David Snoxell has been Coordinator of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) APPG since 2008. He was British High Commissioner to Mauritius, 2000-04, and Deputy Commissioner of the BIOT, 1995-7.
My previous piece for ConHome discussed the likelihood of the UK negotiating a settlement with Mauritius on the future of the Chagos Islands (British Indian Ocean Territory) and of the Chagossians who were evicted between 1968-73.
These long-standing issues go back to 1965 when the Chagos Archipelago was detached from pre-independence Mauritius and renamed BIOT. Soon after the inhabitants were deported to Mauritius and Seychelles. Over the last 20 years Chagos has grown from a little-known issue to a high profile and international dispute affecting the UK’s standing and credibility and its claim to upholding human rights and international law.
It has taken 22 years to reach the negotiating stage. Progress began with the High Court judgment of November 2000 which allowed the Chagossians to return. It fell to me, as the British High Commissioner to Mauritius at the time, to inform the Chagossians that they could now return to their homeland, though Diego Garcia was excluded for defence reasons.
On 3 November the Foreign Secretary announced to Parliament that negotiations would begin with Mauritius. These would cover the exercise of sovereignty on the basis of international law, respect for human rights, strengthening security in the Indian Ocean, effective operation of the joint UK/US base on Diego Garcia, climate change, conservation (ie the Marine Protected Area established in 2010) and all outstanding issues including those relating to the former inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago. Both governments agreed to engage in constructive negotiations with a view to reaching agreement early in 2023. The UK recognised the interests of the US and India which would be kept informed.
The FCDO Minister reported in a Commons debate on 7 December that constructive discussions with Mauritius took place on 23/24 November and that there will be a second round shortly. The government recognised the diversity of views held by Chagossians and agreed that they would be consulted.
There is little doubt that the US was behind this initiative, partly because of the inconsistency of the UK’s position that international law applies to Russia’s illegal occupation of Ukraine but not to the UK’s illegal occupation of Chagos. India, which is building a military facility on Agalega, a Mauritian island 1,100miles to the southwest of Diego Garcia, also has a strong interest in the success of these negotiations. Clearly an agreement would ensure that Mauritius remains firmly within the western alliance.
There are five aspects to the talks which, if resolved, will bring relief to the UK’s isolated position on the international stage: –
– restoration of the fundamental human right of the Chagossians to return and resettle in the islands will put the UK in compliance with international human rights law. The continuing exile of a people is seen as a crime against humanity. How resettlement is achieved depends on how many are prepared to try out resettlement. Depending on the timetable established by the talks they could return under Mauritian sovereignty. Mauritius is committed to facilitating and contributing to the costs of resettlement while British governments have remained opposed on grounds of cost and feasibility.
– agreement on sovereignty, decolonisation, self-determination, and territorial integrity is the only basis for a successful negotiation. It has long been tacitly acknowledged by the US and UK that only Diego Garcia was required for defence purposes. The 57 other islands are some 130 miles to the north of the base. They should by now have been restored to Mauritius, a proposal which Jack Straw, as Foreign Secretary, supported in 2001. The UK is expected to comply with the ICJ Advisory Opinion and decisions by international tribunals and the UN General Assembly.
– Diego Garcia could remain under British sovereignty until 2036 when the 1966 UK/US Agreement expires but joint sovereignty with a long lease might also work if the US is reluctant for the UK to step aside. Mauritius has offered the US a 99-year lease over Diego Garcia which will secure its future.
– an agreement could enable the consolidation of a western alliance in the southern Indian Ocean comprising the US, UK, Mauritius, India, Australia, and France which has a base on Reunion, 160 miles from Mauritius. Claims that Mauritius is controlled by China and would sell Diego Garcia or another island (not that there is one large enough to support a military base and runway) to China is scaremongering fantasy.
– conservationists will be reassured by the continuation of a Marine Protected Area and scientific research under Mauritian sovereignty. At the UN Oceans Conference in July the Mauritian prime minister proposed a multi-purpose MPA which would allow for activities related to resettlement, could maintain British input and involve other partners in managing a world class MPA, consistent with the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Current Foreign Office officials and their ministers are to be congratulated for this reversal of policy, to which previous governments had been opposed. World opinion and international and domestic litigation has been a crucial factor. So has Parliament in the shape of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-party Parliamentary Group under the chairmanship of first Jeremy Corbyn then Andrew Rosindell and now Mike Kane. Media, lawyers and academics have also played a vital role in raising awareness of the issues.
I am grateful to ConservativeHome for publishing my Chagos assessments every Christmas/new year since 2012. A decade later we are close to a resolution. I hope next year I can write a last post and congratulate all concerned for bringing the Chagossian tragedy to a satisfactory conclusion. It is for others to determine whether it should have taken 22 years and what the cost to Britain’s standing, reputation, foreign policy, diplomacy, and the taxpayer has been.