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 – Be the first to 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


Slow progress

Posted in Uncategorized on June 7th, 2013 by Robert Bain – Be the first to comment

Impatience continues in parliament as the government drags its feet on the Chagos question. Baroness Warsi said in response to a question about evaluating resettlement of the islands: “We are currently reviewing our policy towards BIOT [British Indian Ocean Territory – officialspeak for Chagos]” but that “we do not have a timetable for the conclusion of this review”.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Chagos was, by all accounts, a little disappointed that the government wasn’t even willing to say how long it might take them to conduct a review. It doesn’t suggest the matter is being addressed with much urgency.

Short film about the Chagos islanders

Posted in Uncategorized on March 10th, 2013 by Robert Bain – Be the first to comment

Here’s a great 10-minute film on Chagos by Anja Popp of QMTV (the online TV channel of Queen Mary, University of London).

“White House Recognizes, But Fails to Accept Responsibility for Chagossian Hardships”

Posted in Diego Garcia, ECHR, Uncategorized, USA on January 30th, 2013 by Mark Fitzsimons – Be the first to comment

JURIST Guest Columnist Elena Landriscina, New York Civil Liberties Union Legal Fellow, revisits her article on the displacement of the Chagos Islanders by the US and UK. Here, she examines what she argues is the lackluster response of the US to a petition of the plight of the Chagossians and calls for the US to right its wrongs

33rd Meeting of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group – Co-ordinator’s Summary

Posted in APPG, ConDem, conservation, ECHR, Legal, Mauritius, MPA, Parliament, Uncategorized, USA, William Hague on January 11th, 2013 by Mark Fitzsimons – Be the first to comment

Photo: Gail Johnson

The Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group held its 33rd meeting on 10 January 2013 to consider the situation following the Strasbourg ruling that the case of the Chagos Islanders was inadmissible and the political options available for making progress.

While noting that Strasbourg had not ruled on whether the treatment of the Chagossians had been a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights the Group understood that Court procedure did not allow for appeals to the Grand Chamber against a majority decision of inadmissibility by the seven judge Chamber. Leaving aside other legal options the Group considered how best to respond to the Foreign Secretary’s statement, following the Court’s decision, that “the Government will take stock of our policy towards the resettlement of BIOT” and that “we will be as positive as possible in our engagement with Chagossian groups and all interested parties”. The Group felt that this was an encouraging response and that it offered an opportunity to begin the process of bringing about an overall political settlement of all the issues concerning the future of the Chagossians and BIOT. These issues were the right to return and resettlement, defence and security, feasibility, and cost, the need for an independent scientific study, conservation and the Marine Protected Area and future management and sovereignty of the Archipelago.

The Group considered a range of ideas for helping the Foreign Secretary to move forward on these issues and to establish the common ground between all the parties. It was agreed that the Chairman should write to Mr Hague to set out the Group’s ideas and to ask for a meeting to discuss them. Members also decided to table a number of PQs and to ask for urgent debates in both Houses of Parliament. The Group felt that substantial progress should be made this year before 2014 when the 1966 UK/US agreement comes up for renewal and potential renegotiation. 2015 would be the year of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of BIOT, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Mauritius and the end of the Coalition’s five year mandate. For the Government to meet its pre-election promises of a just and fair settlement in time it was important to begin discussions as soon as possible.

Jobs on Diego Garcia?

Posted in Uncategorized on September 30th, 2012 by Robert Bain – 1 Comment

We’ve learned through the Philippines Overseas Employment Association of dozens of jobs on Diego Garcia being advertised in the Philippines, including posts for electricians, cashiers, mechanics, stock clerks, janitors, welders, firefighters, engineers and massage therapists.

As far as we’re aware, these jobs are not being advertised in Mauritius, the Seychelles or the UK, where most of the Chagossian community live. We can’t help but wonder why. In the past, very few Chagossians have been able to get jobs in their homeland since being evicted, despite many trying.

More in our full September update.

Wind of change?

Posted in Uncategorized on September 9th, 2012 by Robert Bain – Be the first to comment

An aerial view of Diego Garcia (copyright holder unknown)

If you haven’t already seen this, it’s worth a read. Sean Carey looks at the ‘wind of change’ passing over Diego Garcia as Britain indicates it may be willing to return to the bargaining table to discuss the future of Chagos with Mauritius.

Why Chagos should be restored to its rightful owners

Posted in Uncategorized on June 28th, 2012 by Robert Bain – 1 Comment

Sean Carey has a great piece on The Guardian website about the case for restoring sovereignty of Chagos to its rightful owners:

“The UK has a golden opportunity based on realpolitik, but also by supporting human rights and international law, to restore the Chagos archipelago to its rightful owners: the islanders who once possessed their homes and land by virtue of customary title, and Mauritius from which it was illegally excised.”

British colonial files released following legal challenge

Posted in ECHR, FCO, Philippa Gregory, Uncategorized, William Hague on April 21st, 2012 by Mark Fitzsimons – Be the first to comment

Secret files from British colonial rule – once thought lost – have been released by the government, one year after they came to light in a High Court challenge to disclose them. Some of the papers cover controversial episodes, including the expulsion of the Chagossians from their homeland. They also reveal efforts to destroy and reclassify sensitive files. The Foreign Office says it is now releasing “every paper” it can. But academics say the Foreign Office’s “failure” to deliver the archive for decades has created a “legacy of suspicion”.

The first batch of papers reveals efforts to deport Chagos islanders from the British Indian Ocean Territories and was discussed on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on 18th April 2012, where Philippa Gregory, a Patron of the UK Chagos Support Association, commented:

“They are perfectly clear that they are lying. One official talks about telling a whopping fib or even a little fib, depending on how many [Chagossians] they are trying to pretend don’t exist.

It’s this kind of sporty, jolly hockey sticks attitude, like it’s all a bit of a game; like we are still in the Empire; like it’s a bit of fun to go to a foreign country, destroy their lives…The decision that was taken on this day, that has never been rescinded, destroyed the lives of that community.”

Sealand v Chagos on Saturday 5 May

Posted in Uncategorized on April 15th, 2012 by Robert Bain – Be the first to comment

There’s a rare chance to see international (sort of) football in Surrey’s Godalming Town FC next month. The Chagos Islands team will play the Principality of Sealand on Saturday 5 May.

Kick off is at 2:30, it’s £3 to get in, including a programme and access to the clubhouse afterwards to watch the FA Cup Final.