The ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg on 20 December 2012 that the Chagos Islanders’ case was inadmissible was not the end of the road for Chagossians (RV article 29 December). It may be the end of the Strasbourg road but there are other ways of attaining the Holy Grail.
Leaving aside remaining legal options the best way forward and always has been, is in the political arena. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague clearly had this in mind in his response to the Strasbourg ruling – “The Government will take stock of our policy towards the resettlement of BIOT.” This presumably is the review of policy promised by Mr Hague soon after the Coalition Government took office in May 2010. It has been a long time in coming but Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) officials had persuaded Ministers that until Strasbourg had given its verdict the policy could not be changed lest it prejudice their case, although the Court had on two occasions invited the FCO to seek an out of court settlement. Even when Vince Cable, a leading Liberal Democrat member of the Cabinet, announced on 9 September 2010 that the Coalition Government was “dropping the case in Strasbourg, opting instead for a friendly settlement” he was obliged to recant a week later.
How then could an overall political settlement be achieved? Firstly the parties have to talk to each other – they include the main Chagossian groups in Mauritius and in UK and the Governments of the UK, US and Mauritius. There have never been substantive discussions on the future of BIOT and of the Chagossians. Perhaps an envoy of international standing could be invited to facilitate these discussions.
The issues break down into five interrelated areas – the right to return and resettlement, defence and security, feasibility and cost, conservation and the Marine Protected Area (MPA) and future sovereignty. All need to be treated separately as well as collectively for an overall settlement to be reached. There must be complete transparency and confidence building measures so that trust can be established between the parties. A deadline should be set, as there was for the handover of Hong Kong to China. An obvious deadline is 2015 which is the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of BIOT, the end of the Coalition Government’s five year mandate, a UK general election and the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Mauritius. It is also the year by which the 1966 UK/US agreement, which made BIOT available to the US for defence purposes, can be re-negotiated before it is rolled over for a further twenty years in 2016.
Mr Hague envisages an inclusive process. As he said, “we will be as positive as possible in our engagement with Chagossian groups and all interested parties”. The Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group is clearly an interested party. Since it was established in December 2008 it has held 32 meetings and in that time has made many suggestions to Ministers for resolving the issues. Its purpose is “to help bring about a resolution of the issues concerning the future of the Chagos Islands and the Chagossians”. It has forty members which include several members of the current Government. Five former FCO Ministers who had responsibility for the Indian Ocean have joined, although two have since left Parliament. With its all-party complexion and wealth of parliamentary and ministerial experience the Group is well placed to offer advice and suggestions.
But what could be the overall shape of a settlement? In my view it should consist of the following elements:
1. Restoration of the right of the Chagossians to return to their islands.
2. In consultation with the Chagossians an independent scientific study by leading world experts into the practicalities of resettlement and a survey of the number wishing to re-settle. Without sound science future policy will continue to be based upon the false assumptions of the past.
3. Depending upon the results of that study and survey an experimental settlement for a viable group of Chagossians, initially on Peros Banhos. Mauritius supports resettlement – many Chagossians are both Mauritian and British.
4. Discussions with the US leading to an understanding that a settlement 130 miles away from Diego Garcia does not threaten the security of their base and that the US will give benign support to the settlement.
5. Resumption of talks at ministerial level between Mauritius and the UK to consider the future of the Archipelago and a time table for how the UK’s oft-repeated commitment, to return the islands to Mauritius when no longer needed for defence purposes, is to be discharged. As a first step this could be co-management or joint sovereignty of the Outer Islands.
6. Agreement on how the interests of Chagossians and Mauritius are to be safeguarded in the Marine Protected Area. This could include an inshore fishing zone for Chagossians, a management role for Mauritius in the MPA and a joint application by the UK and Mauritius to UNESCO for designating the Archipelago as a World Heritage Site.
7. Provision for Chagossians who resettle to be employed in conservation work, managing the marine reserve and protecting the unique marine and terrestrial environment of the Archipelago.
After 13 years of litigation and mistrust none of this will be easy. It will take courage, reconciliation and compromise through diplomacy and negotiation to achieve. But it surely must be in the interest of all concerned, not least that of the Coalition Government, finally to put this relic of the Cold War behind them and redeem Britain’s reputation for upholding human rights. 2013 could be the breaking of the Chagos logjam.
Coordinator of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group
British High Commissioner to Mauritius 2000-04