Amid the controversial bills and the sanitary situation in the country, talk about the Chagos archipelago also made its way to the National Assembly. We took the opportunity to talk to David Snoxell, coordinator of the Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group, about the whole settlement and sovereignty issues. The former British High Commissioner to Mauritius has been consistent in his defence of both issues since 2000 when he was living on the island.
“The UK should acknowledge that it accepts the verdicts of the 2015 Arbitral Tribunal award, the 2019 ICJ Advisory Opinion, the UNGA resolution and the 2021 UNCLOS Tribunal.”
You have continuously advocated a settlement in the Chagos dispute. How close are we today to where you would like us to be?
The prospects for a Chagos settlement are slow but steady support for an overall settlement continues to gather pace at the international level. Ever the optimist I believe that not only is a settlement perfectly possible but that it is getting closer.
What signs can you see that we are getting there?
The international situation has evolved, politicians and officials have changed and rising international opprobrium makes a settlement more attractive for an increasingly isolated ‘Global’ Britain. Britain is now more in need of an overall settlement than is Mauritius.
That is a huge statement. What is it based on?
I start with the simple rationale that when governments and their officials know they are wrong and can no longer move the goal posts or advance a logical case for the status quo they look for ways to bring about a compromise. After 30 years of defending the detachment of Chagos from Mauritius, existence of BIOT and the removal of the Chagossians the British government knows that the standard mantras are no longer tenable and that the only way forward is to negotiate a settlement.
The oft repeated arguments have basically been that the Chagos will be handed back to Mauritius when it is no longer needed for defence purposes. That hasn’t changed, has it?
No, but these arguments have been rejected as unreasonable and unlawful by international courts and organisations, UN member states and the Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group. The flaw in the UK commitment is that the 54 Outer Islands are not and have never been required for defence. Media publicity remains negative towards the UK which has lost much influence. The official UN map shows Chagos as part of Mauritius, the FAO no longer recognises the UK to be the coastal state and the UPU has decided that BIOT belongs to Mauritius and its postage stamps no longer valid. Other UN Specialised agencies such as ITU and ICAO are likely to take similar measures. Following its judgment in January that the UK was not the coastal state in Chagos the UNCLOS Tribunal will proceed to delimit the maritime boundary between Maldives and Mauritius. International pressure will continue to increase.
But there are 15 years left of the 1966 UK/US exchange of letters. That’s a long time, isn’t it?
It is not too soon for the FCDO [Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office – Ed] to be thinking about what happens to Chagos and the base on Diego Garcia after 2036. For example, the UK and China began their discussions in 1979 for transfer of Hong Kong in 1997. Transfer of the Chagos Islands from the UK to Mauritius and resettlement of Chagossians requires political will and determination.
That does not seem to be happening, does it?
It is likely that the FCDO is currently considering a way forward. I would expect the new BIOT Commissioner to be recommending to Ministers that the domestic and international arguments for transfer to Mauritius, which would allow for resettlement, are overwhelming, that the bilateral relationship with Mauritius will continue to suffer and that there is no alternative.
How can talks between Mauritius and the UK make a constructive start?
The UK no longer denies that Mauritius has a claim to sovereignty, while still asserting its own claim. Obviously constructive talks cannot take place until the UK indicates that it is willing to discuss sovereignty, which in previous talks it refused to do. The first step must therefore be for HMG to agree to discuss a timetable for transfer of the Territory to Mauritius.
What do you think the process of concluding a settlement should look like?
It should start with an announcement to Parliament that HMG will negotiate with Mauritius a transfer of BIOT by next summer. I suggest setting up in FCDO a ‘Chagos group’ to manage hand-over arrangements and a timetable and contents of the talks and appointment on the British side of an independent senior figure to lead diplomatic discussions with Mauritius.
“Chagossian groups in Mauritius, Seychelles and UK have differing interests, but they all agree that they should be allowed to return and resettle if they so wish. They should be consulted on resettlement and access to the islands.”
What about the UK/US base on Diego Garcia?
The UK should start discussions with the US on the future of Diego Garcia, termination of the 1966 US/UK Exchange of Notes and an agreement to replace it which guarantees the long-term security of the base. This could include strengthening cooperation in the Indian Ocean with Mauritius, India and Australia, which would enhance the UK’s new policy of tilt towards the Indo-Pacific region. France with its base on Reunion could also be involved.
So you believe that Diego Garcia should stay in the hands of the US. Some people in Mauritius believe that a country is either sovereign or it is not.
I think that Diego Garcia must be reunited with Mauritius but that this can be done in slower time than with the Outer Islands as they will never be required for defence purposes. As to whether the UK or US should remain sovereign of the joint base until a date for its transfer to Mauritian sovereignty is agreed is for discussion between the three parties.
And how will the transfer concretely take place?
The UK should hold talks with Mauritius to include a timetable and modalities for transfer arrangements, options for either a complete transfer or a staged transfer of the Outer Islands and later of Diego Garcia.
There hasn’t been much talk recently about the unlawful Marine Protected Area, a legal battle which was won by the previous government. How does that fit into the talks you are suggesting?
The MPA and future conservation measures and scientific research should be included, and a possible scientific station considered. The UK should discuss with NGOs continuation of conservation work, research and funding and need for Mauritian consent. It should encourage future engagement by these groups with Mauritius in planning and support. Assistance to Mauritius in facilitating and funding resettlement should also be given.
Why would the UK agree to return the islands to Mauritius and give money on top of that?
Because the UK, which expelled the Chagossians, has a moral imperative to help those who wish to resettle to do so and should share that responsibility with Mauritius.
Where do the Chagossians fit in to this? We don’t know what the majority thinks, do we?
Chagossian groups in Mauritius, Seychelles and UK have differing interests, but they all agree that they should be allowed to return and resettle if they so wish. They should be consulted on resettlement and access to the islands with a view to dropping the outstanding litigation in the UK Supreme Court. Further compensation might be part of a package. In any case, HMG should agree with Chagossians how to spend the 2016 £40m assistance package (only £800k spent in five years) or convert it to compensation payments or resettlement costs. The government should accept the amendment to the current Nationality and Borders bill, 2021 to provide UK nationality rights for descendants of the Chagos islanders and for family reunification.
In Mauritius, there is persistent talk about the government organising a boat trip to Chagos. How do you react to that?
For as long as the UK and US control the islands and territorial waters that will not work. Once there is a settlement, a visit for those who have supported Mauritius and the Chagossians would be a reconciling gesture. If not too ancient by then, I would be happy to join them on what would be my first visit to Chagos!
The UK so far has not accepted any of the verdicts pronounced against it…
The UK should acknowledge that it accepts the verdicts of the 2015 Arbitral Tribunal award, the 2019 ICJ Advisory Opinion and UNGA resolution and the 2021 UNCLOS Tribunal. The UK and Mauritius could then announce to the next session of UNGA in September 2022 the terms of the agreement for transfer and register that agreement with the UN as a UK/ Mauritius treaty.