The UK claim to sovereignty was compromised long ago

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

by its long-held commitment to return Chagos to Mauritius ‘when no longer needed for defence purposes’

* ‘The future of the US base on Diego Garcia is guaranteed under Mauritian sovereignty and for a much longer period with Mauritius’ offer of a 99-year lease’
* ‘The UK would be forced to agree a settlement with Mauritius,
rather as we were forced to leave Suez in the 1956 Suez Crisis when the US abandoned the UK’

David Snoxell, Coordinator of The Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group gives an outline of his proposal for the return of Chagossians to the Outer Islands of the Archipelego as part of a negotiated settlement, which he feels it is in the reputational interest of the UK to agree to. This is more so in light of the context of its relations with European countries because of Brexit, and with the US which is no longer unconditional given the recent developments that bring focus on the rights of colonised peoples.


Mauritius Times: The Foreign Office rejection of the 2019 International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion that the UK should end its “administration” of the Chagos Islands and the UN General Assembly resolution endorsing it suggest that the UK will remain unyielding as regards its claim of sovereignty over the Archipelago. Why do you think it is maintaining a hard line?

David Snoxell: Every government weighs up the pros and cons of a policy. Even though the FCO appears to be intransigent, it is likely that the Chagos policy remains under regular scrutiny. One can only guess that a mix of factors are driving the present intransigence, including inertia, vexation that its arguments before the ICJ were rejected and that it was isolated in the UN, but most importantly a belief that in the last resort it can always rely on the support of the US. That is no longer certain.

* It looks as if the way ahead remains long and far from an early resolution. How long and how far do you think the UK can go in maintaining that position?

With the ever rising tide of indignation across the world and in the media at the obstinacy of the British government over Chagos, it cannot be long before the FCO and Government accept that the current policy is doing untold damage to Britain’s reputation for promoting human rights and upholding international law. This is critical in a period when we can no longer rely on our European allies because of Brexit, and the US because it no longer plays even lip service to the ‘Special Relationship’ with the UK.

The continuing decline of Britain’s standing on the world stage makes it very difficult to maintain a policy that the rest of the world largely rejects. A tipping point has been reached in which the arguments in favour of an overall settlement of the issues now substantially outweigh the arguments which the government deploys against Chagossian resettlement and Mauritian sovereignty. I feel that we are therefore getting closer to a resolution.

* The UK’s position has remained consistent in its claim to sovereignty over the Archipelago for the last five decades. Is it the FCO which has the last word or is it the politicians? Or is the British Government acting at the behest of the US due to the Diego Garcia base?

Policy is made by Ministers on the advice of officials. The lead department is the FCO but other departments such as Defence, Home Office, Cabinet Office and its National Security Council are involved in the policy making process. The final decision on Chagos rests with the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Parliament is largely ignored.

In public the US has always sat on the fence regarding Chagos, telling Mauritius that it should deal with the UK. Increasingly however parts of the US Administration appear to be less supportive of the UK’s rejection of the ICJ and UNGA decisions. We should not forget that the US has always been uncomfortable with the perpetuation of colonies where self-determination has not been exercised.

The stability and freedom of operation that the UK has afforded to the base on Diego Garcia must still be a significant factor for the US, but there is an increasing groundswell from within the US that it needs to negotiate with Mauritius in order to secure a long-term future for the base. Mauritius could provide the same level of assurance as the UK and this could be enshrined in an agreement.


“Not every member (of the The Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group) is agreed on the sovereignty issue, but they are unanimous on the need to restore the right of return and abode to Chagossians and thus make resettlement possible. Members acknowledge that resettlement is far more likely to take place under Mauritian, rather than British sovereignty. The Group’s position is to advocate resettlement and a negotiated settlement, concerning sovereignty, with Mauritius…”


* Could it be that the British Government has chosen to bide its time for another 16 years, that is until 2036, when the 1966 UK/US Agreement comes to an end and then deal with the sovereignty issue?

There will be those in government who hope that the UK could evade the issue for the next 16 years, long after those officials and ministers have left the scene, but this is a forlorn hope. The political and reputational damage to the UK would be considerable and the international pressure, especially if the US were to join it, overwhelming. The UK would be forced to agree a settlement with Mauritius, rather as we were forced to leave Suez in the 1956 Suez Crisis when the US abandoned the UK.

Additionally, the current international climate of ‘Black Lives Matter’ is forcing a reassessment of the impact of colonialism and imperialism.

The people of Chagos and many Mauritians are descended from former African slaves and Indian indentured labourers. They have experienced at first-hand the benefits and oppression of the British Empire. Returning Chagos to Mauritian sovereignty and enabling Chagossians to resettle in their islands would be seen as a just response and making amends for the colonial attitudes and misrule of the past. It would also open up a productive relationship with Mauritius and free up the UK to take a more prominent role in the Commonwealth and UN.

* In an article published by The Interpreter on 26 June, you suggest a “compromise solution – a staged transfer of the Outer Islands to Mauritius, leaving Diego Garcia for future discussions”. You also mention that “the US does not in principle object to resettlement” in the Outer Islands. Do you think the British Government would be willing to return the Outer islands without compromising its sovereignty claim to Diego Garcia?

This was a proposal put to Jack Straw, the UK Foreign Secretary by Paul Berenger, the Deputy PM in 2001. So it is not a new idea. The point of a compromise is to enable both sides to begin negotiations. It is not in itself the final solution, but it can be a useful stage towards an overall agreement. It makes discussion more limited but a successful outcome more attainable. Both sides need to help each other to resolve the impasse.

Such a proposition would help the FCO to sell it to those in Parliament and in government whose mindset is geared towards hanging on to sovereignty at all costs. Far from diminishing the UK’s standing, the transfer of the Outer Islands to Mauritius would enhance it and remove this millstone from around the neck of British diplomacy.

I also think it would be the easiest way forward for the US and therefore provide a quick solution. It will have been considered by the FCO before but today there is a different alignment of the stars which makes the idea much more attractive. The UK claim to sovereignty was compromised long ago by its long-held commitment to return Chagos to Mauritius ‘when no longer needed for defence purposes’.

* You have based your “compromise solution” on a precedent when the UK returned three BIOT islands to Seychelles in 1976 at independence. But that was made in a different context?

Nonetheless it is a helpful precedent for all parties, but a compromise is based more on the realpolitik of the situation, i.e. what is a practical way out of the impasse in which no party loses face or is humiliated.

* Besides the threats coming from the Middle East, there is now talk of a China “threat”. Do you perceive China as a threat to the resolution of the Chagos dispute which might delay matters further?

The supposed imminent China ‘threat’ in the Indian Ocean is more imaginative than real and seems to have been deployed recently by those seeking to support the UK’s refusal to return the islands. The UK has, so far as I know, not deployed this argument publicly.

Furthermore, the future of the US base is guaranteed under Mauritian sovereignty and for a much longer period with Mauritius’ offer of a 99-year lease. This could lead to a close political and strategic relationship between Mauritius and the US and continued stability in the region.

A key point that emerged during discussions at the US think tank ‘Centre for Naval Analyses’ in Arlington was that “Appearing to downplay the ICJ’s recent Advisory Opinion on Chagos risks undercutting US efforts to encourage the rule of law, especially in the South China Sea.”

* The ICJ’s Advisory Opinion recognised Mauritius’ sovereignty over the Archipelago. The Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group’s focus appears to be mostly on resettlement of the Chagossians, not on supporting Mauritius’ claim to sovereignty. Why is that so?

The registered purpose of the APPG is “To help bring about a resolution of the issues concerning the future of the Chagos Islands and of the Chagossians.” It is true that resettlement is more its focus than restoring sovereignty to Mauritius. This is because this Group of 53 members has representation from all 7 political parties in Parliament, ranging from right to left, the only APPG to do so. Not every member is agreed on the sovereignty issue, but they are unanimous on the need to restore the right of return and abode to Chagossians and thus make resettlement possible. Members acknowledge that resettlement is far more likely to take place under Mauritian, rather than British sovereignty. The Group’s position is to advocate resettlement and a negotiated settlement, concerning sovereignty, with Mauritius.

*Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth told the BBC last December that his government was considering bringing charges of crimes against humanity against individual British officials at the International Criminal Court as a result of the UK’s failure to abide by the ICJ Opinion and UNGA resolution. Wouldn’t that be deeply humiliating for the UK?

This is a very difficult issue for the UK to accept.

Psychologically we do not see ourselves as a nation that perpetrates crimes against humanity, rather as a nation that condemns such crimes and which has been a major architect of the United Nations, the rules-based order, international law and the legal institutions such as Nuremberg, the ICJ, although we no longer have a UK judge on it, and the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Although I think that taking the plight of the Chagossians to the ICC is an unlikely prospect, it is not impossible. The UK therefore needs an overall settlement on Chagos with Mauritius.

* Finally, what is it that you personally can bring to a resolution of the issues?

 I can only point out the obvious, but it is based on fifty years of experience. At university one of my two specialist subjects was India’s road to Independence in the 20th century. My first job in 1969 in FCO was to attend UNGA and sit on the Decolonisation Committee (C-24) when we still had 32 colonies. Thereafter I served in UN Department of the FCO, Islamabad, the UK Mission in Geneva, dealing with human rights, later in New York as Director of British Information Services, in FCO as Deputy Commissioner of BIOT, returning as Ambassador to Senegal where I had been a UNA volunteer in 1967/8, and finally as High Commissioner to Mauritius.

In retirement from 2008 I was appointed Coordinator of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) APPG. So I can claim, perhaps uniquely, to have seen the issues from several angles – the UN, UK, Mauritius, the US, the Chagossians, Parliament, and the litigation in the English courts, ECtHR and the ICJ.

My ambition is to see the UK emerge from its isolation, redeem its reputation in the international community for promoting and respecting international law, norms and human rights and championing its former ideals; also the Chagossians treated with dignity and allowed to return to their islands, along with the reunification of Chagos with Mauritius.


* Published in print edition on 30 June 2020

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