David Snoxell is Co-ordinator of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group.
During nine years and 65 meetings the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group, which has members from all political parties in Parliament, has urged successive governments to restore the right of abode for all Chagossians wishing to return to their homeland whether for resettlement, work, or visits.
We have also called on ministers to establish a pilot resettlement on Diego Garcia where the US military base is situated, as recommended in the Government sponsored KPMG study in 2015. The US does not object to resettlement even on Diego Garcia.
In November 1965, before Mauritian independence in 1968, the UK detached the Chagos Archipelago to create a new colony, the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) for the construction of a US base on the largest island, Diego Garcia. The UK promised to return the territory to Mauritius when no longer required. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher told Parliament that sovereignty would “revert” to Mauritius when the islands were no longer needed for defence purposes.
That commitment has been repeated by successive governments. Between 1968-73 the Chagossian people were deported to Mauritius and Seychelles, although they could have remained on the 54 “Outer Islands” which have never been used for defence facilities. If the archipelago had not been detached the people would still be living there and the islands part of Mauritius today. The issues of resettlement and sovereignty are thus closely linked.
Since my last piece in ConservativeHome in November 2016 there has been a major development on the Chagos front. This was the adoption of a UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution on 22 June, requesting the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion on the legal consequences of the separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965.
It was carried by 94 in favour, 15 against and 65 abstentions. To gain the support of only 14 members (of whom just two were Security Council, two Commonwealth and four EU) of the 193 UN member states was a telling diplomatic defeat for the UK.
The last time the issue came before the UNGA was in December 1965 when it adopted a resolution inviting “the administering Power (UK) to take no action which would dismember the Territory of Mauritius and violate its territorial integrity”. Fifty-two years later the 2017 resolution sent a clear message that UN member states expect the UK to bring an end to this relic of the Cold War, the continuing exile of the Chagossian people, and resolve the sovereignty dispute, known in UN speak as the completion of the decolonisation process.
The UK argues that this is a bilateral issue which should be settled in bilateral negotiation. But discussions between Mauritius and the UK concerning BIOT have taken place intermittently since 2000 without reaching agreement. So eventually Mauritius lost patience and took the matter to the UNGA to secure a resolution referring it to the ICJ for an advisory opinion.
However, the UK has never agreed to the sovereignty of the Chagos Islands being referred to the ICJ. Unlike disputes where both states agree to refer an issue to the ICJ for arbitration, an advisory opinion can be requested by an authorised body of the UN on a legal question and is non-binding. The Court provides its opinion on the questions put to it, in this case by the UNGA. It is up to the UNGA what it does about it.
The resolution drew attention to “the forcible removal by the UK of all the inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago” and requested the ICJ to consider the consequences under international law “arising from the continued administration by the UK of the Chagos Archipelago, including with respect to the inability of Mauritius to implement a programme for the resettlement on the Chagos Archipelago of its nationals in particular those of Chagossian origin”.
In a public statement issued at its meeting on 6 December the APPG noted that there was no need to postpone a pilot resettlement any longer and that the ICJ proceedings, which can take several years, must not be used as an excuse for delaying the restoration, on moral, ethical, and political grounds, of the right of abode.
For the UK to continue to argue against an ICJ Advisory Opinion would have consequences for the UK’s reputation in the UN. An advisory opinion could actually provide a way forward and a solid basis for settling these issues, thus contributing to a resolution of an urgent human rights tragedy that has endured for over 50 years.
The statement hoped that the ICJ would expedite its work and that its forthcoming Advisory Opinion would inspire the UNGA to work with the parties directly concerned to bring an end to the exile of the Chagossian people and contribute to the process of decolonisation.
It looks as if the resolution was also a contributory factor in another blow to Britain’s prestige – the failure on 21 November to get the UK judge on the ICJ re-elected for a second term. It is the first time in 71 years that a permanent member of the Security Council has lost its seat on the ICJ. Clearly many member states see the exile of the Chagossians and the excision of Chagos from Mauritius as unfortunate reminders of our colonial past.
The UK’s reputation for promotion of human rights and its standing in the UN have been damaged by its unwillingness to agree an overall settlement of the issues with Mauritius and the Chagossians. Prolonged litigation before the World’s Court will inflict further damage at a time when our future is uncertain. The issues are likely to be raised at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London in April.
In domestic litigation the Supreme Court heard in June the case brought by the Chagossians concerning the BIOT Marine Protected Area declared in 2010. A judgment is awaited. There will also be a judicial review of the Government’s decision in November 2016 against resettlement, to be heard by the High Court next year. Litigation will in 2019 go into a twentieth year. The cost to the tax payer is several million pounds and rising.
There needs to be a change from the UK’s legalistic approach, often it has to be said for the purpose of kicking the issues into the legal long grass, to a pragmatic and compromising approach if further expense and embarrassment are to be saved.