David Snoxell is Coordinator of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group.
Last year on ConservativeHome, I noted that the climate (of Chagos discussions) had changed, but not the tide. Nearly two years later I can report that the tide is beginning to turn. But will it have done so completely by the time of the general election?
Immediately following the ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that the Chagos case was inadmissible, William Hague announced last December that the Government would take stock of its policy towards the resettlement of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). Its people were exiled in the early 1970s to make way for a US base on Diego Garcia. In 2002 an FCO inspired feasibility study concluded that resettlement would be precarious and costly.
Last July, Mark Simmonds, the Foreign Office Minister, announced a new study. Following a four month consultation process the draft terms of reference (TORs) were laid before Parliament last month. Feedback on the TORs, with a deadline of 18 December, was invited. The TORs will then be finalised, and consultant experts appointed to undertake the study. This process could take until March. The FCO expects the study to then take a further year.
Thereafter, Ministers will consider the findings and review all aspects of BIOT policy, including resettlement, defence and sovereignty. Unfortunately, this timetable brings the end result perilously close to the 2015 election. Indeed, it seems more likely that decisions on the study and a review of the policy would have to be held over to the next Government. While it is to their credit that the Foreign Office is this time determined to ensure that the study is seen as objective and thorough, and that the Chagossians are consulted, there is also the parliamentary timetable to be considered.
During a debate in the Lords in November, peers urged the Government to shorten the process so that decisions can be taken well before the election. The only way to achieve this would be to make the feasibility study six rather than twelve months. Since there have been several academic studies analysing the 2002 feasibility study over the past decade and, since significantly more scientific data is now available than in 2002, this should be possible. Clearly, speakers felt that the deadline of an election was an overriding factor.
It had taken until now to reach a point (commissioning a new study) which could have been decided when the Government came into office. In the run-up to the election, the Coalition parties had each promised to work for a fair and just solution. It was noted that the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group had been established in 2008 to press for justice, and will have its 40th meeting later this month. It has pressed for a new feasibility study since its first meeting.
Baroness Whitaker (Lab), who opened the debate, commended the draft TORs of the proposed study. These were far reaching, objective and imaginative, she said – providing a wide range of options and a comprehensive analysis of factors, including human rights, environmental, social, economic and legal. Whitaker noted that the reasoning for the abolition of the right of return and abode in 2004 had now largely been discredited by this new approach, and so should be restored. She reminded peers that the Foreign Secretary had said: “It is not in our character as a nation to have a foreign policy without a conscience, and neither is it in our interests”.
Speaking for the Labour party frontbench, in a distinctly more positive tone than when Labour were in office, Baroness Morgan urged the Government to explore the opportunities for the cost of resettlement to be shared between other interested governments, the EU and the US. She was sure that it was not beyond the wit of the US defence authorities on Diego Garcia to live alongside the Chagos Islanders and to employ them on the base. (The TORs include the possibility of resettlement on Diego).
Peers also called for Mauritius to be involved in the resettlement process since successive governments had undertaken to restore the sovereignty of the islands to Mauritius when no longer needed for defence purposes. There needed to be a dialogue with Mauritius, it was said, about the future management of the islands and of the Marine Protected Area, notwithstanding the pending Mauritian case against the MPA (at ITLOS) declared on the eve of the last election. The TORs allow for the MPA to be amended.
The tide seems to be turning. Chagossians can now, after 45 years, be a little optimistic about their future. As a first step their right to return should be restored and arrangements made to visit their homeland whenever they want to do so. With American cooperation a resettlement on Diego Garcia looks quite possible. This should feature in the extension of the 1966 UK/US agreement which comes up for renewal next year.