Guest Blog: 20 Chagos Myths & why they are wrong
In this Guest Blog Chagos All-Party Parliamentary Group Coordinator David Snoxell, also a former High Commissioner to Mauritius, explores 20 "myths, mantras and platitudes" which British government officials and others have used to oppose Chagossians' right to return to their homeland over the years.
As with all guest blogs, Mr Snoxell's views are his own and aren't necessarily the view of UK Chagos Support Association.
Chagos myths, mantras and platitudes, 1966-2016
1. The Ilois were transient contract labourers from Mauritius, described by Sir Denis Greenhill (a future FCO PUS) in 1966 as “some few Tarzans or Men Fridays whose origins are obscure”.
The large majority, who went back several generations to the slave labour of the late 18th century, regarded Chagos as their homeland where they had a settled and secure if rudimentary life. Approximately 1,500 were exiled to Mauritius and Seychelles.
2. The US insisted that the UK remove the population from all the islands.
The archives reveal that the US asked only for the people to be removed from Diego Garcia. So they were first taken to the Outer Islands. It was British officials who then decided on a “clean sweep” of all the islands.
3. The coconut plantations were no longer economically viable and would have closed down anyway.
To bring commercial activity to an end the BIOT authorities started in 1967 running down the plantations which were finally closed in 1973. With investment the plantation company would have continued to provide employment and economic activity which should have been profitable.
4. The people were “relocated” and resettled in Mauritius with generous compensation and resettlement support and became the responsibility of Mauritius.
They were not resettled - they were dumped on the port side in Port Louis, Mauritius and also in Seychelles. The initial compensation was meagre, not paid out for 6-10 years after they had been deported and quickly extinguished by debt repayment, lack of financial management/advice, and wastage. Chagossians continued to be UK citizens. Those who were removed to Seychelles (about 500) were not compensated.
5. The English Courts and ECHR confirmed that the compensation had been generous and was in full and final settlement.
Spin - no courts said it was generous or full. They said that while it was a final settlement it did "little to repair the callous and shameful treatment suffered", early deaths and poverty of the Chagossians over 40 years.
6. The islands are remote and low lying, subject to flooding from the sea.
They are naturally low-lying coral atolls because of the way they are created by storms from coral reef debris. The islands will always be liable to flooding in some areas but there is no evidence that this is any worse than over many decades, except where man has interfered with the shorelines (eg the area round the US base on Diego Garcia has been modified and now needs sea defences).
7. Resettlement is not viable as no work is available, nobody wants to invest and coconut plantations finished.
KPMG and other studies have shown that there is scope for fishing, agriculture, work on the base, artisanal crafts, conservation, environmental protection, and monitoring.
8. The US opposed resettlement for defence, intelligence and security reasons.
The US never said publicly that they were opposed to resettlement, only that it was a matter for the UK. State Department letters written at the behest of the FCO for use in the litigation in 2004 and 2006 were described by the Law Lords in 2008 as “fanciful”. President Obama did not raise any objections when Jeremy Corbyn discussed it with him in April 2016, nor apparently with David Cameron. US bases around the world live cheek-by-jowl with local populations.
9. There is nothing to stop Chagossians applying for jobs on the US airbase providing they meet the criteria.
\hat has been known since 2002 but the reason few Chagossians apply is because no families are allowed. Low pay rates, no leave for 2 years and basic living conditions also make work on the base unattractive. Chagossians have no wish to live as contract workers with no right of abode.
10. Climate change means the islands will disappear by the end of the century.
Speculation, not scientifically proven. Many low-lying islands with populations around the world. Chagos islands like all coral atolls expand as well as contract over time. Although sea level has been shown to be rising in the area, it will be many decades before significant effects are seen. Scientists do not know how the islands might adapt.
11. There is not enough fresh water to sustain resettlement.
The islands receive little rain. There are fresh water lenses on the 3 islands which used to support populations. Peros Banhos can support 3,000 people, Salomon 1,500 and Diego Garcia more than 20,000. The US base on Diego Garcia draws its freshwater from the lens where it is situated (~ 3-5,000 people). Chagos has the highest annual rainfall of all Indian Ocean atolls (Diego Garcia 2,600mm per year, Peros Banhos 4,000).
12. An uninhabited, ‘no-take’ MPA protects the islands, their wildlife, and the pristine coral reefs and fish stocks.
The islands have been impacted by shipwrecks (bringing rats) and 200 years of coconut plantations. On Diego Garcia, the US military have dramatically changed over 50% of the land area, removing tree cover, and introducing invasive species; the coral reefs have been blasted and dredged; jet fuel spills have penetrated into the freshwater lens; and the lagoon waters have been contaminated by effluent.
Scientific evidence shows that the coral reefs were in their best condition when the islands were inhabited. They have deteriorated since then. Global warming and worldwide pollution (e.g. plastic detritus) have severely impacted the reefs.
Fishery legislation meant that both coral reef and pelagic fish stocks were being managed in a sustainable and excellent condition before the imposition of the Marine Protected Area.
13. The Chagos Islands are a global reference site for scientific studies.
They are a useful but not a unique site for investigating anthropogenic effects on marine ecosystems in the Indian Ocean. There are however many similar sites elsewhere in the world. Chagos would be enhanced by a more permanent research presence, requiring a resident population.
14. Resettlement will damage the delicate bio-diversity and lead to further destruction of the marine environment.
Not if carefully managed, together with training and education. The islands can also benefit from a resident population to restore vegetation, control alien species, and monitor the environment.
15. The cost would be a considerable burden on the taxpayer with contingent liabilities.
A tiny fraction of the aid programme. Islanders could become self-sufficient. The US could share initial costs but there is also potential investment (eg tourism) and support from private funding, international donors, NGOs and the European Development Fund. The Overseas Territories are “a first call” on the aid programme.
16. Human rights do not apply to Chagossians as CERD and UN Human Rights Covenants were not extended to British Indian Ocean Territory.
This is legal sophistry. Chagossians are British and entitled to the same human rights as everyone else as is clear from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and UN human rights instruments.
17. The government has been generous to the Chagossians with compensation, small projects, visits, and many have taken advantage of the right to live and work in the UK.
Partly true but this cannot be a substitute for the fundamental right of all people to return to and live in their own homeland.
18. “We cannot turn back the clock”.
A handy platitude. No one is suggesting that it can be. Rather that the clock should be turned forward and a pilot resettlement, preferably on DG, tried out. The cost, even of failure, would be much less than the damage to the UK's reputation plus the combined cost of continuing to oppose resettlement, resumed litigation and the enhanced project assistance announced on 16 November 16 (£40m over 10 years for all Chagossians across the world).
19. Only 25% (200) of those who took part in the FCO consultation in 2015 wish to return.
Foreign Office Minister Sir Alan Duncan told MPs on 17 November that only 200 Chagossians wished to resettle "when it was described what life on the islands would look like". This implies that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office consider that 200 are not enough to create a viable society and so be a waste of taxpayer money. Neighbouring Agelaga Archipelago, where there continues to be a flourishing trade in coconut oil and copra, has an airstrip and population of approx 300. In the FCO consultation document Chagossians were informed that those resettled on Diego Garcia could not have visitors. So they would have the old "contract labourer" status and unable to see their families and wider community.
Many Chagossians objected and responded: "I very much wish to resettle in my Homeland for which purpose the ordinary conditions of life must be available, such as security of home, job/pension, reasonable social services, and the freedom to travel and be visited by family". In addition to the 200 about 550, who also wanted to be able to take their families (approx 800), responded in this way. That would make over 1,500. It is not much different from the population of the Falklands in 1982 (1,800) when the UK went to war to regain sovereignty. Probably the Government would argue that while 200 is not viable 1,500 would cost too much. Compared to the cost of the Falklands war ($1.19 billion) or the £9bn DIFID has channelled into World Bank Trusts this year to spend up the aid programme (Times 19 Dec 16) it is insignificant.
20. The latest ‘post-truth’ mantra (November 16): Resettlement is “unrealistic”.
This was not the view of the KPMG report or other studies. It would be realistic and sustainable if the Government were to allow private investment in agriculture, fisheries and tourism.