Chagos: The axe has fallen

The Mauritian government must pursue the matter to its logical conclusion by all the judicial means available internationally

It was almost a foregone conclusion, that might would prevail over right. And indeed it has, coming in the form of a written statement made to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Wednesday 16 November 2016 by Baroness Anelay of St Johns, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. The statement was read in Parliament as well.

The Mauritians of Chagossian origin have been denied both the right of return to the land of their birth and the right of resettlement there. Interestingly, the statement makes no mention of Chagos at all: it’s all about the British Indian Ocean Territory, BIOT.

For the first time though, the British government has acknowledged that it was wrong in the forced removal of the Chagossians, made at the beginning of the statement as follows: ‘The manner in which the Chagossian community was removed from the Territory in the 1960s and 1970s, and the way they were treated, was wrong and we look back with deep regret’ — but note that there is no apology to the displaced people. Instead, there are crocodile tears: ‘We have taken care in coming to our final decision on resettlement, noting the community’s emotional ties to BIOT and their desire to go back to their former way of life’.

Despite this apparent concern, however, they still did not concede to the Chagossians’ desire. For ‘Government has decided against resettlement of the Chagossian people to the British Indian Ocean Territory on the grounds of feasibility, defence and security interests, and cost to the British taxpayer.’

There is no mention of the UK or US returning the islands that they have illegally excised to Mauritius – which according to UN conventions is the legal owner –, and this is left until the end of the statement: ‘In an increasingly dangerous world, the defence facility is used by us and our allies to combat some of the most difficult problems of the 21st century including terrorism, international criminality, instability and piracy. I can today confirm that the UK continues to welcome the US presence, and that the agreements will continue as they stand until 30 December 2036.’

This is the real and most important reason for holding on to the Chagos by UK and US, but it is preceded by an indication of the perceived constraints that would prevent a resettlement: ‘… the Government has considered carefully the practicalities of setting up a small remote community on low-lying islands and the challenges that any community would face. These are significant, and include the challenge of effectively establishing modern public services, the limited healthcare and education that it would be possible to provide, and the lack of economic opportunities, particularly job prospects. The Government has also considered the interaction of any potential community with the US Naval Support Facility – a vital part of our defence relationship.’

The alternative proposed is ‘to support improvements to the livelihoods of Chagossians in the communities where they now live. I can today announce that we have agreed to fund a package of approximately £40 million over the next ten years to achieve this goal. This money addresses the most pressing needs of the community by improving access to health and social care and to improved education and employment opportunities. Moreover, this fund will support a significantly expanded programme of visits to BIOT for native Chagossians.

The Government will work closely with Chagossian communities in the UK and overseas to develop cost-effective programmes which will make the biggest improvement in the life chances of those Chagossians who need it most.’

In an article in The Guardian Patrick Wintour, Diplomatic Editor, quotes David Snoxell, the co-ordinator of the all-party Chagos Islands parliamentary group as saying: “It is a basic human right recognised by all human rights conventions that people should have a right to return to their country of birth. ‘What all the Chagossians want, even if they do not want to live there, is the right of return’.”

The big question now is what will the Mauritian government do? Unfortunately, it does not look as if UK and US will be bothered by any moral concern even if the International Arbitration Court rules in favour of Mauritius. Are we back to square one?

Following this announcement, the sum total of reactions on the part of the Chagossians is one of disgust and dismay, both here and in Seychelles, with a judicial review being envisaged.

However, what is significant here is that there has been a total disregard if not disdain of the Mauritian claim of return of its excised territory. It will be recalled that the during the negotiations here on the issue of the eventual roll over of the US-UK agreement due shortly, Mr Peter Hayes was delegated by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office: he happens to be Commissioner of the British Indian Ocean Territory. His involvement underscored the assumption that Chagos was British and not Mauritian.

What the statement shows is that the UK government is effectively dangling a carrot of 40 million pounds sterling – and that too one wilting over a span of ten years – in front of the Mauritians of Chagossian origin to weaken the strategic position of Mauritius. But their first reaction is reassuring, for they are not tempted by the carrot.

Given their tenacity, the Mauritan government must pursue the matter to its logical conclusion by all the judicial means available internationally, for the Mauritians of Chagossian origin do deserve justice – as much as the paramount sovereignty must be established once and for all.

TP Saran

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