January 2013 update

PARLIAMENT

The Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group held its 33rd meeting on 10 January 2013 to consider the situation following the Strasbourg ruling that the case of the Chagos Islanders was inadmissible and the political options available for making progress.

 

While noting that Strasbourg had not ruled on whether the treatment of the Chagossians had been a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights the Group understood that Court procedure did not allow for appeals to the Grand Chamber against a majority decision of inadmissibility by the seven judge Chamber. Leaving aside other legal options the Group considered how best to respond to the Foreign Secretary’s statement, following the Court’s decision, that “the Government will take stock  of our policy towards the resettlement of BIOT” and that “we will be as positive as possible in our engagement with Chagossian groups and all interested parties”. The Group felt that this was an encouraging response and that it offered an opportunity to begin the process of bringing about an overall political settlement of all the issues concerning the future of the Chagossians and BIOT. These issues were the right to return and resettlement, defence and security, feasibility, and cost, the need for an independent scientific study, conservation and the Marine Protected Area and future management and sovereignty of the Archipelago.

 

The Group considered a range of ideas for helping the Foreign Secretary to move forward on these issues and to establish the common ground between all the parties. It was agreed that the Chairman should write to Mr Hague to set out the Group’s ideas and to ask for a meeting to discuss them. Members also decided to table a number of PQs and to ask for urgent debates in both Houses of Parliament. The Group felt that substantial progress should be made this year before 2014 when the 1966 UK/US agreement comes up for renewal and potential renegotiation. 2015 would be the year of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of BIOT, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Mauritius and the end of the Coalition’s five year mandate. For the Government to meet its pre-election promises of a just and fair settlement in time it was important to begin discussions as soon as possible.

 

David Snoxell

Coordinator of the APPG

 

 

 

 

 

January 2013 was quite possibly the busiest ever month of parliamentary questions as the fallout from the Strasbourg ruling reached Westminster.  On the 9th January the Conservatives Ben Wallace asked:

 

“what the timetable is for negotiations on the extension of the use of British Indian Ocean Territory by the US for defence and other purposes in accordance with the agreement of 1966.”

 

Mark Simmonds, FCO Minister for the OTs:


“The 1966 Exchange of Notes with the US provides that the islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), including Diego Garcia, shall be available to them until 2016 and continuing thereafter for a further period of 20 years unless terminated by either Government in the period 2014-16. There have been no substantive discussions to date with the US on the future of the US presence in BIOT post-2016 nor has a timetable been set for any such discussions.”

 

On the 14th January the Conservatives Zac Goldsmith asked:

 

“what assessment he has made of the suitability of (a) unmanned underwater vehicles and (b) unmanned aerial vehicles for the task of the protection of the waters of British Overseas Territories from illegal fishing.”

 

The Conservatives Andrew Robathan responded:

 

“I refer my hon. Friend to the answer the then Minister for the Armed Forces, Sir Nick Harvey, gave on 7 February 2012, Hansard, column 182W. As the Royal Navy is not tasked to carry out this role, no such assessment has been made.”

 

Here is the Parliamentary Question exchange from 7th February 2012:

 

Zac Goldsmith: To ask the Secretary of State for Defence what assistance his Department provides to British Overseas Territories to protect their waters from illegal fishing. [93159]

Nick Harvey: The Royal Navy is not specifically tasked with the protection of the waters of British Overseas Territories from illegal fishing. I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave on 30 November 2011, Official Report, column 979W, to the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell). I explained that as part of their secondary duties, maritime assets will assist local authorities in monitoring and deterring illegal activity; and I provided a list of the taskings and visits to our Overseas Territories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Also on the 14th January the Conservatives Ben Wallace asked:

 

“when he expects to begin negotiations on the optional extension of the use of the British Indian Ocean Territory and Diego Garcia by the US Administration; and if he plans for any such extension to be accompanied by a payment to the Exchequer by the US Administration.”

 

Mark Simmonds:

 

“The 1966 Exchange of Notes with the US provides that the islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), including Diego Garcia, shall be available to them until 2016 and continuing thereafter for a further period of 20 years unless terminated by either Government in the period 2014-16. There have been no substantive discussions to date with the US on the future of the US presence in BIOT post-2016 nor has a timetable been set for any such discussions.”

 

On the 15th January the Labour former Sports Minister Kate Hoey asked:

 

“what progress he has made in implementing the commitment in the Conservative manifesto 2010 to bring about a just settlement for people wishing to return to the Chagos Islands.”

 

Mark Simmonds:

 

“Now that the litigation in the European Court of Human Rights is concluded, the Government will take stock of our policy towards the resettlement of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), as we have always said we would. There are fundamental difficulties with resettlement in BIOT, but we will be as positive as possible in our engagement with Chagossian groups and all interested parties.”

 

Also on the 15th January the Conservatives Peter Bottomley asked:

 

“how many of the islands in the British Indian Ocean Territory (a) are habitable, (b) were inhabited, (c) are inhabited and (d) are suitable for settlement.”

 

Mark Simmonds:

 

“Only one island in the British Indian Ocean Territory is habitable and is currently inhabited—Diego Garcia.

There were five island groups that were inhabited from at least 1830: Diego Garcia, Peros Banhos, Salomon, Eagle and Egmont. Nelson Island, the Three Brothers, Danger Island, Sea Cow Island were never inhabited, though all were visited for coconuts or turtles.

In April 2000 the British Government commissioned a study to assess to what extent it would be feasible for the outer islands to be re-inhabited. The report concluded resettlement was not feasible. While the short-term habitation for limited numbers on a subsistence basis could be possible, the report emphasised that any long-term resettlement would be precarious and costly. The outer islands, which have been uninhabited for 40 years, lack all basic facilities and infrastructure.”

 

On the 16th January Kate Hoey asked:

“when the Government plans to commence discussions with the US administration on the renegotiation of the current agreements on the use of Diego Garcia.”

 

Mark Simmonds:

 

“The 1966 Exchange of Notes with the US provides that the islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), including Diego Garcia, shall be available to them until 2016 and continuing thereafter for a further period of 20 years unless terminated by either Government in the period 2014-16. There have been no substantive discussions to date with the US on the future of their presence in BIOT post-2016, but we look forward to discussing this with them in due course.”

 

Also on the 16th January Peter Bottomley asked:

 

“what discussions he has had with the US military and government on the modalities of enabling Chagossian people to live again in the British Indian Ocean Territory; and if he will make a statement.”


Mark Simmonds:


“Now that the litigation in the European Court of Human Rights is concluded, the Government is taking stock of our policy towards the resettlement of the British Indian Ocean Territory, as we have always said we would. Chagossians have always been able to apply for work on the US facility on Diego Garcia. A small number of Chagossians have been employed on Diego Garcia in recent years.”


Peter Bottomley also asked:


“how many people are resident on Diego Garcia, by nationality.”

 

Mark Simmonds:


“There are no permanent residents in Diego Garcia. As of 1 January 2013 there were 2,973 people working in the British Indian Ocean Territory.”


And a final question of the day from Peter Bottomley again:


“how he plans to engage with Chagossian groups and other interested parties with respect to identifying and settling difficulties concerning the resettlement of the British Indian Ocean Territory.”

Mark Simmonds:


“Now that the litigation in the European Court of Human Rights is concluded, the Government is taking stock of our policy towards the resettlement of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) and options are currently being considered. There are fundamental difficulties with resettlement in BIOT, but we will be as positive as possible in our engagement with Chagossian groups and all interested parties.”


On the 17th January Chagos APPG Chairman Jeremy Corbyn asked:

 

“what recent discussions he has had with the US authorities on access by Chagossians to the Chagos archipelago and resettlement by them of that archipelago.”

 

Mark Simmonds:

 

“I have had no recent discussions with the US authorities on access by Chagossians to the Chagos archipelago or resettlement by Chagossians. Officials notify the US authorities in advance of any Chagossians visiting the British Indian Ocean territory as part of our programme of heritage and science visits.”

 

Jeremy Corbyn also asked:

 

“what discussions his Department has had with (a) Chagos islanders and (b) other interested parties since the declaration of the marine protection area around British Indian Ocean Territory; and what subjects were raised at those discussions.”

 

Mark Simmonds:

 

“Officials have met with Chagossian leaders, and held telephone conferences with those based in Seychelles and Mauritius, on a number of occasions since the declaration of the Marine Protected Area. Most of these meetings have mainly focused on the organisation of visits to the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) by Chagossians and involvement of Chagossians in environmental projects. Some Chagossian leaders have refused to participate in discussions on the latter. Officials have also had frequent informal discussions with a wide variety of Chagossians during visits, at conferences and
during outreach events. The high commissioner in Port Louis has regular meetings with Chagossian leaders in Mauritius and Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Home Office Ministers have met Chagossian leaders, sometimes with members of the All Party Parliamentary Group.

Officials continue to meet with a wide range of interested parties on BIOT. The largest of these groups are scientists interested in research and conservation on the Territory.”

 

 

 

 

 

Jeremy Corbyn also asked:

 

“what legal expenses have been incurred by his Department in cases relating to British Indian Ocean Territory since 1983; and what proportion of that total was incurred in relation to the recent case determined by the European Court of Human Rights.”

 

Mark Simmonds:

 

“Since 1990, from when records are available, the total cost incurred by the Foreign and Commonwealth office in cases relating to British Indian Ocean Territory is £2,404,808.72. The cost of the European Court of Human Rights case represents 1.57% of this total.”

 

And finally from Jeremy Corbyn:

 

“what information he has received on the effects of climate change and sea levels on British Indian Ocean Territory since 2011.”

 

Mark Simmonds:

 

“The British Indian Ocean Territory Administration has received information on climate change and sea level since 2011 from a number of scientific and academic sources. The issue of rising sea levels, and of coastal erosion, in the British Indian Ocean Territory is clearly one of concern to the British Government and we will continue to keep it under close review.”

 

On the 21st January the Liberal Democrats Lord Steel of Aikwood asked:

 

“whether there are any plans to start discussions with the Government of the United States concerning the renewal of the Diego Garcia lease due in 2016.”


And Baroness Warsi replied:


“The 1966 Exchange of Notes with the US provides that the islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), including Diego Garcia, shall be available to them until 2016 and continuing thereafter for a further period of 20 years unless terminated by either Government in the period 2014-16.

There have been no substantive discussions to date with the US on the future of their presence in BIOT post-2016, but we look forward to discussing this with them in due course.”

 

And finally Peter Bottomley on the same day asked:

 

“pursuant to the answer of 15 January 2013, Official Report, column 656W, on British Indian Ocean Territory, if he will re-evaluate the feasibility of habitation of the outer islands in the British Indian Ocean Territory; and if he will agree in consultation with Chagossians to an independent study by international experts to report within 12 months on the practicalities of resettlement to these islands.”

 

Mark Simmonds:

 

“In taking stock of our policy on resettlement, feasibility will be an important factor. We are still considering options and no time scale has yet been fixed. We will engage with Chagossian groups and all interested parties as we take this work forward.”


TOM McKENNA

Tom McKenna writing on Australia’s The Drum highlighted the numerous contrasts between the treatment of the Chagos Islanders and that of the Falkland Islanders.  The south Atlantic islands were back in the headlines this month thanks to a bold move by the Argentinian President Cristina Kirchner to bring the issue back to the world’s attention just days after the Strasbourg ruling, and in doing so invite supporters to make the association between the British hypocrisy over its positions on the Falklands and the Chagos Islands. McKenna picks up the angle:

 

“When the Argentine Military Junta invaded the Falklands in 1982, the British government, much of the mainstream media, and a large proportion of the population were united in their shock and outrage. Britain committed approximately £2 billion that year in order to furiously repel the invasion and the atmosphere of the time sang with patriotism and militaristic fervour.

 

What explains the two radically different responses on the part of the British establishment?

 

Pilger points out that the Chagossians, unlike the Falklanders, were dark-skinned and thus, according to the twisted imperial logic of a bygone age, somehow less worthy of consideration or rights.”

 

WHITE HOUSE PETITION REACTION

Supporter and guest Jurist columnist Elena Landriscina was given the opportunity to follow up on her superb piece last April.  This time she was looking at the response to the White House petition which was published almost immediately after the Strasbourg ruling last month:

 

“Instead of offering redress, the White House speciously passes the buck to the UK based on the view that the UK has sovereignty over the islands in the Chagos Archipelago. That stance is particularly offensive given the US presence and role in decisions that affect the Archipelago. The US operates missions in the Middle East out of the Diego Garcia military base and has used the base as a stop-over for extraordinary rendition flights. In addition, under the terms of a 1966 agreement between the US and UK governments, the UK consults with the US about matters affecting the Archipelago. The coordinated policy of the US and UK government continues today. There appears to be nothing accidental about the timing of the White House’s statement, as it came one day after the European Court of Human Rights decision in favour of the UK on a technical question of the admissibility of the Chagossians’ complaints.”

 

JOHN PRESCOTT

The former deputy Prime Minister John Prescott took many of us by surprise this month with his declaration of support for the Chagossian cause.  Writing in his column in the Sunday Mirror newspaper he called on the British government to allow Chagossians the right to return home:

 

“Some ­islanders were ­eventually given compensation of £3,000 but it was barely enough to ­cover their debts let alone make up for ­losing their homes and livelihoods. All they wanted was to return home. In 2000, after the courts found in their favour, former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook allowed the Chagossians to return to the outer islands.

 

But this was overturned four years later by Royal Prerogative – an order made by my Government – which banned the islanders for ever from returning home.

 

I’m ashamed UK governments allowed this to happen. It was wrong and we must make amends.

 

The Falkland Islanders will get the chance in March to vote on ­whether they want to remain a British territory or be overseen by ­Argentina. More than 900 lives were lost and we spent the equivalent in today’s prices of £3billion defending those islands in 1982.

 

So let’s extend that democratic right to the Chagossians. America’s 50-year lease on Diego Garcia runs out in 2016 with an option of ­renewal next year.”

 

It is vital that the initiative is seized.  There have been grumblings amongst some supporters that he didn’t speak up about the cause while he was in government.  It’s a valid concern but must pale to insignificance when we consider that this was Prescott’s second column for the newspaper, and for one reason or another he felt this was a subject of significant importance.  We should recognise the gesture as sincere and maximise the potential of a true political heavyweight climbing aboard this campaign.  In terms of influence, this could be our Joanna Lumley moment.

 

BRITAIN TO FACE UN TRIBUNAL

On 15th January the Arbitral Tribunal, which is considering the Mauritian case against the MPA and consists of 5 international judges, decided against the FCO and made a procedural order to the effect that the Tribunal will consider the question of jurisdiction along with the merits of the case. Owen Bawcott writing in The Guardian takes up the news:

 

The European court of human right’s decision last December that it had no jurisdiction to examine the Chagossians’ claims that they been deprived of their right to return to the islands was widely seen as blocking off the main legal avenue for redress. The court ruled that because the islanders had received compensation in the 1980s, they had effectively renounced their rights.

 

But the legal confrontation at the permanent court of arbitration raises more fundamental issues of national sovereignty and transforms the issue into an inter-state dispute that resembles Anglo-Argentinian rows over the Falklands.

 

It is being fought within the arcane legal territory of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Uunclos), an area where the UK could be at disadvantage.

While Mauritius and the Seychelles have put in mutually agreed claims for large tracts of the nearby seabed, the UK does not appear to have put in any counter proposals to the UN commission on the limits of the continental shelf.

 

This a highly significant decision because it means that for the first time ever there will be a full hearing on the actions of the British government since 1965, and on the legality of its conduct as it relates to the MPA. The FCO will have to explain and justify its actions to an international judicial body. It certainly looks as if the FCO would be wiser to settle out of court.

 

LETTERS

Susan Fox wrote to us last autumn following a response from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.  This was responding to a letter she had originally written for the attention of the Queen:

 

Following a recent letter to HM The Queen on several subjects, including the plight of the Chagos Islanders, the letter was passed to the FCO for William Hague’s attention. I knew that would happen as she would not comment herself, but I wanted her to be aware of the dreadful consequences of the secret agreement between the Wilson Government & the then US administration to forcibly evict the islanders of Diego Garcia, the gassing of the dogs, the slaughter of the animals and the rest. 

 

The response from the FCO (one Barry Griffiths on behalf of William Hague) reads:

 

“We do not seek to justify what happened in the Chagos Islands in the 1960s and early 1970s. The Government has said that it was wrong, and in the 1980s paid substantial compensation to those affected.

We believe the reasons for not allowing resettlement on the grounds of feasibility and defence security are clear and compelling. Nevertheless the Government is keen to take forward a number of initiatives which demonstrate our goodwill and positive approach. These include a programme of  visits: restoration projects; capacity building for the diaspora and support for Chagossian communities. The most recent visit took place in November 2011 where a group of 15 Chagossians from the UK & Mauritius visited Diego Garcia and the Outer Islands. A further visit took place during the week beginning 28th. October”.

Yours’ sincerely,

Barry Griffiths.”  (End of letter).

 

This is a standard reply that the FCO have been dishing out for the last 2 years. It does not reflect William Hague’s much more positive approach to resettlement. Hague clearly doesn’t believe that the reasons for not allowing resettlement “on the grounds of feasibility and defence security are clear and compelling”. And neither do we.  Nor do we suspect the American would agree with Mr Griffiths. Next time he writes to a member of the public we at the association think he should first check with the Foreign Secretary!

 

My predecessor Celia Whittaker has written two letters this month, one to the British Prime Minister and the other to the Foreign Secretary.  The full text of her letter to David Cameron is as follows:

 

I have listened to you saying on television that the future of the Falklands can only be decided by the islanders themselves in accordance with the UN principle of self-determination.

 

Naturally, I agree wholeheartedly.

 

Please can you tell me when you will allow the Chagos islanders the same right to decide their own future?

 

Sincerely,

Celia Whittaker.

 

The Green Party PPC for Gravesham in Kent, Richard Crawford also contacted us in the wake of the Strasbourg ruling with a letter he had sent to the Foreign Secretary:

 

Following the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of  Chagos Islanders v. the United Kingdom, that

 

“In accepting and receiving compensation, the applicants had effectively renounced bringing any further claims to determine whether the expulsion and exclusion from their homes had been unlawful and breached their rights and they therefore could no longer claim to be victims of a violation of the Convention.” [quote from Press release of the Court ECHR 460 (2012), 20.12.2012]

 

I am writing to appeal to you for further action, highlighting 3 specific points:

 

1) Some Islanders dispute that they were aware that in signing up to compensation they were renouncing any further claims for compensation or resettlement.  The majority of the Islanders were not literate and did not know English, and some claim that the renunciation forms were not adequately explained or translated.

 

2) Do you really believe that the money accepted by Islanders in the 1982 compensation package was in any way an adequate recompense for what had been inflicted upon them? The 1982 land and cash payments totalled around $4,620 for adults (about £3,000). The previous compensation awarded in 1978 amounted to only around £1,210 (about £650) for adults and around $200 (about £100) for children.

 

What a pitiful and miserly pair of offerings for such suffering. The ECHR 460 Press Release itself recognises that “The islanders suffered miserable conditions on being uprooted, having lost their homes and livelihoods.” They were dumped in Mauritius and the Seychelles and left to fend for themselves for years without any compensation, without proper housing, jobs or means to sustain themselves. A 1981 survey of Chagossians in Mauritius showed a male unemployment rate of 41%, and female unemployment at 58% (quoted in David Vine’s ‘Island of Shame). Weakened from lack of proper shelter and nutrition, and prone to illness, the Chagossians in exile began to die prematurely – some of the most heart-broken and distraught committed suicide. A survey by the Comite Ilois Organisation Fraternelle in Port Louis (published 1980) told of 26 families that had ‘died together in poverty’, 9 suicides, and young girls forced into prostitution merely to pay for food.

 

In such circumstances, it is completely understandable that many simply used both rounds of compensation and the sale of land and houses to pay off substantial debts, leaving them still in abject poverty.

 

3) The majority of the expelled Chagossians did not in fact sign up to the 1982 compensation package. The ECHR 460 Press Release states that 471 islanders were involved in the settlement, but the number expelled was close to 2000. None of the approx. 500 moved to the Seychelles have received any compensation. Therefore, it would be logical for any who didn’t sign up to the 1982 package to now bring to UK courts their own cases for compensation or resettlement.

 

It is incumbent upon you to do the decent thing and allow any of the Chagossians who wish it to return to their islands – be that Diego Garcia (where after all there are plenty of foreign nationals such as Filipinos working for the US military), or 1 or 2 of the other islands, made ready for their resettlement using Government funds. For those who do not wish to return, suitable compensation should be paid.     

 

MEMORIAL SERVICE

On Friday 4th January, exactly one year to the day since Lisette Talate passed away, Chagossians and supporters gathered in Crawley for the funeral of Charlesia Alexis who died in December.  To coincide with the event in Sussex, a memorial service was also held in Port Louis in remembrance of Charlesia and Lisette.

 

CHAGOS PETITION

Thanks to the additional publicity generated by the John Prescott column, the petition has finally passed 500 signatures.  We are of course still seeking more signatures which as always can be found here.