David Snoxell is Co-ordinator of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group.
The Government’s unexpected decision last week not to allow resettlement of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) is another human rights travesty for Chagossians, who have campaigned to return to their homeland since the 1970s. This means that, after 17 years, further litigation will be resumed. The Supreme Court concluded in June that if the Government failed to restore the right of abode there could be grounds for judicial review.
This continuing violation of basic human rights undermines the UK’s commitment to universal human rights. In its various capacities, the UN has regularly called on the UK to allow the Chagossians to return. The most recent pronouncement was made in September by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, and the UN Human Rights Committee, which monitors the observance of the UN Human Rights Conventions, has taken the same view. It is ironic that the decision was announced in a written ministerial statement by Baroness Anelay, the Foreign Office Minister responsible for human rights and the UN who, on UN Day in October, referred to the UK’s “unwavering commitments to human rights”. We remain guilty of double standards and hypocrisy.
The BIOT All-Party Parliamentary Group now has 51 members from all ten political parties. including three former Foreign Office Ministers who had responsibility for Chagos. The group was outraged by the Government’s decision. Members had a forthright discussion with Ministers from the Foreign Office, Defence, and Overseas Development departments immediately following the announcement ,and there were emergency debates in both Houses of Parliament the next day. Of the 20 members who spoke in the Commons debate, only one supported the Government – and he was the former minister for BIOT. The APPG issued a strong statement rejecting the Government’s decision. They felt it had ignored the arguments put by the group and by experts over the years. They did not accept the Government’s premise that feasibility, defence, security interests, and cost were sufficient grounds for not agreeing to a pilot resettlement, recommended by a KPMG feasibility study. The written statement lacked any reasoned argument as to why resettlement could not be implemented.
Members appealed to ministers to think again on the basis of other studies, the KPMG report and further discussions with the group. They are well aware that the US is not opposed to resettlement, and that any security concerns are easily manageable. Given that, with the agreement of the US, the KPMG consultants had visited Diego Garcia and that this island was their preferred option, it was contrived to deploy defence and security as a reason against resettlement.
The APPG felt that the costs and style of resettlement had been much exaggerated. There was no need for the taxpayer to fund the entire cost, as the ministerial statement had implied. The Americans, who do not pay rent for the base, could contribute and international funds would likely be forthcoming. The group took the view that the continuing damage to the UK’s reputation for the promotion of human rights far outweighed the cost and difficulties of trying out a resettlement.
Responding to the Commons debate, Alan Duncan apologised for the wrongs done to the Chagossians. An hour later ,a communiqué was issued by the Mauritian Prime Minister’s office which noted that “no amount of money and no public apology by the UK Government can make lawful what is unlawful” and that the decision “is a manifest breach of international law and outrageously flouts their human rights”. Indeed, the wrongs of the past have only been compounded by the Government’s decision.
Perhaps the talks on sovereignty with Mauritius that David Cameron agreed to in July offer a way forward. Under threat of an United Nations General Assembly resolution in September, the UK agreed that if the talks did not result in an agreement between the two parties by July, then the matter would be considered by UNGA, and most probably referred to the International Court of Justice for an Advisory Opinion. A session was held in early November in Port Louis, and a second is due in London next month. I would expect the future of the Chagossians to feature in these talks and in any final agreement, as it would if debated in UNGA.
These talks may offer a way forward. Mauritius could present the UK delegation with its ideas on how a gradual transition, with confidence-building measures, can be established towards eventual Mauritian sovereignty. That will require a staged timetable. The 1966 UK/US agreement, which is to continue until 2036, provides the obvious date for a transfer of sovereignty, although there is no reason why the outer islands (not Diego Garcia, where the US base is) should not be transferred to Mauritius long before then. In the meantime, there could be co-management of the islands and Mauritius could offer help and support for a Chagossian resettlement. A possible scenario is that the Chagossians, who are both British and Mauritian citizens, return under UK/Mauritius co-management. I can see no reason why a satisfactory agreement cannot be reached well before July.