Barack Obama’s visit may pave the way for resettlement of the Chagos exiles

Given the headlines, you might have thought that during his recent visit to the UK President Obama was solely concerned with convincing British voters that their country would be far better off remaining in the European Union.

Not so. Other issues also made it on to the agenda in the discussions between the US President and his UK counterpart, David Cameron. Indeed, the two men discussed the future of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) and the people who used to live there. Obama later met the Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn, who also raised the resettlement of the exiled islanders with him. Obama was said to have listened sympathetically.  While there has as yet been no statement on what was said in the meeting between Obama and Cameron, the US President seems unlikely to have made any objections to the return of the Chagos exiles. This clears the way for Cameron to agree to a pilot settlement scheme, probably on Diego Garcia, the location of a strategically important US base.

In 1965 the Chagos Archipelago was detached from Mauritius, before its independence in 1968, and transformed into a new UK colony, BIOT. Then, between 1968 and 1973, the UK authorities forcibly removed the 1500-strong indigenous population of the archipelago on the pretence that they were “contract workers” to make way for the US base. The islanders were dumped at the quayside in Mauritius or the Seychelles and left to fend for themselves.

Commentators and journalists invariably refer to the 1966 deal struck between Harold Wilson’s Labour government and Lyndon Johnson’s Democrat Administration for the use of Diego Garcia as a “lease” but in fact there is no lease – the agreement was simply an exchange of notes between the two governments, making BIOT available for the defence needs of both nations. However, the agreement runs out at the end of 2016 and an optional 20-year extension has yet to be signed. There is little doubt that this will happen because it is in the perceived interests of both countries to maintain a powerful military and naval base on Diego Garcia in a world of global terrorism and Middle East instability, not to mention the UK-US “special relationship”.

Since the decision of the UK High Court in 2000 to restore the right of the Chagossians to return to the outer islands in the archipelago there have been several obstacles put in the way of resettlement, including the world’s largest “no take” (i.e. no fishing) Marine Protected Area (MPA) announced by former Foreign Secretary David Miliband in 2010, which was designed in part to be a legacy for Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Since its independence, successive Mauritius governments have called for the return of the Chagos Archipelago. The government in Port Louis achieved a notable success in its efforts when in March 2015 a UN Arbitral Tribunal found the MPA to be unlawful and requested both Mauritius and the UK to hold discussions to resolve the issues. Over a year later, for reasons that remain obscure, there seems to have been little, if any, progress between the UK and its former colony.  Whether sovereignty was discussed at the recent meeting between Obama and Cameron is unclear but it seems unlikely that at this first meeting between a US President and the British PM at which BIOT was discussed the issue was ignored.

This week a second round of bilateral talks at official level are being held in Port Louis to discuss the implementation of the Tribunal Award to Mauritius. David Snoxell, former British High Commissioner to Mauritius, noted that “although the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, who lead for the British side, seem genuine in wanting to come to an agreement with Mauritius over the future of the MPA and being seen to implement a judgment of an international court, they are unlikely to discuss either sovereignty or scraping the MPA. So any concessions Mauritius makes will need to be conditional on an understanding that an agreement over the MPA will lead to further discussions of a timetable for the transfer of sovereignty at least over the outer islands, given that the Tribunal held that Mauritius had legally binding rights to the eventual return of the Chagos Archipelago.”

Meanwhile, Henry Smith, Conservative MP for the West Sussex town of Crawley, where it is estimated that around 2000 Chagossians now reside, recently stated that US bases around the world are often located alongside civilian populations without compromising security, and implied that the US had a moral obligation to come up with some or all of the money needed for resettlement.

While US opposition, defence, security and “treaty obligations” are no longer deployed by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office as reasons against resettlement, and the fact that an independent study carried out by KPMG in 2015 found that resettlement was feasible, the only outstanding question remains funding. Unlike his predecessor, William Hague, and despite pressure from some of his own backbenchers like Henry Smith, current UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, a “small government” enthusiast, seems reluctant to commit money to the project.

David Snoxell, now co-ordinator of the 46-strong Chagos All Party Parliamentary Group, which has representation from all ten political parties in Parliament, commented: “This is the first time that resettlement has been discussed by a British Prime Minister and a US President who seems to have raised no difficulties. It’s the last hurdle. Cost is not the big issue it’s made out to be and with help from our US ally there is no longer any reason why resettlement should not be agreed this year. What a perfect legacy for both leaders who will not be standing for election again.”

In case anyone in the US or UK governments are in any doubt about the moral implications of the islanders’ forced removal nearly half a century ago Snoxell added: “Let’s not forget that the Chagossian exile has lasted longer than the biblical Babylonian exile”.

* Published in print edition on 13 May 2016

Dr Sean Carey is honorary senior research fellow in the School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester

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