islands and the MPA to Mauritius, a legally binding agreement, which may be the 99-year lease that Mauritius has suggested, in order to maintain the security and effectiveness of the base and a longer timetable for Mauritius to resume sovereign control of Diego Garcia. I am hoping this will be achieved before the 100th meeting of the APPG. The 94th meeting is on 13 December.

Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 17 November 2023

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