On March 10th MPs discussed the Chagos islands as the subject of a Westminster Hall debate, with the overwhelming message from parliamentarians being that the Government should resolve its legal dispute with the Chagossians and restore their right to return. The debate was initiated by Chairman of the Chagos Islands APPG Jeremy Corbyn, who urged the Government to reach a friendly settlement to the impending European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) case.
Wednesday March 10th MPs discussed the Chagos islands as the subject of a Westminster Hall debate, with the overwhelming message from parliamentarians being that the Government should resolve its legal dispute with the Chagossians and restore their right to return. This report is by Peter Harris:
The debate was initiated by Chairman of the Chagos Islands APPG Jeremy Corbyn, who urged the Government to reach a friendly settlement to the impending European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) case. The debate was extraordinarily well attended for a Westminster Hall debate, with around a dozen MPs taking part.
Notably, the FCO chose to be represented in the debate by Ivan Lewis instead of its Minister for Overseas Territories, Chris Bryant. It’s possible that Mr Lewis’s background with the Department for International Development, coupled his current responsibility for migration issues, played a role in shaping his remarks.
Whilst Mr Lewis outlined the reasons for the Government contesting the Chagossians’ right of return in the courts, he was at pains to stress that there was a difference between (a) the UK’s “moral obligation” and (b) its “legal obligations” towards the islanders, suggesting that much more than the bare legal minimum could and should be done to assist the islanders. The Minister cited this moral obligation no less than five times during his speech.
Responding to a question from Mr Corbyn, the Minister also conceded that the only way the UK Government could ignore a ECtHR ruling in favour of the Chagossians would be through passing primary legislation via the Houses of Parliament, a measure that would be unlikely to succeed in either chamber given the level of parliamentary support that exists for the Chagossians’ rights.
However, on the key issue of restoring the Chagossians’ right of return, Mr Lewis repeated the prevailing FCO line of “no right of return.” On this, he was pressed by the cross-party group of MPs assembled, including Mr Corbyn and Liberal Democrat Shadow Foreign Minister Jo Swinson, who castigated the Government for spending millions defending what amounted to “a stain on Britain’s reputation.”
Welcome remarks were also forthcoming from the Conservatives’ Shadow Foreign Minister Keith Simpson, who demanded that the FCO prove its assertion that a resettlement of the Outer islands would jeopardise the security of Diego Garcia. He also underlined the absolute imperative of the UK working with the Chagossians and Mauritius in order to ensure the longevity and workability of any MPA, stating that an incoming Conservative government would look at the Chagos islands with an “open mind.”
Laura Moffatt, whose Crawley constituency contains a sizable community of Chagossians, made a long and eloquent speech about the Chagossians’ campaign for justice and their wellbeing within the UK. Ms Moffatt’s speech is well worth reading in its entirety, as it highlights many of the complexities that are often lost in the discussion over the future of the Chagos islands.
Elsewhere, Conservative MP Peter Bottomley called the Government’s position on resettlement “impractical” and short-sighted, suggesting that, actually, the US authorities were not opposed to resettlement. Meanwhile, Bill Cash criticised the way that the Government had used the Royal Prerogative to exile the islanders in 2004.
For Labour, David Drew called it “colonialism gone mad” that the Government seemed to be presuming that the Chagossians wanted to “destroy their own environment,” whilst his parliamentary colleague John Grogan echoed the Mauritian Prime Minister in questioning how Government could protect coral and fish whilst violating the rights of the archipelago’s indigenous population.
Meanwhile, Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George pointed out the absurdity of recognising the Chagossians as “stakeholders” in the Chagos environment, but not allowing them to return to it.
A poignant moment in the debate was when the DUP’s Gregory Campbell summed up the FCO’s predicament as having “gotten themselves on the hook of not wanting to resolve the issue,” to which Mr Corbyn replied that it was the job of parliamentarians to assist the FCO in wriggling off this hook.
Now that the FCO’s consultation process has finished, the Government can expect to come under increasing pressure to act with decency and foresight when deciding upon the future of the Chagos islands.
Mr Lewis was absolutely right when he said that the Government had a moral obligation towards the islanders: it should let them return, and do it this year. As evidenced by the contributions to today's debate, this door is well and truly open to them.
The Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group held its 11th meeting on 9 February:
The Group considered the FCO replies to 7 PQs and Questions recently tabled in both Houses. Although most of the replies side-stepped the questions and simply reiterated standard positions, the Group considered that it should continue to press FCO Ministers for direct answers especially as it seemed less likely that time would be found for adjournment debates in both Houses before the dissolution. Five more Questions had already been tabled in the Lords by members. Contacts had been established with Number Ten and it was hoped that, as requested in a letter from the Chairman, the Prime Minister would find time to meet members of the Group. The Chairman reported that Mr Hague was happy to meet the Group but a date had yet to be fixed.
The Group considered a letter, published by The Times on 26 January ('Don't forget the role of Chagos Islanders'), concerning the proposed MPA, from the Chairman and six members and the results of a scientific workshop held at Royal Holloway on 7 January. They went on to discuss the controversy surrounding the public consultation on the proposed MPA. The substance of a response to the consultation from the Group was agreed by members present, following an exchange of letters between the Chairman and the Foreign Secretary. This would be sent in time for the 12 February deadline. The Group were informed about the proceedings in Strasbourg. It was hoped that the Court would give its verdict before the summer recess although there was no impediment to HMG settling out of Court.
The 12th APPG meeting was on 9th March, the last meeting before the election:
At his request the High Commissioner of Mauritius, accompanied by the DHC, addressed the meeting.The High Commissioner expressed the thanks and appreciation of his Prime Minister and Government for all the work that the Group had been doing to help resolve the issues concerning the Chagossian people and the Chagos Islands. His Government fully supported the right of the Chagossians to return and wished to have discussions on resettlement and future arrangements over sovereignty. The High Commissioner noted that the Foreign Secretary had just visited Crawley where he had met members of the Diego Garcia Society. He was concerned by the circulation of offensive emails concerning the Prime Minister of Mauritius from the Leader of that Group. This had been drawn to the attention of the FCO.
The Group went on to discuss correspondence with the PM and the EU and a meeting with the US Embassy with which members had been involved. The Group considered the large number of questions which MPs and Peers had tabled in both Houses and noted that so far answers seemed to restate existing positions. The Chairman drew attention to the 90 minute debate on Chagos to take place the next morning,10 March at 930am.
The Group discussed the FCO consultation on the proposed MPA and concluded that if nothing else the consultation had raised the worldwide profile of both the plight of the Chagossians and the need for conservation of the marine environment. It seemed unlikely that, in view of the number of submissions and petitions received, a conclusion could be reached before the election.
The Group discussed how the Group was to be re-formed in the next Parliament
Thank you to all who signed the Marine Education Trust petition (more on this later) and to those who have asked their MP to sign Early Day Motion 960 Chagos Islands – there is still time for this so please contact your elected representative.
Thank you to all who signed the Marine Education Trust petition (more on this later) and to those who have asked their MP to sign Early Day Motion 960 Chagos Islands – there is still time for this so please contact your elected representative.
10th Feb. Lord Wallace (Lib Dem) asked when the Government last held bilateral discussions with the government of Mauritius on the future sovereignty of the British Indian Ocean Territory.
Baroness Kinnock replied: While the UK has no doubt about its sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), my right honourable friend the Prime Minister agreed with the Mauritian Prime Minister, Dr Navinchandra Ramgoolam, to establish a dialogue between officials. A meeting between UK and Mauritian officials was held at the FCO on 14 January 2009, and a further one in Port Louis on 21 July.
The delegations discussed the latest legal and policy developments relating to BIOT. Both delegations set out their respective positions on sovereignty and the UK also set out how the UK needed to bear in mind its treaty obligations with the US and our ongoing need of the British Indian Ocean Territory for defence purposes. There was mutual discussion of fishing rights, the environment, continental shelf and future visits to the Territory by Chagossians.
22nd Feb. Richard Spring (Conservative) what recent discussions had been held with the government of Mauritius on the creation of a Marine protected Area around the Chagos Archipelago.
Chris Bryant (Under-Sec. FCO) replied: Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials discussed environmental protection and the possible creation of a marine protected area with Mauritian officials in bilateral talks on the British Indian Ocean Territory on 14 January 2009 and on 21 July 2009.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary also discussed the proposal with the Mauritian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister in November 2009.
22nd Feb. Hugh Bayley (Labour) asked what consideration the FCO had given to pursuing the Marine Protected Area project as a joint initiative with the government of Mauritius.
Chris Bryant’s reply did not actually answer the question but just gave the dates of last year’s talks, as in the answer above.
22nd Feb. Richard Spring (Conservative) asked when Ministers and officials of the FCO had last met the Mauritian government to discuss bilateral issues.
Ivan Lewis (Min of State FCO) replied: My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met the Mauritian Foreign Minister, Dr. Arvin Boolell, on 28 November 2009 during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Trinidad and Tobago. Officials met representatives of the Mauritian Government on 14 January 2009 and 21 July 2009 for bilateral talks on the British Indian Ocean Territory. And our high commissioner to Mauritius maintains regular contact with his host Government and meets Mauritian Government Ministers and officials on a weekly basis.
22nd Feb. Lord Wallace asked whether the declaration of a Marine protected Area in the British Indian Ocean Territory would impose limits on the operation of the United States/UK base on Diego Garcia.
Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead (Min. Of State FCO) replied:A decision on whether to establish a Marine Protected Area the British Indian Ocean Territory has not yet been taken.
The use of the facility on Diego Garcia is governed by a series of Exchange of Notes between the UK and US and imposes treaty obligations on both parties. Because of these treaty obligations, we have been discussing the possible creation of a marine protected area with the US. Neither we nor the US would want the creation of a marine protected area to have any impact on the operational capability of the base on Diego Garcia. For this reason, and as has been set out in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office public consultation document, it may be necessary to consider the exclusion of Diego Garcia and its three-mile territorial waters from any marine protected area.
Shall we pause and read that last sentence again? A proposal for a Marine Preservation Area that does not want to allow resettled islanders to fish in order to feed themselves, might exclude a massive military/nuclear base with thousands of personnel and continual movement in and out of ships and aircraft from this Area? And for three miles around its “territorial” waters? A base which required much blasting and crushing of coral to make its runways?
It’s good to note politicians from all the major parties asking questions on this issue.
The Green Party has made a very positive statement supporting the Chagossians: The Green Party has very strong policy on the rights of indigenous people. As this applies to the Chagossians, the Green Party remains totally committed to their right to return and to the principle that they must have control over any decisions that affect the future of the islands and the islanders.
Returning to the issue of UK/Mauritius relationships as touched on in PQs: Arvin Boolell, Minister of Foreign Affairs in Mauritius does not appear as happy about relations with the UK as British Ministers seem to be. He told L’Express: Since there is an on- going bilateral Mauritius/ UK mechanism for talks and consultations on issues relating to the Chagos Archipelago, it is inappropriate for the British Government to pursue consultations globally on the proposal for the establishment of a ‘ Marine Protected Area’ ( MPA) around the Chagos Archipelago outside this bilateral framework. This position was brought to the attention of the British Government by way of Notes Verbales issued by my Ministry to the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The public consultations were launched in total disregard of the discussions at the second round of bilateral talks during which it was agreed that a team of experts would examine all the implications of the UK proposal so as to inform the next round of talks.
Mauritius is not averse to pursuing bilateral talks with the UK, but this can only be done if the trust between the two sides is restored, especially in the light of the undertaking given by the British Prime Minister to our Prime Minister. Mauritius is not being treated as an equal partner by the UK and the Government believes that the legitimate interests of Mauritius should not be taken lightly. The third round of bilateral talks, scheduled for early 2010, has indeed been called off because Mauritius has expressed its displeasure at the ongoing public consultations on the MPA outside the bilateral framework.......Under the guise of environment protection, the UK is eager to allow eco- imperialism to rule over justice and basic human rights. There can be no legitimacy to any MPA project without the issues of sovereignty and resettlement being addressed to our satisfaction. Mauritius is a small country, but also a great little nation. The history of the Chagos is one of unfinished decolonisation and of how imperial objectives of powerful nations flout the very notion of peace and humanity in their actions.
Maldives has joined Mauritius in opposing UK plans for an MPA
The Republic of Maldives has joined Mauritius in opposing any unilateral move by the UK Government to establish a marine protected area (MPA) in the Chagos islands, according to the African Press Agency. The same article reports that the Mauritian foreign minister has been busily briefing the Secretary General of the Commonwealth of Nations, Kamalesh Sharma, who is said to be "closely following the tug of war between Mauritius and Britain."
The cooperation of neighbouring states will be sorely required for the effective implementation and monitoring of an MPA in Chagos, which makes it extremely worrying that the UK Government failed to build the necessary coalition of support before publishing its consultation document. If plans for environmental conservation in Chagos are to succeed, then the FCO would be wise to engage more effectively with those who will be affected by the proposals - including the Maldives, Mauritius and, of
course, the Chagossians.( From UKCSA Blog)
Marine Preservation Area proposal continued.
As you know, the Government extended the unreasonably short time given for views and thoughts on the proposed MPA and the new deadline has also passed. The general consensus amongst Chagossians and their supporters is that conserving the environment is good (that is what they did when they lived there), but this can go hand-in-hand with respecting the human rights of indigenous people. UKCSA has been privileged to read copies of many of the submissions made to the FCO.
The Chagossians seem like David in this fight with the Goliath of UK/US /Chagos Environment Network interests. The CEN petition has had enormous success gathering thousands of signatures. Indeed, if you did not know the true history of Chagos, why wouldn’t you sign? Unfortunately, it made no mention of the exiled islanders, their up-coming case at the European Court of Human Rights and their need to be able to fish in order to eat. The CEN favoured option of a “no-take” fishing ban is yet another stumbling block to prevent their return.
As the Marine Education Trust’s Director, Tara Hooper, said to the Guardian (and Feb Update): A petition which asks the public to endorse a campaign but fails to fully inform them of the issue involved is misleading, to say the least, and cannot be considered an accurate reflection of the view they would have expressed had they been fully informed.
Unfortunately, the disingenuous petition misled other groups such as Greenpeace who had not taken on board how the MPA would affect islanders whose rights they have always supported. One of their own captains, Pete Bouquet, made a special trip to London with UKCSA Secretary, Hengride Permal, to discuss the issue with them and they have added something to their website. In the meantime, however, many, many more had signed up!
A member of the Chagos Conservation Trust (part of the CEN) wrote to that organisation saying that the petition had misled the public. He also reminded them that their own Chair, William Marsden, wrote in the Times a year ago: Proposals for a Chagos Archipelago Conservation Area are being discussed within the Chagos Environment Network ..... Drawing on best practice in other great sites, the aim would be to protect nature, including fish stocks; benefit science and support action against damaging climate change; be compatible with security; be financially sustainable; and provide good employment opportunities for Chagossian and other people.
Note that last phrase.
Request for information: Does anyone know how much it costs to be a sponsored link on Google? The CEN have one for their petition that sometimes pops up alongside when you are checking out “Chagos”. The Marine Education Trust was scientifically independent, almost cost-free (just admin charges) and it stood for common sense and common decency. Invaluable.
Press Coverage. Too much this month to cover in one Update but to mention a few:
1. A balanced article in the Independent by Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor, on 10th February entitled Man versus marine in the Chagos Islands.
2. An excellent article by Dr. Sean Carey for new Statesman on 11th February entitled “Gordon Brown must let the Chagos Islanders go home” which gives chapter and verse on successful conservation sites where the indigenous population is involved. History has proved Douglas right. According to Mark Dowie and others, the old model of conservation which falsely opposed nature (good) and culture (bad) is being replaced with something much more dynamic, a new transnational conservation paradigm. A younger generation of scientists recognise that properly engaged indigenous and traditional peoples have a vital role to play in preserving fragile ecosystems.
3. Fred Pearce wrote, on 17th Feb for New Scientist condemning the marine protection plan as unethical: This week the world's foremost conservation science body, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), was in ferment after announcing support for the plan in spite of warnings from its own lawyers that the scheme was unethical.
4. There are, of course, other articles in major papers supporting the MPA which have not troubled to look beyond what the FCO and CEN have told them. (You can easily find these via your favourite search engine.) However, a lesser known periodical, Science in Parliament, had an article by Professor Charles Sheppard (CEN, CCT and one of the begetters of the scheme) which you may not have seen. Usual pro MPA line but two rather interesting points:
a) Why has he used a prestigious parliamentary journal to lobby in favour of keeping Chagos “as it is”, off-limits to its native population, when the CEN claims not to have a policy against resettlement. (Although, as we know, the exiled population were not mentioned in their petition.)
b) He says: According to a recent survey carried out by a prominent Chagossian supporter only about a dozen individuals were identified who say they wish to return permanently. Most Chagossians live on Mauritius and Seychelles and they know nothing of this “survey”. Professor Sheppard has been asked about this “survey” but has declined to answer. Who is the mystery “prominent Chagossian supporter”? This is poor scientific practice. Science in Parliament published a letter from Olivier Bancoult, leader of the CRG in Mauritius, in the following edition, correcting a few of Prof Sheppard’s wilder assertions about community participation and Chagossian numbers wishing to resettle.
The Zoological Society of London had an evening of talks and discussion on 3rd March about the MPA. No FCO and few CCT people attended but several Chagossians made the effort: The Question and Answer section was taken up mainly with Chagossian interventions: Hengride Permal, Sabrina Jean, Marie-France and an Australian lady. David Snoxell, spoke as Chairman of the Marine Education Trust to set the MPA in the political context (resettlement, sovereignty and option four –which would allow the Chagossians to fish). Many people attending had been beguiled by the slick Care2 hard-sell petition of the FCO/CEN and had not known the full story.
The report on the Workshop at the Royal Holloway, University of London (organised by the MET) is available via e-mail or on the website www.chagossupport.org.uk
UKCSA Chair, Roch Evenor, attended the 40th Anniversary event of the Minority Rights Group at Foyle’s bookshop last month and met with interesting people. Minority Rights Group has been very supportive of the Chagossians for several decades for which we are very grateful.
News from the groups:
Chagos Refugee Group in Mauritius had an exciting day on Wednesday March 3rd when they inaugurated their Training and Resource Centre. Those present included Dr. The Hon. Navinchandra Ramgoolam, Prime Minister of Mauritius, The leader of the opposition and many other ministers, former president Cassam Uteem many members of the CRG. A good day was had by all. A big thank you was said to all who helped this dream come true.
Still in Mauritius, Arista Naraina, Fiona Corneille and Will Piron are grateful for help in weatherproofing their homes. Even small donations help buy the necessary corrugated iron sheets and nails.
Chagos Island Community Association held a peaceful demonstration outside the Mauritian High Commission on 24th February where they handed in a letter to the High Commissioner. They have also sent a letter to the Foreign Secretary expressing their disappointment at not being included in the discussions about an MPA. As Chagossians, they have the right to be involved and their needs considered.
CICA has also been talking to immigration solicitors about what can be done to stop the divisions in Chagossian families when some have British citizenship and others do not.
CICA also reminds us that the Chagos Island Football Team won the West Sussex tournament last year but they are in urgent need of kit and equipment. Any help would be much appreciated.
Marie France is president of Chagossian Elderly of West Sussex The group was formed last October and they have around twenty members who meet up on alternate Saturdays. Donations would be very welcome for this group, too.
Crawley News reported a visit by some of the Diego Garcian Society to their homeland in February. This is the second trip for Allen Vincatassin and some of his members. Mrs Modliar, of Southbrook, was among seven islanders who visited Diego Garcia last month, only the second group to return since they were evicted.
She said: "When I arrived in Diego Garcia I was so happy. I visited my house and I still remember life there when I was a child. I will never forget about this visit until I die."
David Miliband visits Crawley March 4th
Yes, the Foreign Secretary made a pre-election visit to Crawley where he was accompanied by local MP Laura Moffatt. He spent time with various local groups and a school before speaking to Chagossians. Mr Vincatassin saw this as a visit to his group, the Diego Garcian Society (which fully backs the FCO/CEN Marine Preservation plan with a “no-take” fishing zone and has had two trips to Diego Garcia. See his website). Laura Moffatt MP was surprised to see Chagossians from other groups (who had got wind of the event) waiting outside. Members of CICA and CRG explained they were not wanted inside and Ms Moffatt took them in with her. The venue was only a quarter full. Had all the groups been informed of the visit and not just DGS, it would have been overflowing as they had plenty to say about the lack of communication re the MPA and the “no-take” fishing zone. UKCSA does not know who was responsible for this singular lack of communication.
A final comment from a supporter: I had to smile the other day when I heard Gordon Brown apologising to the poor people who had been sent to Australia as children whether they wanted to go or not. How adept we are at sending people away from their homelands without the Government having to face the consequences. Has anyone ever apologised publicly to the Chagossians? It seems to me that the Government only apologises when it is too late to do anything about it and to apologise now to the Chagossians might involve them in actually having to let them go back.
As usual, thank you for your support.
Celia Whittaker (Update compiler)