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 Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group held its 40th meeting on 17 December 2013
The Group reviewed the progress made since its first meeting 5 years ago, on 16 December 2008. Members recalled the purpose of the Group was “to help bring about a resolution of the issues concerning the future of the Chagos Islands and the Chagossian people”. The Group had also decided that “following the end of legal proceedings (Law Lords judgment Oct 08) the responsibility for the Chagos Islanders now rests with Parliament”. At its second meeting on 29 Jan 2010 the Group agreed several objectives one of which was. “A truly independent study of the practicalities and way in which a limited resettlement of Salomon and Peros Bahnos can be achieved….. drawn up in consultation with interested parties, not least the Chagossians”.They were pleased to note that after 5 years the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) had now agreed to a new study. They were disappointed that another of its objectives (“Discussions with Mauritius on the future sovereignty of the Outer Islands”) had not so far begun although its objective (“Re-negotiation of the Agreement with the US by 2015, to reflect the right of the Chagossians to live on the Islands and any changes to the sovereignty of those Islands”) appeared to be on course.
Members discussed the proposed Terms of Reference for the new feasibility study. They endorsed the points made by Baroness Whitaker, Lord Avebury and Lord Luce in the Lords debate on 27 November, in particularly that it would be necessary to cut the length of the study from 12 to 6 months in order for decisions to be made and implemented before the general election. Members agreed that they should continue to monitor the process and timetable. closely.
The Group decided that the Chairman should write to the Foreign Secretary about this and other concerns such as the need to engage Mauritius in a diplomatic dialogue concerning the future management of the Islands and of the MPA.. As Lord Luce had said in the debate ” it is essential that they (Mauritius) are regarded as a vital player in any Chagossian solution”. Members agreed with Lord Avebury’s suggestion, made in the Lords debate, that to help break the ice the new BIOT Science Adviser, along with members of the BIOT Science Advisory Group, should have meetings with their Mauritian counterparts to discuss a joint approach to the science of Chagos, sharing data and current research. The Group decided to invite the Mauritian High Commissioner to a meeting.
Members were keen to take up the Foreign Secretary’s offer of a further meeting which he had made at the last meeting with the Group on 15 December 2011.
The Group also discussed legal developments.They took note that permission had been granted by the High Court for an appeal against the judicial review of the MPA to be heard on 31 March on the three grounds of improper motive, fishing rights and EU law. Members were interested to learn that, with respect to the ruling of the Law Lords in Oct 2008, lawyers had recently written to the Treasury Solicitor alleging a miscarriage of justice, on the grounds that the flawed feasibility study and the way it had been influenced, was a key factor on which the majority judgment had been based. The letter invited the Foreign Secretary to set aside that judgment and restore the right of return,
The next meeting of the Group is on 5 February 2014.
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.
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.
Coordinator of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group
29 Oct 2013
The Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group held its 38th meeting on 9th October 2013.
The Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group held its 5th Annual General Meeting and 37th meeting on 16 July.
The Group re-elected the current office holders (Chairman Jeremy Corbyn MP; Vice-Chairs, Lord Avebury, Lord Ramsbotham, Andrew Rosindell MP, Henry Smith MP; Secretary, Andrew George MP). David Snoxell was reappointed Co-ordinator and Richard Gifford Legal Adviser – the Group thanked them for their continuing support and service to the Group.
The Group considered recent parliamentary questions (PQs), interventions in debates and correspondence with Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Ministers since its last meeting on 5 June. They felt that progress in tackling the issues was at last being made. Thanks were recorded to Baroness Whitaker and Lord Avebury for maintaining the correspondence with Baroness Warsi which had gradually exposed the weakness of FCO arguments.They welcomed the written statement to Parliament of 8 July by Mr Simmonds (Update on the BIOT Policy Review) announcing a new Feasibility Study into resettlement which the Group had been advocating ever since its first meeting in January 2009. They commended the FCO for reversing its position. Members were not persuaded that resettlement would entail a “heavy ongoing contingent liability for the UK tax payer”. The FCO could approach the EU,US, UN, Commonwealth, NGOs and the private sector to share the costs. Nor were they persuaded that the US was opposed to resettlement since the US had never said so publicly, although invited by the APPG on several occasions to explain any defence and security reservations they might have.
Members were concerned that the timing for the Feasibility Study would go beyond the May 2015 general election. They agreed that decisions could not be left to a new government and that the study must be ready by the summer recess 2014 to give time for Ministers to take decisions on resettlement and implement them well before the election. The Group considered a draft letter to the Foreign Secretary, setting out its views on the Review and Feasibility Study. This would be dispatched before the summer recess on 18 July but it would not at this stage be made public. The Group asked the Chairman to table a number of PQs about different aspects of the Review and Feasibility Study. The Chairman said he would ask for an adjournment debate for the September session and Baroness Whitaker would ask for a similar debate in the Lords in October.
The next meeting will be held on 9 October.
In an article for the Mauritius Times (No. 3124), David Snoxell, coordinator of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group, reviews the outcome of the judicial review of the Chagos Marine Protected Area (MPA) and the way in which the then Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, rushed through the declaration of a no-take MPA against official advice:
The documents released for the judicial review provide fascinating insights into the advice being submitted to the Foreign Secretary, leading up to the announcement of the MPA on 1 April 2010. Officials cautioned that the results of the public consultation should be announced but not rushed, pending careful “management” of the Chagossians and Mauritius. “There was further work to do with stakeholders before establishing an MPA.” Officials warned that “Our best defence against the legal challenges which are likely to be forthcoming is to demonstrate a conscientious and careful decision making process. A rapid decision now would undermine that… We would expect to recommend a phased introduction of a no-take MPA which would give time to put a sustainable funding package in place.”
Within hours David Miliband brushed aside official advice and decided on an immediate designation of a full ‘no-take’ MPA. On 31 March senior officials made last ditch attempts to head the Foreign Secretary off. One noted, “I think this approach risks deciding (and being seen to decide) policy on the hoof for political timetabling reasons rather than on the basis of expert advice and public consultation. That’s a very different approach to the one we recommended yesterday… to be developed over time with the involvement of many stakeholders and to be based on science as well as politics.” That evening officials were instructed to prepare a statement announcing the MPA the following day just as Parliament went into the Easter recess. It sparked emergency debates in both Houses five days later.
The judgment observes that “it was the personal decision of the Foreign Secretary to declare an MPA on 1 April 2010, against the advice of officials.” So his green legacy was secured but at much cost in terms of worldwide perceptions of the MPA, the UK’s reputation, the deepening mistrust, felt by the Chagossians and Mauritius, and the litigation which three years later is still with us.
Further discussions, as officials recommended, could have resulted in an MPA that accommodated Chagossian and Mauritian interests. The Coalition Government would probably have insisted on it anyway.
Today’s Telegraph Mandrake column highlights awards given to those who have worked against the just resettlement of the Chagossians in their homeland:
The Queen’s birthday honours require time to appreciate all the black humour. Simon Hughes, secretary of the Chagos Conservation Trust, got an MBE for “services to environmental conservation,” just five days after the Chagossians lost their judicial review of the Chagos Marine Protected Area.
Hughes was not keen on the islanders returning to resume fishing after they had been exiled in the Seventies to make way for a US air base. “We want to conserve the fish, coral, flora and fauna and humans are not compatible with that,” he had noted. Other experts felt that involving indigenous populations in conservation projects was the key to making them work.
In January, Derek Walton, the FCO’s legal adviser, got an OBE for “human rights and diplomacy,” just 12 days after he had seen off the islanders’ last hope of returning home at the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg.
The question is when will a supporter of Chagossian human rights and conservation of the Archipelago be honoured?
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