Parliament

41st Meeting of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group – Co-ordinator’s Summary

Posted in APPG, Diego Garcia, FCO, Legal, Mauritius, MPA, Parliament, USA, William Hague on March 3rd, 2014 by Mark Fitzsimons – 1 Comment

Photo: Gail Johnson

The Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) held its 41st meeting on 26 February 2014. A new member, Chris Kelly MP, was welcomed.

The Group considered the final Terms of Reference (ToRs) for the new feasibility study, issued by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) on 30 January. Members felt that the ToRs adequately covered the requirements. They were disappointed that Chagossians would not be included in the visit of the consultants to the Islands, which would have given an opportunity for the consultants to interact with Chagossians in their homeland. They looked forward to hearing which Consultants had been selected. Given that their first task would be to produce an ‘inception report’ within 4 weeks, the Group assumed that this period was included within the envisaged 12 months for completion of the study. APPG members remained concerned that the study might not be ready in time for decisions to be taken before the next election. They recalled the enactment, without any consultation with Parliament, of the Marine Protected Area (MPA) on 1 April 2010, five weeks before the last election. They felt that this time there should be sufficient time for parliamentary debate before decisions were taken. They called on the Foreign Secretary to ensure that the study was completed by 31 December 2014. Members felt that political oversight was as important as the scientific and environmental research, much of which was already available in previous reports. They looked forward to an ongoing dialogue with Mark Simmonds, the FCO Minster responsible for the Overseas Territoriess.
Members were pleased to note that the US was being kept closely informed and that they had not objected to Diego Garcia being considered for resettlement. They urged that Mauritius should also be closely involved. They took the view that discussions with Mauritius about the future of the Islands should continue in parallel so that when the study was completed there would be an understanding between both countries on the way forward, while acknowledging that the Mauritian case against the MPA, which is due to be heard by an Arbitral Tribunal in Istanbul on 22 April, would need to be determined first. The Group expressed the hope that all issues concerning the future of the Chagossians and of the Islands should be resolved before next year’s election. They noted that 2015 would be the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of British Indian Ocean Territories (BIOT).
The Group considered legal developments concerning the Judicial Review of the the MPA which would be heard by the Court of Appeal, 31 March-1 April, and also the case before the First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) on the applicability of Environmental Impact Reports and Freedom of Information to BIOT, on 1 May. They noted that the MPA would be four years old on 1 April and that until the litigation was concluded it remained in legal limbo. The Group believed that the MPA could only be effective with the cooperation of the Chagossians and Mauritius, particularly over the development of a Conservation Plan for the MPA, but was pleased to note that the ToRs of the Feasibility Study made provision for amendment of the Ordinances governing the nature of the MPA.
The Group was informed that the Foreign Secretary had declined to set aside the judgment of the House of Lords of October 2008 and that an application would therefore be made to the Supreme Court to re-open the case on the grounds of an alleged miscarriage of justice, arising from the 2002 flawed feasibility study.
The next meeting of the Group is on 30 April 2014.

Is the tide turning in Chagos?

Posted in APPG, Commonwealth, ConDem, conservation, CRG, Diego Garcia, FCO, Labour, Mauritius, MPA, Parliament, resettlement, Uncategorized, USA, William Hague on November 2nd, 2013 by Mark Fitzsimons – 1 Comment

David Snoxell, former British High Commissioner to Mauritius and Co-ordinator of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group, gave a presentation at the Chagos Refugees Group International Conference (Mauritius, 29-31 Oct, 2013). The presentation was entitled Options for resolving the issues concerning the future of the Chagossians and of the Chagos Islands. Is the tide turning in Chagos? He began by congratulating the CRG and its Leader, Olivier Bancoult, on its 30 years of struggle for their noble cause which is to empower Chagossians to return to their homeland.

He then reviewed UK government policy since the 2000 High Court judgment in favour of the Chagossians, which was subsequently overturned by means of an ancient device, known as Privy Council Orders, bypassing Parliament. David Snoxell highlighted the influence of Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials on government policy and how bad policy has been compounded, while pointing to the expertise and continuity available from the Chagos APPG and welcoming the policy review on resettlement of the Chagos Islands:

….it is necessary to understand that it is FCO officials who explain and present the issues and recommend to Ministers the policy to be adopted. Unless it is a major international issue, going to the heart of Britain’s essential interests, Ministers generally accept what officials recommend. No Minister is able to take the time to get to grips with complex issues, such as Chagos, when there are international crises raging overhead as there have so often been in recent times. So in effect it is officials who make the policy but they like Ministers come and go with some frequency. FCO officials usually want “quick wins”, easy solutions and a straight run in office. In 2004 resettlement was seen as a long drawn out and difficult process, too complicated for the two officials (5 today) who were responsible for BIOT. Banning resettlement altogether seemed the easiest option.

Now it is very difficult for officials and their legal advisers to admit that they or their predecessors made the wrong decision. So they are obliged to defend the entrenched positions of the past with the same formulae and arguments they have inherited, without examining whether those arguments were or remain valid. The result is bureaucratic inertia and becoming victims of their own propaganda. Thus the policy stays frozen in time and officials defend it to the hilt against pressure from Parliament or any other source. Ministers are too busy and lack the expertise to challenge these entrenched positions, often bolstered by legal advice – the current Minister responsible for BIOT is the 9th since 2000. This is where an APPG can be of much help to a beleaguered Minister, challenging the accepted mantras of the past.

It is important to consider the four standard arguments deployed since 2004 by FCO against resettlement:

1. The islands are set aside for defence purposes and in any case the US would not agree. But I have never seen a convincing explanation as to why resettlement of UK nationals, on the Outer Islands would pose a threat to military operations or to the security of the base on DG 130 miles away, or indeed to resettlement on DG itself. The Outer Islands are clearly not required for defence since over the last 48 years no defence facilities have ever been built there. It is unlikely that if the British Government informed the US Administration that it planned to go ahead with a resettlement on the Outer Islands the US would disagree. They might, however, take a little more convincing if the settlement was to be on DG, in close proximity to the base, but this too is not impossible.

2. The 2002 Feasibility Study concluded that resettlement was not feasible due to rising sea levels, increased storminess leading to flooding and erosion of the islands, the potential damage to marine life and corals and the lack of sustainable employment. But the FCO now accepts, 11 years later, that following years of critical analysis of the 2002 study by experts, a new feasibility study is required and by implication that the old one was flawed. We await an announcement soon of the draft ToRs of the proposed study and progress on the Policy Review.

3. Then comes the cost argument, often much exaggerated, but the UK is a wealthy nation that has no trouble finding the resources for overseas defence operations and there are other sources – the US, EU, Commonwealth, International Community and NGOs.

4. Human habitation is not compatible with the conservation of the unique bio-diversity and marine environment of the Islands. This argument of course ignores the fact that up to 4000 military personnel live on DG. But it is a powerful argument which appeals to some zealous members of conservation NGOs. The political influence, resources and reach of these groups should, however, not be underestimated. They have had a symbiotic relationship with the FCO which has used the NGOs to bolster their policy against resettlement and in turn has been used by them to maintain uninhabited the Outer Islands; scientists, environmentalists and conservationists of course excepted. The somewhat misleading campaign to create the MPA, waged by Pew and CEN in public and in private in 2009/10, was a manifestation of this relationship.

But I would now like to focus on the future rather than dwell on past mistakes. Clearly, after more than a decade of intransigence, the FCO needs a thorough and objective review of all its policies towards Chagos. And here I pay tribute to today’s FCO for recognising this. The Policy Review announced ten months ago by the Foreign Secretary on 20 December 2012 was a belated but welcome step forward. I believe that it is a genuine attempt to be open, objective and fair. In a debate in the Lords on 17 October the FCO Minister, Baroness Warsi said:

“On 18 December 2012 the Foreign Secretary said that he was going to review policy towards the resettlement of the British Indian Ocean Territory. This review has been under way since then and we have been in touch with all those with an interest, especially the Chagossian community here in the UK, in Mauritius and in the Seychelles. Ministers have agreed that we should have an independent study that will, with as much transparency as possible, properly explore what might be possible, what is realistic and what it would cost. I am sure that I will report back to the House when that is concluded.”

I do feel that current officials and their Ministers want to bring about a fair resolution of the issues in consultation with Chagossians and Mauritius. I am hopeful that it will be the breaking of the logjam and that it will lead to four principle results:

1. The Feasibility Study concludes that resettlement is feasible, can be done economically and will not endanger the marine environment.

2. The FCO accepts the findings, makes resettlement a condition of the renewal of the 1966 Anglo-American Agreement to include a financial contribution from the US; seeks funding from other sources (if necessary), resolves to start planning at least an experimental resettlement immediately, with a view to the first settlers returning in 2015, the 50th anniversary of the creation of BIOT.

3. Given the UK’s oft repeated commitment that when no longer needed for defence purposes sovereignty will revert to Mauritius, the British Government proposes to Mauritius the start of fresh talks on the future of BIOT, to cover arrangements for Mauritian participation in the management of the Islands and the MPA, leading to a timetable for either joint sovereignty or a gradual ceding of sovereignty which may or may not include DG.

4. All of this to be announced by end 2014, well before the general election in May 2015 and the CHOGM in Mauritius in Oct 2015 to bring the UK into conformity with the Commonwealth Charter, signed by The Queen and Member States in March.

I would also expect conservation organisations in the UK and Mauritius to start to work with Chagossians who wish to return by providing marine skills, training and education in conservation. Proper management of the MPA, especially if a scientific station were established, would result in the creation of jobs such as servicing visiting scientists, maintaining boats and equipment and patrolling the islands.

Having a Policy Review is a sea change in FCO thinking. The results will be seen as a political and moral test of the UK’s fundamental values. As the Foreign Secretary has said “It is not in our character as a nation to have a foreign policy without a conscience; neither is it in our interests”. If next year the Feasibility Study reports that resettlement is practical, as we know it is, I cannot imagine that the British Government will not make it possible. The vital thing is to ensure that the Feasibility Study, coming 12 years after the last, is this time truly independent, transparent and objective and takes account of the much more detailed scientific data now available. So to answer my question I believe the tide is turning.

David Snoxell

Coordinator of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group

29 Oct 2013

 

38th Meeting of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group – Co-ordinator’s Summary

Posted in APPG, Commonwealth, Diego Garcia, events, FCO, Mauritius, Parliament, resettlement, USA on October 10th, 2013 by Mark Fitzsimons – Be the first to comment

Photo: Gail Johnson

The Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group held its 38th meeting on 9th October 2013.

The Group felt that the PQs  concerning the BIOT Policy Review, answered in early September, had been helpful. It was clear that the next stage was a statement by the FCO Minister to Parliament on the results of the consultation on the Review and the proposed feasibility study which was expected this month. The Group understood that it would include draft terms of reference and that thereafter experts would be invited to conduct the study. Members felt that the consultants should be  respected experts in their disciplines and of proven objectivity and independence, if the study was to be seen as balanced and transparent. The Group reiterated their wish that Parliament should be able to debate the results of the study before the summer recess in July 2014. This had been stated in the Chairman’s letter to the Foreign Secretary of 16 July on the Group’s views about the review of policy. It was agreed that the Chairman would respond to the forthcoming statement on behalf of the Group. Members asked the Chairman to remind the Foreign Secretary of his offer for a further meeting following their last meeting with him in December 2011.
The Group discussed possible interventions in debates and further PQs in the current session. The debate in the Lords on the Future of the Commonwealth on 17th October 2013 would be an opportunity, given the emphasis on human rights in the Commonwealth Charter, signed by The Queen in March, since the continued exile of the Chagossians remained inconsistent with Commonwealth values and the UK’s promotion of human rights.
Members also discussed the need for HMG to involve the Americans in potential resettlement in view of the  anticipated renewal of the 1966 UK/US Agreement in 2016. This should not wait until after the feasibility study had reported. It could be addressed in the annual round of UK/US Pol-Mil discussions usually in October. US agreement and funding, especially if resettlement were to be on Diego Garcia, should form part of the renewal of the 1966 Agreement and be discussed in 2014 when the Agreement comes up for re-negotiation.
The submission of 1st October by Minority Rights Group International (MRG) to the Ministry of Justice, concerning the UK’s failure to report on BIOT in its periodic reports to the UN Human Rights Council was considered. Members were surprised to learn that the UK had on each occasion declined to report on BIOT on the grounds that it was uninhabited, an argument repeatedly rejected by the UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. They felt that the UK should be honest about its own failings with regard to human rights. They hoped that the Justice Secretary would  ensure that this omission was rectified in the forthcoming Universal Periodic Review Mid-Term report.
The Group took note of articles in the Commonwealth Law Bulletin in August (Prerogative legislation as the paradigm of bad law-making: the Chagos Islands by Ronan Cormacain) and in Ocean Challenge Summer 2013 (Sharks on the lawn at Diego Garcia – but is rising sea-level to blame? by Richard Dunne).  They also took note of the ILPA briefing, so far as it concerned the Chagos Islanders, for the debate on ‘Requirements for those who apply for UK citizenship or nationality’ in the Lords on 8 Oct, and also noted the current state of appeals to the First Tier Information Tribunal concerning the application of FOI to BIOT.
Members were pleased to learn that an international conference on the Chagos Islands had been organised by the Chagos Refugees Group in Mauritius from 29-31 October to mark their 30th anniversary and that the Coordinator would be speaking at it. They hoped that the UK, Mauritius and the US would participate.
The next meeting of the Group will be held on 20th November 2013.

FCO announces new Chagos feasibility study

Posted in ConDem, conservation, FCO, Parliament, resettlement on July 8th, 2013 by Robert Bain – Be the first to comment

The Foreign Office is commissioning a new feasibility study on resettlement of Chagos, it was announced today.

The statement from Foreign Office Minister Mark Simmonds said:

Mark Simmonds“Successive British Governments have consistently opposed resettlement of the islands – on the grounds of both defence and feasibility. The Government must be honest about these challenges and concerns. Long-term settlement risks being both precarious and costly. The outer islands, which have been uninhabited for 40 years, are low-lying and lack all basic facilities and infrastructure. The cost and practicalities of providing the levels of infrastructure and public services appropriate for a twenty-first century British society are likely to be significant and present a heavy ongoing contingent liability for the UK tax-payer. However, the Government recognises the strength of feeling on this issue, and the fact that others believe that the resettlement of BIOT can be done more easily than we have previously assessed. We believe that our policy should be determined by the possibilities of what is practicable.”

Simmonds said the government intends “to make the remit of the study of resettlement as broad as possible”, and that “independent views from all interested parties will be used when considering how we take the study forward”.

An aerial view of Diego Garcia (copyright holder unknown)

An aerial view of Diego Garcia (copyright holder unknown)

The UK Chagos Support Association welcomes the opportunity to revisit this important issue – it’s something that we and many MPs have been calling for for years. It’s worth pointing out, however, that the compensation paid to the islanders so far has been inadequate, that Britain’s overseas territories already include a number of remote islands which are home to stable communities, and that resettlement of Chagos is not just about the outer islands, but also the main island Diego Garcia.

It is also vital that the feasibility study is completed before the next election, and doesn’t become another reason to delay justice for the Chagos islanders.

“Ultimately victory will be ours”

Posted in CRG, FCO, Legal, MPA, Parliament, USA on June 12th, 2013 by Mark Fitzsimons – Be the first to comment

chagosStatement by the Chagos Refugees Group on the Decision dated 11 June 2013 of the High Court in London concerning the Marine Protected Area (“MPA”) around the Chagos Islands.

Today the High Court in London has decided that the MPA which was imposed by the last Government without the approval of the UK Parliament is not legally invalid. This is disappointing to Chagossians some of whom will no longer be able to sustain themselves by continuing our traditional fishing rights which is the only link we are allowed with our homeland since the UK unlawfully expelled us from our islands.

We are examining with our lawyers the detail of this judgment, and if advised, will seek to challenge this decision on appeal.

But there have been some very important developments which the bringing of this case has achieved in this latest legal case in our long struggle to return home.

There are three very significant matters all of which the Court considered inadmissible or irrelevant to its deliberations, but which the Coalition Government will no doubt wish to take very seriously.

First, the Court decided on purely technical grounds that the US cable, in which officials informed the USA that the MPA was the most effective long term way to exclude the Chagossian people from returning, was inadmissible. Whilst the rest of the world therefore sees what went on behind closed doors, the judges refused to consider this evidence. Chagossians believe the world is not so blinkered and even Ministers will wish to reject this discriminatory policy.

Second, the FCO surprised us all by producing its long-lost file on the so-called feasibility study which was used by the last Government as a pretext for abolishing our right of return. Ignoring the obvious feasibility of Chagossians returning home (and the superb living conditions on Diego Garcia enjoyed by 1,500 servicemen and 2,000 civilian workers) this study claimed that our return would be costly and precarious. But after years of denial of its existence we have now seen the file on this report which our advisers have examined. This examination shows that the feasibility study was not based on sound science and were exaggerated and alarmist.

Third, our advisers have now commissioned an independent review of this feasibility study by an expert on small islands, Professor Kench, who has shown how resilient these islands are and how the challenge of global warming need not prevent our return home.

Chagossians are the natural guardians of our beautiful islands. Many were in far better condition when we were forced to leave, than they are now. The military base has caused huge amounts of coral blasting, has resulted in the destruction of vegetation and the concreting over of large areas of Diego Garcia. Oils spills have seeped into the freshwater reservoirs and the coral base of the islands.

A deepwater harbour for a vast military arsenal has been created where once we used to catch fish for our sustenance.

We are in favour, as the judges recognised, of a high level of conservation in our natural paradise. Our return will not endanger the beautiful corals or remaining fish stocks in any way.

But our right to return is fundamental and will never be surrendered. It is high time that the UK made this resolution of our plight a high priority.

The outcome of this appeal does not affect our endeavours insofar as other avenues are concerned. We shall accordingly continue our legal battle and we are strongly convinced that ultimately victory will be ours!

Olivier Bancoult, OSK

Chairman CRG

36th Meeting of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group – Co-ordinator’s Summary

Posted in APPG, ConDem, FCO, Mauritius, MPA, Parliament, USA, William Hague on June 10th, 2013 by Mark Fitzsimons – Be the first to comment

Photo: Gail Johnson

The Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group held its 36th meeting on 5 June 2013.
Members discussed recent correspondence with Ministers, PQs and interventions in debates since the last meeting on 24 April. They were grateful to Baroness Whitaker for her speech during the Lords’ foreign affairs, defence and development debate on 14 May in which she recalled the commitment by William Hague before the election “to work to ensure a fair settlement of this long-standing dispute” and his promise on 20 December 2012 to review the policy on resettlement. Baroness Whitaker had asked when Parliament would be consulted about the review, commenting that there was “much work to be done to make the MPA what it ought to be so that everyone can wholeheartedly support it”.
The Group considered  a Question, answered on 5 June, from Lord Ramsbotham as to whether HMG “will commission an independent study to re-evaluate the science and practicality of resettlement, in consultation with the Chagossians, in the light of Prof. Kench’s report which concluded that the 2002 feasibility study used untested models and contradictory evidence”. It was noted that Baroness Warsi’s answer that “we are currently reviewing our policy towards BIOT…do not have a timetable for the conclusion of this review but will update Parliament as soon as we are in a position to do so” avoided the question. It was also at odds with the offer of an independent  resettlement study  made by the FCO Minister in charge of BIOT, Mark Simmonds, at a recent meeting which included the Chairman and Vice chairman of the APPG. Members did not understand whether this study was separate from or subsumed within the wider review. They felt that both were necessary, especially as the scientific review would be independent.
The Group went on to discuss the nature and timetable for the proposed review. They were informed about a proposal put to the Minister by Mr Gifford that the review should include an independent study and take up where the 2002 Feasibility Study had left off, comprising a cost/benefit analysis, evaluation of livelihood strategies, consultation with Chagossians and an objective examination of sources of funding.
Members understood that the FCO had strengthened the team of officials undertaking the review and that it was the intention of Ministers and officials that it should be open, transparent and inclusive, look at every aspect of resettlement and consult all stakeholders. They questioned whether there should be an independent element to the review. The Group also understood that the Foreign Secretary would make a statement to Parliament  before the recess in mid July about the progress, parameters and timetable of the review. Members noted that 7 months will have elapsed to reach only this first stage. They  felt that it should be an oral statement to allow for follow-up questions. They accepted that it was a complex process but that there had to be a deadline so that the recommendations of the review could be agreed and implemented well before the end of the Coalition Government in May 2015. It was up to Ministers to ensure a deadline was set. They suggested that apart from  Chagossian and conservation groups, the US, Mauritius and Parliament, other stakeholders should include DfID, the Human Rights Subcommittee of the European Parliament and the Minority Rights Group. Members decided to ask for a 90 minute Commons debate as soon as possible so that the views of  MPs could inform the Foreign Secretary’s statement. It was felt that a similar debate should be held in the Lords in September.
Members considered the research paper by the House of Commons Library published on 22 May, entitled “Disputes over BIOT: a survey”. They felt that this was a helpful contribution to the debate and commended the author Jon Lunn. They also considered two papers on the controversy concerning the  number of Chagossians deported, one by Wenban-Smith, entitled “Population of the Chagos 1820-1973″ published by Chagos News (CCT) in Jan 2012 which concluded that the number could be as few as 500 and a much more detailed response by Dunne and Gifford published in Population, Space and Place entitled “A Dispossessed People: the Depopulation of the Chagos Archipelago, 1965-1973″ which concluded that “the policy of the British Government drove between 1,328 and 1,522 Ilois into exile and poverty on Mauritius and a further 322 on the Seychelles”.
The next meeting and 5th annual AGM will be held on 16 July.

Justice is a very long time in coming

Posted in APPG, conservation, Diego Garcia, FCO, ITLOS, Labour, Mauritius, MPA, Parliament, USA, Wikileaks, William Hague on June 3rd, 2013 by Mark Fitzsimons – Be the first to comment
The US air base that now occupies Diego Garcia (copyright holder unknown)

The US air base that now occupies Diego Garcia (copyright holder unknown)

“A fair settlement for some dispossed people may just be on the horizon”, writes David Snoxell in an article for Tribune, coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the last boat load of Chagossians to be deported from their homeland.

While noting that, five months after its announcement,  there is little evidence of progress regarding a promised review by William Hague on resettlement of the Chagos Islands, Snoxell sees reasons for optimism.

There is a significant sign of progress. After four years of pressure from the APPG. FCO Minister Mark Simmonds has abandoned the official mantra that arguments against resettlement are “clear and compelling” and that “it’s not possible to put the clock back” and agreed to an independent study. This should revisit the flawed science and assumptions of the 2002 feasibility study, on which the FCO largely based its opposition to resettlement, an argument also intrinsic to its cases before the Law Lords in 2008 and Strasbourg in 2012. The study should be above board. In 2002, the Chagossians were not consulted. This time, it is vital that they and Parliament are involved. The timescale, terms of reference and the choice of consultants should be agreed with them.

Chagos: Conservationists are swimming in murky waters

Posted in APPG, ConDem, conservation, coverage, CRG, Diego Garcia, ECHR, FCO, Labour, Legal, Mauritius, MPA, Parliament, USA on May 21st, 2013 by Mark Fitzsimons – Be the first to comment
chagos

Photo: Getty images

An article by Dr Sean Carey, published in the UK Independent blog, is reproduced below:

“Being in Chagos is an incredibly special experience,” says Rachel Jones, deputy team leader of the Aquarium at ZSL London Zoo, in a new YouTube posting extolling the “unique” environment of the warm, pristine waters of the archipelago. “It’s literally like going back in time… It’s what reefs, I imagine, were like 50 or 60 years ago. She adds: “It’s very special being somewhere where you know you’re the only one there. There’s no one else around.”

How nice, you might think, that UK marine scientists can explore the corals and monitor shoals of fish in the British Indian Ocean Territory. But what Jones omits to mention is that 50 or 60 years ago there was a vibrant community of around 1700 islanders living in harmony with the environment. The only reason there isn’t now is that the entire population was exiled.

The shameful history of what happened was neatly summarised by Baroness Whitaker in the debate on the Queen’s Speech in the House of Lords recently. She said: “In 1965 our Government detached the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in order to form a separate British Indian Ocean Territory, in defiance of four UN resolutions. They reclassified the inhabitants as contract workers, made the largest, most southerly island Diego Garcia, available to the United States for use as a military base, and gradually removed the Chagossians from all the islands, eventually depositing them in Mauritius and the Seychelles during 1971 to 1973.”

Since then the islanders, the descendants of African slaves and Indian indentured labourers, have been fighting a marathon legal campaign to restore the right of return. After a series of spectacular victories in the lower courts, the Chagossians, led by Port Louis-based electrician Olivier Bancoult, were narrowly defeated by 3-2 majority in the House of Lords in 2008. There was a further setback last December when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the case was inadmissible, because many of the islanders exiled in Mauritius (though not those in the Seychelles) had accepted compensation from the UK in 1982.

Back in the Upper House, Lord Astor, the Coalition Government’s spokesman replied with customary courtesy. “The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, asked why the Chagos islanders could not return. We regret what happened in the late 1960s and 1970s. The responsibility for decisions taken then has been acknowledged by successive Governments. However, the reasons for not allowing resettlement, namely feasibility and defence security, are clear and compelling.”

Lord Astor was clearly reading from an old brief because the Foreign & Commonwealth Office is now being forced to come to terms with overwhelming evidence that neither reason given is clear and compelling. Why? Well, first the base is around 140 miles from the outer islands in the Archipelago, such as Peros Banhos and Salomon, which could be resettled. It’s simply not credible to believe that a few hundred Chagossians would jeopardise US operations. Secondly, if Diego Garcia remains viable for some 3,500 military personnel and ancillary workers then logic dictates that the other islands can also be made suitable.

Furthermore, pressure continues to mount both in the UK and internationally. Earlier this year in an article for The Mirror, former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott made his feelings clear. “I’m ashamed the UK governments allowed this to happen. It was wrong and we must make amends,” he wrote. (Since then Lord Prescott has joined the Chagos All Party Parliamentary Group; so too has former Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party Lord Ashcroft.)

A few days ago, in an article for Libération, JMG Le Clezio also denounced the brutal removal of the islanders from their homeland as an “organised denial of human rights”. He claimed that the failure of the court in Strasbourg to take action was a “denial of justice” and a clear example of “moral cowardice”. The 2008 Nobel Prize winner for literature, who holds dual French and Mauritian nationality, calculates that it is part of the “indifference of the powerful” to those who are obliged to live on the margins.

It’s difficult to disagree – unless, of course, you work for the ZSL and other conservation groups which are apparently content to ignore the misfortune and misery of those who were in Chagos long before they were.

Cross-party support for return of Chagosians to their homeland

Posted in APPG, ConDem, conservation, Diego Garcia, FCO, ITLOS, Labour, Legal, Mauritius, MPA, Parliament, USA on May 16th, 2013 by Mark Fitzsimons – 1 Comment

Yesterday’s debate on the Queen’s Speech included the following speech by Baroness Whitaker, supported by Lords Ramsbotham and Avebury. They mention the pre-election commitment of the government to deliver justice to the exiled Chagossians. In the limited time the Minister has to reply to a long debate covering foreign affairs, defence and development he simply reads off the lines from a general brief provided by officials. Clearly the bit on Chagos had not been updated for some time but no attempt is made to answer the points raised by speakers.

Lord Ramsbotham (Crossbench)

My Lords, in noting the antics in the other place following the non-inclusion in the gracious Speech of a possible referendum on Europe, I am confident that they will not be repeated in this House if my contribution is devoted to the surprising absence of another issue. Before I come to that, as a vice-chairman of the Chagos Islands all-party group I agree with everything that will be said by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, on the Chagossian return.

Baroness Whitaker (Labour)

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for his trailer for my remarks, and for his support.

The gracious Speech promises to “ensure the security, good governance and development of the Overseas Territories”.—[ Official Report , 8/4/13; col. 3.]

This is sorely needed for the Chagos Islands, the inhabitants of which were exiled from their homeland by the British Government in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I am indebted to our former high commissioner to Mauritius, Mr David Snoxell, for his advice.

It is not as if anyone now thinks this exile was an example of good governance. On 23 April 2009 the then shadow Foreign Minister, Keith Simpson, said: “There is no doubt that there is a moral imperative”, and that, “I suspect … the all-party view is that the rights of the Chagossian people should be recognised, and that there should at the very least be a timetable for the return of those people at least to the outer islands”.—[ Official Report , Commons, 23/4/09; col. 176WH.]

In a letter to a member of the public on 23 March 2010 the shortly to be Foreign Secretary William Hague said: “I can assure you that if elected to serve as the next British government we will work to ensure a fair settlement of this long-standing dispute”.

I will briefly remind noble Lords of how this tragic fate overtook the Chagossians. In 1965 our Government detached the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in order to form a separate British Indian Ocean Territory, in defiance of four UN resolutions. They reclassified the inhabitants as contract workers, made the largest, most southerly, island, Diego Garcia, available to the United States for use as a military base, and gradually removed the Chagossians from all the islands, eventually depositing them in Mauritius and the Seychelles during 1971 to 1973. Some came to Britain from 2001.

Now, fewer than 700 of the original islanders remain. The United States base on Diego Garcia is 140 miles away from the outer islands, to which some would like to return. When the Government of the United States were asked by our Foreign Office publicly to affirm, as was reported in a WikiLeaks cable from the United States embassy in London, that they required the whole of the British Indian Ocean Territory for defence purposes, they did not do so. The State Department has indicated informally to a member of the Chagos Islands (British Indian Ocean Territory) All-Party Parliamentary Group, of which I also am a member, that if asked it will review the security implications of a limited return. Our Law Lords described official letters that claimed that there was a defence risk as “fanciful” and “highly imaginative”.

In 2014 the agreement with the United States will come up for renewal. I suggest that this gives an excellent opportunity for exploring whether a small number of Chagossian people could return to the outer islands. It would seem to have no security or defence implications for the base on Diego Garcia. I am assured that many will not want to return, but all want their right to do so restored, and some will want only to visit their homeland and come away.

Would this be a burden to the British taxpayer? The Foreign Office set up a feasibility study in 2001, which claimed that resettlement was not feasible and anyway was very expensive. The infeasibility argument has been discredited by one of its own consultants and by others, most recently in a report by Professor Paul Kench of Auckland University. As for the cost, it would be idle to pretend that justice would not carry some. However, the United Kingdom would not have to bear the whole burden of restoring the tiny infrastructure. The European Union high representative has confirmed to Charles Tannock MEP that funds are available. The UNDP may have capacity and it would surely be right for the United States, Mauritius and the Commonwealth to do their bit.

What of the marine protected area, with its full no-take ban on fishing—except, as it happens, around the waters of Diego Garcia, where recreational fishing can be practised—which was hastily declared by David Miliband, as Foreign Secretary, just before the last election? It is unlike most other MPAs, for instance around the Galapagos Islands, where the people who live there help to maintain it.

There is worldwide support for a marine protected area that takes account of the interests of the Chagossians and Mauritius. However, it should have been properly conceived, with a defined role for inhabitants. As it stands, there is only one vessel to patrol the ban over 640,000 square kilometres, and I have seen photographs of very recent substantial illegal fishing operating within the MPA.

The MPA was proclaimed without taking account of the views of the Chagossians, who applied for judicial review in the high court, or of Mauritius, which has brought a case under the Permanent Court of Arbitration for breach of the Convention on the Law of the Sea. There is much work to be done to make the MPA what it ought to be so that everyone can wholeheartedly support it.

In the time available I have simply tried to pinpoint the chief aspects of a manifest and agreed injustice of a fundamental kind. This hardly matches the human rights standards of the Commonwealth charter, which we signed only last March. However, it is very good news that the Foreign Secretary has shown indications of a positive attitude to righting these wrongs in his statement following the end of the human rights case in Strasbourg, and that he is reviewing the policy on resettlement. I hope that the Minister can say how the Government will now proceed and when Parliament will be consulted about the review of that policy.

Lord Avebury (Liberal Democrat)

My Lords, I warmly echo the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, on the right of the Chagossians to return to their homeland, from which they were ejected many years ago in one of the most shameful episodes in British colonial history. I also join her in welcoming the review by the Government of their Chagos policy, which I hope will lead to the removal of this blot on our reputation.

Lord Rosser (Labour)

At this point, I refer to the speech made by my noble friend Lady Whitaker and the issue of the Chagos islanders—a matter also referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham and Lord Avebury. The issue is whether they should be able to return to the outer islands. My noble friend referred to the statement made in 2010 by the now Foreign Secretary that he would,

“work to ensure a fair settlement of this long-standing dispute”.

My noble friend asked what the Government were doing or intending to do in the light of that undertaking. I do not know what that statement by the Foreign Secretary was meant to mean. I hope that the Minister will provide a direct answer to my noble friend’s question when he responds.

Lord Astor of Hever (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Defence; Conservative)

The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, asked why the Chagos islanders could not return. We regret what happened in the late 1960s and 1970s. The responsibility for decisions taken then has been acknowledged by successive Governments. However, the reasons for not allowing resettlement, namely feasibility and defence security, are clear and compelling. The Government will continue to look at the issues involved and engage with all those with an interest.

35th Meeting of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group – Co-ordinator’s Summary

Posted in APPG, conservation, CRG, Diego Garcia, FCO, Legal, MPA, Parliament, USA, Wikileaks, William Hague on April 25th, 2013 by Mark Fitzsimons – Be the first to comment

Photo: Gail Johnson

The Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group held its postponed 35th meeting on 24 April 2013.  Olivier Bancoult, the Chairman of the Chagos Refugees Group, visiting the UK for the Judicial Review of the Chagos MPA, was invited to address the Group. He was accompanied by the new chair of the UK Chagos Support Association, Sabrina Jean.

In closed session members discussed the Foreign Secretary’s reply to the Chairman, in which Mr Hague had said he would be happy to meet the APPG later in the year once progress had been made with the review of policy on British Indian Ocean Territories (BIOT). Members noted that it was now 4 months since Mr Hague had announced on 20 December 2012 that he would take stock of the policy towards the resettlement of BIOT. They questioned how it was possible for such a review to take so long given that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) had been considering the options since an earlier review announced by the new Foreign Secretary in June 2010. Members wanted to discuss their proposals with the Foreign Secretary before decisions were taken.
The Group discussed the 21 Parliamentary Questions and Questions on Chagos tabled since the last meeting on 13 February. They felt that, although largely repeating the same positions, the tone was more positive. They were encouraged by the reply of Mr Simmonds to a PQ on 25 March from Andrew George MP in which the Minister had stated that “Ministers and officials continue to engage with Chagossians as part of our review of policy. This will include the costs, benefits and other consequences of any kind of resettlement”. Members felt that Baroness Warsi’s replies to Lord Avebury’s letters, regarding diplomatic solutions concerning Mauritius and the Chagossians, rather than litigation, were not positive.
Members took note of Dominic Kennedy’s interview with Henry Bellingham MP, the previous Foreign Office Minister in charge of BIOT and now a member of the Group, in The Times of 29 March. They were pleased to see his suggestions for moving towards a limited resettlement. These included a private sector led initiative, an eco-tourism project, a centre on the Outer Islands for research, enhanced mooring facilities, a jetty, an eco hotel and a visitors centre on Diego Garcia for Chagossians. Members agreed with Mr Bellingham that it would give the Chagossians “a feeling that Britain and America were atoning for the sins of the past”.
The scientific review (Oct 2012) by Dr Paul Kench of the 2002 Feasibility Study was discussed. Members agreed that his report demonstrated that the Feasibility Study, on which the FCO had always based their policy against resettlement, had been seriously flawed, contained contradictory evidence and was lacking in transparency and tested scientific data, resulting in incorrect conclusions. The Group reiterated their wish for a new scientifically rigorous and up to date study.
The Coordinator briefed the Group on the current Judicial Review of the MPA (15-24 April). The Group took note of the judges’ ruling concerning the inadmissibility of wikileak evidence (which had been allowed in an earlier judgment by a High Court judge) on the grounds that  Article 24 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations precluded the use of communications belonging to diplomatic missions. Members wondered if  FCO Ministers had properly considered the wider implications of such a ruling before it was raised by the FCO legal team in court.
The next meeting will be on 5 June 2013.