David Snoxell: “British governments continue to keep parliament in the dark over Chagos”

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Weekly speaks to David Snoxell, coordinator of the Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group and former British High Commissioner to Mauritius, during his recent visit to Mauritius. We talk about several subjects related to Mauritius’ ongoing fight to get back the Chagos archipelago. Snoxell does not pull any punches about the position of the UK in relation to the issue and the chances of Mauritius regaining sovereignty over Chagos.

You have been very supportive of Mauritius’ claims over the Chagos archipelago and its attempts to get sovereignty over the islands. Where are we today in this fight?
We are at a crossroads. Bringing the issue back to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and before the International Court of Justice after 52 years was the most important development since the detachment of the islands in 1965. We now await a decision of the UK as to whether it will abide by international law and respect the opinion of the highest court in the world and the will of the overwhelming majority of member states of the United Nations, before the deadline of 22 November set by UNGA.

What are the chances of that happening, seriously? 
Mauritius, the Chagossians, the UK parliament and the British public have long hoped for a settlement of the issues. The chances of success are now much greater as a result of the support from the international community and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the isolation of the British government. I am optimistic that a settlement of the issues is now firmly within the grasp of politicians on both sides.

Will that depend on whether Jeremy Corbyn comes to power or not?
Yes, I believe that if Mr Corbyn became PM, one of his first decisions would be to allow the Chagossians to return to their homeland and to open discussions with Mauritius over a transfer of control and administration of Chagos to Mauritius.

While this happy denouement is unfolding, don’t you think Mauritius should keep its relationship with the UK civil while continuing the fight for the restoration of the archipelago? 
Indeed. The Mauritian prime minister has remained civil and polite towards the UK in his handling of the issues while being necessarily direct and pointed. His speech to the UNGA on 22 May was reasonable and measured. 

He did liken the expulsion of the Chagossians to a crime against humanity, though, didn’t he?
That may not have been diplomatic, but it was correct in law. Lawyers have for some time been considering whether the Chagossians could take their case to the International Criminal Court, as a breach of Article 7 of the Rome statute. To describe the speech in emotive terms, as one Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) minister has, in answer to a parliamentary question, as “unjustified and incendiary” is itself unjustified and incendiary. Ministers must at least explain to parliament why they do not think the Rome statute applies to the Chagossians. It is time to drop incendiary language.

What you call ‘incendiary language’ has resulted in the cancellation of the Queen’s birthday party in Mauritius for the first time in our history. Do you think that could have been avoided?
Cancelling the Queen’s birthday party for a political reason was unnecessary and a breach of diplomatic etiquette. It should never have happened. It was not cancelled in any other country. The Queen and the celebration of her birthday should remain above politics. It is particularly egregious in the case of a Commonwealth country where, for the first 24 years of its independence, the Queen was head of state and where the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council remains the final court of appeal. Personally, I think such a petulant decision was below the dignity of the former colonial power. 

Some political parties like Lalit feel that we have to fight to get all the islands back and not compromise on sovereignty. Do you share that view?
That is a slight misunderstanding of the situation. The ICJ and the UNGA decided that the UK remains in unlawful occupation of Chagos and the UK must hand over the islands within six months. On that point, there is no compromise to be had. Compromise arises in the timetable and manner of the transfer, in particular arrangements for the future of the US base on Diego Garcia. All this should be dealt with in private diplomatic discussions between the UK and Mauritius. 

On the political level, the fight for sovereignty did not start with this government. Don’t you think they should have involved other political parties who have also fought for the Chagossians’ right to return to their islands and not kept the subject within the ‘family’? 
Successive Mauritian governments since 2000 have striven to persuade the UK to restore sovereignty. While I was British high commissioner, Deputy PM Paul Bérenger met Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in London in 2001 to discuss the former’s proposal to transfer the Outer Chagos Islands to Mauritius. My impression is that amongst all political parties in Mauritius, there is agreement on the two main objectives – to recover sovereignty and to allow the Chagossians to return. There may be disagreements on the way this should be achieved and the future of the base, as there would be amongst political parties of any country. The Mauritian media, not least Weekly, has always been assiduous in reporting and commenting on the way governments handle the Chagos dossier. Indeed, it would be almost impossible for a Mauritian government to keep this confidential. The degree of consultation between government and political parties is down to politicians and probably a great deal more than happens in the UK over Chagos. All I can say is that British governments continue to keep parliament in the dark over Chagos and provide misleading and economical answers to parliamentary questions.

By associating yourself closely with the current political leaders, aren’t you afraid of giving the impression that you condone their handling of the issues?
For the last 12 years, I have advocated both Chagossian resettlement and transfer of sovereignty to Mauritius, whichever government is in power. On my visits to Mauritius since I retired in November 2004 as high commissioner, I have been received by whichever PM was in power to discuss the Chagos issues and also by political leaders. I have not always agreed with the way issues were dealt with, but I have appreciated the fact that successive governments have courteously listened to my suggestions and the views of the All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG). UK governments have not done so! It is for each government to decide on where its interests best lie in shaping its policies to achieve its objectives. 

How realistic is it today that the UK will return Chagos to Mauritius?
The UK will return Chagos to Mauritius when “no longer needed for defence purposes”. The question is how soon, given we all know that at least the 54 Outer Islands have never been and will never be required for defence purposes.  My guess is that there will be diplomatic talks leading to an agreement early next year. In the current chaotic situation in British politics over Brexit, a future PM could easily decide that it is not worth the cost anymore to Britain’s reputation and international standing to continue to oppose the will of the international community which is simply not in the UK’s interests. ‘Splendid isolation’ as Britain’s imperial past was dubbed at the end of the 19th century, no longer applies.

In the last budget, Rs40 million was earmarked towards Chagossian resettlement. Do you foresee that coming within a year or is it a political move?
It seems to me to be a political gesture to give substance to the Mauritian government’s support for resettlement, rather like the UK “package” in November 2016 of £40m over 10 years though this was not for resettlement. Only £313,000 has been spent in 2.5 years on ‘heritage’ visits which both the Chagos Refugee Group and the Seychelles Chagossians Association reject. Pravind Jugnauth has said that more will be allocated in future years as resettlement advances. 

What about the proposal to incorporate Chagos in the Number 1 constituency?
Clearly, it is intended to send a political signal that underlines the territorial integrity of Mauritius, as decided by the ICJ and UNGA and the Mauritian government’s intention that people will live there.

For more views and in-depth analysis of current issues, Weekly magazine (Price: Rs 25) or subscribe to Weekly for Rs110 a month. (Free delivery to your doorstep). Email us on: [email protected]

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