David Snoxell: The Government should seize opportunity to negotiate a Chagos settlement

David Snoxell is Co-ordinator of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group.

The Chagos Archipelago of 54 islands was excised from Mauritius in 1965, before independence, and its inhabitants deported to Mauritius and Seychelles between 1968-73 to make way for a US base on the largest island, Diego Garcia.

This complicated saga has reached a critical stage following the referral by the UN General Assembly (UNGA) in 2017 of the issues of decolonisation and resettlement to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for an Advisory Opinion, which was delivered on 25 February.

The Court decided that the UK was in unlawful occupation of the Islands and must as rapidly as possible hand back the Territory to Mauritius and cooperate in facilitating the resettlement of Chagossians of Mauritian origin.

Boris Johnson’s new government will need the recess before it is ready to review policy on Chagos in the light of the ICJ Opinion and two crushing defeats in UNGA. Until now the UK has rejected the Courts findings and the UN’s endorsement of them. The Government is faced with two short deadlines – Brexit on 31 October, and ‘Chexit’ on 22 November.

As the Prime Minister has amply demonstrated it cannot be assumed that he will continue with the same policies as the previous government. Clearly Brexit will entirely dominate the political agenda, but this does not mean that progress cannot be made in other areas by the Foreign Office (FCO).

Indeed, with the limelight fixed on Brexit there is an opportunity for quiet diplomacy behind the scenes. The Government should seize this opportunity to win back international support at a time when the UK most needs it.

After two decades of the UK avoiding an agreement with Mauritius on the future of Chagos and the Chagossians, commentators have assumed the new government will carry on like its predecessor, in denial of the facts and realities of Chagos which the international community fully appreciates.

There is, however, a reasonable chance that the new government will accept that it cannot continue to ignore the Advisory Opinion and the demand of an overwhelming majority of the UN General Assembly in its resolution of 22 May that the UK must implement the Opinion within a six-month deadline, i.e. by 22 November.

The departure of Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, and Sir Alan Duncan as a Foreign Office Minister of State, is an opportunity to ease the tensions with Mauritius and enable a constructive dialogue to take the place of the UK’s hitherto rather defensive and confrontational approach.

I believe Mauritius would act positively towards a genuine desire on the part of the UK Government to reach a resolution of the issues. I expect FCO officials and lawyers would welcome this opportunity to set aside dubious legal arguments advanced by the FCO, move forward, and enter into diplomatic discussions.

The three main players on the British side are Johnson, Dominic Raab and Lord Ahmad, the FCO Minister of State, who remains in place and was sympathetic to both the Chagossians and Mauritius.

The Prime Minister was involved with Chagos as Foreign Secretary 2016-18, and is said to have told the then Mauritian Prime Minister, Sir Anerood Jugnauth, at the UN in September 2016, that if Mauritius held off tabling a resolution at UNGA he would “fix” Chagos. There was no fix, and in June 2017 Mauritius lost patience and tabled its draft resolution,which it had first considered in 2004 and postponed pending diplomatic discussion.

It is quite possible that the new PM will see the damage that the policy of the previous government has done to the UK’s reputation for upholding international law and human rights and decide that it is just not worth continuing to oppose the ICJ and the UNGA any longer.

The appointment of Dominic Raab as Foreign Secretary could also make a difference. Raab is an international lawyer who from 200O-06 was an FCO legal adviser, dealing inter alia with prosecution of war criminals and maritime law. This is helpful background for understanding the many aspects of international law which affect Chagos and the Chagossians that previous governments have glossed over and ignored. His appointment should encourage FCO Legal Advisers to take a much stronger line on the need to uphold international law and respect the spirit, as well as the letter, of the law by implementing the ICJ Advisory Opinion and the UNGA resolution.

Although ICJ Opinions and General Assembly resolutions are technically non-binding, international law is. The ICJ found that the excision of Chagos from Mauritius was unlawful in international law.

On 17 July the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group, which has members from seven political parties and now in its 11th year, held its 75th meeting and issued a statement which was aimed primarily at the next Government. Members welcomed UN Resolution 73/295 endorsing the ICJ Advisory Opinion, which the General Assembly adopted by 116 in favour, 6 against and 56 abstentions.

Recalling its statement of 21 December 2018 urging the Government to seek a resolution of the issues concerning the future of BIOT and of the Chagos Islanders the Group reaffirmed its wish to help bring about agreement between all parties on a way forward, in the light of the UNGA resolution setting a six months deadline. The Group noted that the General Assembly was guided by the principles enshrined in the United Nations Charter, including the inalienable right of self-determination of peoples, and the obligations arising from other instruments and rules of international law.

The Group urged the next British Government to respect the will of the United Nations, the ICJ Opinion, and the requirements of international law which from the signature of the United Nations Charter in 1945 remains the keystone of the UK’s foreign policy and commitment to international order based on the rule of law.

The APPG felt that these matters should now be addressed urgently in diplomatic discussions between the UK and Mauritius so that an outline agreement on the implementation of the resolution can be put before the General Assembly at it 74th session beginning on 17 September. To that end the Group recommended that the new government appoints an independent special envoy to negotiate an agreement.

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