Photo: Gail Johnson
The Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group held its 39th meeting on 20 November 2013
The Group considered the ministerial statement of 19 November to Parliament concerning the new feasibility study and the draft terms of reference (ToRs). Members congratulated the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) on the thorough, far-reaching and objective nature of the draft ToRs. They were pleased to note the emphasis placed on possible resettlement in Diego Garcia and assumed that this indicated prior consultation with the US. They felt that having different options for resettlement was a sensible approach. While recognising that this would entail a more elaborate study they agreed that there ought to be some simplification of procedures and a shortening of the timescale in order to meet the deadline imposed by the May 2015 general election and to reduce costs. Given that the Foreign Secretary had announced a stock taking of policy towards resettlement on 20 December 2012 they had expected the study to be completed by the summer recess (July 2014), so that decisions could be taken well before the election. On the timetable proposed it looked as if it might not conclude until shortly before the election, since the ToRs would not be finalised until next year, followed by a period for selecting consultants. This would hardly allow enough time for the BIOT Policy Review into which the conclusions of the feasibility study will feed. It is understood that this review will consider all aspects of BIOT policy, including re-negotiation of the UK/US Agreement, sovereignty and future management of the MPA and the Chagos Islands.
The Group urged that there be no more procrastination and that the proposed feasibility study timetable be shortened to meet the overriding deadline of a general election. A future government might well decide to carry out its own policy review. The Group was also concerned that no progress appeared to have been made in identifying the wide ranging experts who would carry out the study, and their availability. It was not clear whether there would be a tendering process for consultants or if the FCO itself would invite experts to participate, and how their suitability for this complex task would be determined.
Members took note of the PQs and Questions answered since the last meeting on 9 October, the interventions made by Lords Luce and Ramsbotham in the debate on the Commonwealth on 17 October and also Early Day Motion 649 tabled by the Chairman which reads:
“That this House congratulates the Chagos Refugees Group on their conference in Mauritius to mark 30 years since their foundation following their displacement from the Chagos Islands; and recognises that this historical wrong can best be corrected by allowing and facilitating their return to the Islands.” The Coordinator gave a report on the conference and on his meetings in Mauritius.
The Group was also informed of the Chagos Conservation Trust conference on 18 November which marked its 20th anniversary. Members were pleased to hear about developments in the Outreach programme for Chagossians living in the UK. They noted that Chagossians living in Mauritius and Seychelles were more likely to want to live in the Chagos Islands and that conservation and marine skills education was more appropriate for their needs. Members were pleased to learn that Dr Mark Spalding of The Nature Conservancy, respected by Chagossians and the Chagos science community, had been appointed the new BIOT Science Adviser. They congratulated the FCO and Dr Spalding on his appointment.
The Group was informed that the Judicial Review of the MPA was set for appeal at the end of March and that the Mauritian case at ITLOS remained active. It was noted that the draft ToRs of the feasibility study referred to the possibility of amending the MPA. Members wondered why the MPA had not already been amended to take account of Chagossian and Mauritian interests, thus obviating the need for litigation.
The next meeting of the Group will be held on 17 December.This will be the 40th meeting of the Group since it was established in December 2008. Since that meeting the Group has continued to press for a new feasibility study.