David Snoxell is Coordinator of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group.
A decade ago, on 10 June 2004, Privy Council Orders were used to deprive the Chagossian people of their right to return to their homeland, the Chagos Islands. These shameful Orders bypassed Parliament, overturned a high court judgment and Robin Cook’s decision to proceed with a full feasibility study. As High Commissioner to Mauritius at the time, I advised the FCO that such an undemocratic device would compound the human rights violations and deceptions of the seventies and land the UK in costly legal actions and international opprobrium.
Millions have since been spent on litigation arising from these Orders. Then, on 1 April, 2010 Foreign Secretary Miliband had a Marine Protected Area surrounding the Islands proclaimed. This too triggered litigation contesting the legality of the MPA, brought both by the Chagossians and separately by Mauritius. Both executive actions, done without Parliamentary consultation, have led to a highly charged and complex political and legal maelstrom which the Coalition is, after four years in office, now trying to resolve. They have not got long in which to do so.
Since it was established in 2008, the Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group has pressed for an overall settlement of this Cold War legacy and for an independent resettlement feasibility study. Elaborate terms of reference have been drawn up in consultation with the various parties, including the Chagossians. KPMG was appointed to carry out the study. Its team of experts started in April and visited the Islands in May. In June they will hold consultations with the Chagossian groups. The study is to be concluded in January, in time for Ministers to make decisions, before the election, on resettlement and on the future of the Islands. So far the FCO are keeping to their undertaking that the process will be open and transparent, involving both the Chagossians and Parliamentarians at every stage. This is a welcome change from the deceptions of the past. The APPG will meet Mark Simmonds, the FCO Minister responsible, on 15 July. The Group feels that Parliament must debate the study findings before Minsters make their decisions, to be carried forward by the next government.
Although not part of the study, Ministers will also consider the UK’s long standing commitment to restore sovereignty to Mauritius when the Territory is no longer needed for defence. Since only one of the 56 islands, Diego Garcia is required there is no reason why an accommodation with Mauritius should not be reached. They have been asking for talks on the future of Chagos for years, but officials continue to stall. So Mauritius resorted to the law. The award on their case, heard from 23 April to 6 May by an international Arbitral Tribunal, will be announced later this year. Although the Chagossians lost their case for judicial review of the MPA in the Court of Appeal last month, the Court agreed that the WikiLeaks evidence, which revealed an improper motive, was admissible. An appeal to the Supreme Court is under consideration. If the Foreign Secretary had in 2010 listened to those urging that the proposed MPA take account of Chagossian and Mauritian interests, the litigation it provoked would not have arisen. Four years on, the MPA remains in legal limbo, eating up legal costs which should be going into resettlement and conservation.
There are also the terms for the continuation of the 1966 UK/US agreement on BIOT (British Indian Ocean Territory) to be worked out but this is not as complicated as it sounds. The deadline for this review to begin is 31 December 2014. As the US must have agreed to the inclusion of Diego Garcia in the feasibility study they clearly do not rule out a possible settlement there. Indeed Diego is the obvious place to try out a resettlement. By so doing the potential for environmental damage will be minimised and infrastructure costs reduced.
Whilst in opposition Coalition politicians supported the goal of a fair and just settlement. The legacy of the last Government was a contested MPA. This Government can do better by restoring the right to return, thus removing a blot on the UK’s human rights record. This would reflect Britain’s values as a nation that ought to put human rights into practice in its own backyard. To resolve what are essentially political issues requires a sustained input of diplomacy, negotiation and compromise. But isn’t that what the FCO is for?