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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
David Snoxell, former British high commissioner to Mauritius, wrote a letter to the Guardian in response to its Editorial, making further pertinent points in relation to the judges ruling on the admissibility of Wikileaks evidence:
If the judges rule (Editorial, 19 April) that communications (eg WikiLeaks) emanating from diplomatic missions are protected by the Vienna convention, all such material held by their receiving governments will also be protected. The purpose of the convention was to protect diplomatic missions, not the archives of home governments which have more effective means of security protection. Do judges have the power to extend the scope of internationally negotiated UN conventions and would the Foreign and Commonwealth Office agree that this is desirable? Judges and government probably need more time to consider fully the implications of such a ruling than a complex judicial review on the legitimacy of the Chagos marine protected area allows.
A response to the stance of Yannick Mandarin with regards to the Chagos Marine Protected Area is published below:
Further to the letter of Yannick Mandarin.
We the younger generation of the Chagossian community expresses our complete disapproval of the stance taken by Yannick Mandarin. We believe that he has been grossly misled.
We live in Mauritius but the dream to go back to our forefathers’ homeland remains ours and not to be snatched cruelly by anyone.
Our identity, origins, norms, traditions and values are inspired and derived from the Chagossians’ culture. Despite the fact that we have never been to Chagos, our parents and/or grandparents have ensured that the culture is not eradicated.
Ultimately, we would one day like to visit, develop and stay on our forefathers’ homeland.
We strongly reject the assertion that the Chagossians natives should be expected to forget the land where they were born. We are not against the preservation and conservation of the environment but we do not accept that these measures should be implemented at the expense of fundamental breaches of Human Rights.
It is be to be noted that the hearing regarding the judicial review contesting the legality of the unilaterally declared Marine Protected Area “MPA” a claim brought by Olivier Bancoult, Leader of the Chagos Refugees Group (CRG) is currently being held at the Royal Court of Justice, London.
Mr. Claudy Pauline,
National Coast Guard
Mauritius Police Force
Gsm +(230) 259-5092
A recent Guardian article and editorial highlight the latest attempt by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) to suppress the truth about its motivation for the creation of a Marine Protected Area around the Chagos Islands, by insisting that evidence sourced from Wikileaks was inadmissable as evidence according to Diplomatic Privileges Act. This is the latest example of how the FCO, through its taxpayer-funded lawyers, has used every trick in the book to avoid facing up to the truth of Wikileaks. The Guardian states:
Clumsy vanishing tricks are back on the stage, this time in connection with the Chagos Islands. In a shaming chapter of British colonialism, the islands’ inhabitants were cleared away as part of a deal to create a US airbase, in which US backhanders and the misleading of parliament are established facts. Even William Hague is not trying to deny it all; his more modest – but still audacious – ambition is to get the courts to pretend that they have never seen a devastating memo that emerged as part of the 2010 US embassy cables. It records Colin Roberts – a mandarin now set for installation as the governor of the Falklands – allegedly explaining that a purportedly environmental scheme to create a “marine conservation park” including the islands will in fact “put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago’s former residents”, breathtaking evidence of a gulf between public policy and private motivation.
Faced with litigation concerning the lawfulness of the conservation policy, at the start of this week the Foreign Office was following its customary tactic of refusing to engage on the basis that it never confirms or denies leaks. Suddenly, however – and apparently without written argument – it switched strategies and announced that the memo could not be considered without violating the Vienna convention, which protects diplomatic correspondence.
We await the court’s written ruling, but the judges have already indicated they may accept an argument, which in effect recognises that the memo is authentic. That is only one bizarre implication of what could prove a very British cover-up. For if the law requires that this newly authenticated document be put back under wraps, where does that leave the likes of the Guardian, which has already released it? Must it now be “unpublished”, and taken down from the web? It is of course a ridiculous prospect, but then fear of ridicule never gets in the way of a good English scramble to pretend unfortunate things have never been seen.