July 2013 update

PARLIAMENT

The Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group held its 5th Annual General Meeting and 37th meeting on 16 July.

 

The Group re-elected the current office holders (Chairman Jeremy Corbyn MP; Vice-Chairs, Lord Avebury, Lord Ramsbotham, Andrew Rosindell MP, Henry Smith MP; Secretary, Andrew George MP). David Snoxell was reappointed Coordinator and Richard Gifford Legal Adviser – the Group thanked them for their continuing support and service to the Group.

 

The Group considered recent PQs, interventions in debates and correspondence with FCO Ministers since its last meeting on 5 June. They felt that progress in tackling the issues was at last being made. Thanks were recorded to Baroness Whitaker and Lord Avebury for maintaining the correspondence with Baroness Warsi which had gradually exposed the weakness of FCO arguments.  They welcomed the written statement to Parliament of 8 July by Mr Simmonds (Update on the BIOT Policy Review)  announcing a new Feasibility Study into resettlement which the Group had been advocating ever since its first meeting in January 2009. They commended the FCO for reversing its position.  Members were not persuaded that resettlement would entail a “heavy ongoing contingent liability for the UK tax payer”. The FCO could approach the EU, US, UN, Commonwealth, NGOs, and the private sector, to share the costs. Nor were they persuaded that the US was opposed to resettlement since the US had never said so publicly, although invited by the APPG on several occasions to explain any defence and security reservations they might have.

 

Members were concerned that the timing for the Feasibility Study would go beyond the May 2015 general election. They agreed that decisions could not be left to a new government and that the study must be ready by the summer recess 2014 to give time for Ministers to take decisions on resettlement and implement them well before the election. The Group considered a draft letter to the Foreign Secretary, setting out its views on the Review and Feasibility Study. This would be dispatched before the summer recess on 18 July but it would not at this stage be made public. The Group asked the Chairman to table a number of PQs about different aspects of the Review and Feasibility Study. The Chairman said he would ask for an adjournment debate for the September session and Baroness Whitaker would ask for a similar debate in the Lords in October.

 

The next meeting will be held on 9 October.

 

David Snoxell

Coordinator of the Chagos Islands (BIOT) APPG

 

We are of course entering the summer recess period for parliament but there were a number of Chagos-related parliamentary questions this month, starting with Matthew Offord who on the 3rd July asked:

 

“which British Overseas Territories have ratified the Aarhus Convention to Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters?”

 

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness, Conservative)

 

“The UK’s ratification of the Convention, which was deposited with the UN on 23 February 2005, does not currently extend to any of the UK Overseas Territories.”

 

4th July- Andrew Rosindell (Romford, Conservative)

“To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what proportion of land area is legally designated as a protected area for biodiversity conservation purposes in each of the 14 British Overseas Territories.”

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness, Conservative)

“Territory Governments are responsible for the protection and conservation of their natural environments. We do not hold a central record of the information requested, except for the uninhabited Overseas Territories of British Antarctic Territory (BAT), British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (SGSSI), and the Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs).

The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty provides for the comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment and designates Antarctica as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science. Under the protocol, over 30 areas of the British Antarctic Territory have, to date, been designated as Antarctic Specially Protected Areas. A further four areas have been designated as larger-scale Antarctic Specially Managed Areas. The vast majority of these designations include reasons specifically relating to biodiversity conservation. A full list is available online at:

http://www.ats.aq/e/ep_protected.htm

The British Indian Ocean Territory’s 55 islands have a total land area of only 60 sq km, within which Diego Garcia accounts for half the area. Of the other islands, none of which are larger than Hyde Park, seven are fully protected whilst the islands of Diego Garcia have part protection. In addition, the Eastern Islands in Peros Banhos are designated nature reserves.

Within the Sovereign Base Areas (which are administered by the Ministry of Defence), the proportion of land legally designated as protected areas for conservation purposes is: Special Protected Areas—0.52% (4,819 hectares); Ramsar (Convention on Wetlands of International Importance)—0.23% (2,171 hectares); and Special Areas of Conservation—3.10% (28,701 hectares).

In respect of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, the Wildlife and Protected Areas Ordinance 2011 affords an extremely high level of protection to terrestrial habitats and flora and fauna throughout South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. The Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is developing plans for Specially Protected Areas, which can be designated under the Wildlife and Protected Areas Ordinance, and will undertake stakeholder consultation on those plans in due course.”

 

Andrew Rosindell (Romford, Conservative)

“To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what the extent of (a) Crown land and (b) private land in each of the 14 British Overseas Territories is by (i) area and (ii) percentage of total land area.”

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness, Conservative)

“Policy on land registration in each of the Overseas Territories is a matter of devolved
responsibility for their government. We do not hold a central record of the information requested except for the British Indian Ocean Territory and the British Antarctic Territory. We have limited information in respect of Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) where the British Government was in direct control from 2009 to 2012.

In the case of the British Indian Ocean Territory, all land is Crown land with none held privately, with a total area of 60 square kilometres being 100% of the total land area.

In the case of the British Antarctic Territory the entire terrestrial area is Crown land, more than 1.7 million square kilometres, but our territorial claim is held in abeyance by the Antarctic Treaty of 1959.

At the time of the elections in TCI in November 2012, approximately 68% of land was registered to the Crown. Some 3,000 acres of land has been returned to the Crown since 2009.”

 

Andrew Rosindell (Romford, Conservative)

“To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs how many marine protected areas have been designated in each of the 14 British Overseas Territories for biodiversity conservation purposes; and what the extent of the area covered by each such area is.”

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness, Conservative)

“The designation of marine protected areas (MPAs) is a matter of devolved responsibility. We do not hold a central record of the information requested except for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (SGSSI), British Antarctic Territory (BAT), British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) and the Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs).

In 2012 the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (SGSSI) declared a sustainable-use MPA of one million square kilometres in size (equivalent to four times the terrestrial area of the United Kingdom), including over 20,000 square kilometres of no-fishing zones.

Prior to ratifying the Antarctic Treaty, 1959, which places Antarctic sovereignty issues in abeyance, the UK had only declared a three-mile territorial sea around the British Antarctic Territory (BAT). However, in 2009, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources agreed a marine protected area of 94,000 square kilometres on the Southern Shelf of the South Orkney Islands. In addition, a number of Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPAs), designated under the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, comprise marine areas around the BAT. Details of designated ASPAs can be found at:

http://www.ats.aq/e/ep_protected.htm

The British Indian Ocean Territory declared a no-take MPA in 2009 across its maritime zone of 640,000 square kilometres.*

There are no MPAs around the Sovereign Base Areas (SBAs).”

 

*but according to Defra it is actually 54,400 square kilometres, which naturally begs the question: is the MPA growing?  Answers on a postcard please to our usual address…

 

A debate on endangered species also took place on the 4th July and included a couple of mentions of the Chagos Islands.  It is unfortunate that none of the participants were able to point out that the British government’s policy towards the Chagos Islanders has indeed been akin to trying to drive a community into extinction.  The full exchange can be found here but the relevant mentions on the Islanders were:

 

 

Barry Gardiner (Brent North, Labour)

 

“Of course, the largest area on the planet’s surface given over to the protection of endangered species is the Chagos marine protected area, which we established when we were last in government. The Pitcairn governing Council and the Bermudan Government are now asking the UK to designate marine protected areas in the south Pacific and the Sargasso Sea. What technical assistance will the Minister’s Department give to ensure that those excellent proposals become a reality?”

 

Richard Benyon (Newbury, Conservative)

 

“The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The scheme in the Chagos islands is exemplary and we want to see such schemes developed throughout the overseas territories. There are already plans to see proper marine protection around St Helena and a very exciting project in South Georgia. I want to see a necklace of marine protected areas that can be this country’s legacy from our imperial past to the future protection of marine zones.”

 

16th July- Matthew Offord (Hendon, Conservative)

“To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs which Overseas Territories (a) Ministers and (b) officials in his Department have visited in an official capacity since May 2010.”

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness, Conservative)

“Since May 2010, FCO Ministers have paid official visits to Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Ascension Island, the Sovereign Base Areas on Cyprus and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

In the same time period, FCO officials have paid official visits to all of the Overseas Territories.”

 

NEW FEASIBILITY STUDY INTO RESETTLEMENT OF THE CHAGOS ISLANDS

On the 8th July the Minister for Overseas Territories Mark Simmonds made a statement to Parliament in which he outlined plans for a new feasibility study into the resettlement of the Chagos Islands (BIOT):

 

“The Government must be honest about these challenges and concerns. Long-term settlement risks being both precarious and costly. The outer islands, which have been uninhabited for 40 years, are low-lying and lack all basic facilities and infrastructure. The cost and practicalities of providing the levels of infrastructure and public services appropriate for a twenty-first century British society are likely to be significant and present a heavy ongoing contingent liability for the UK tax-payer.

 

However, the Government recognises the strength of feeling on this issue, and the fact that others believe that the resettlement of BIOT can be done more easily than we have previously assessed. We believe that our policy should be determined by the possibilities of what is practicable.”

 

It is good news that after we have been arguing for many years there is to finally be a new feasibility into resettlement on the islands.  We at the Association have long since suspected that the original feasibility study was not credible and was being used to fend off attempts to argue in favour of a right of return.  News of a re-evaluation of this critical report must be welcomed and we hope that it will conclude that a return is not only right but realistic too.

 

We will of course keep you updated on the progress of this study in future editions.

 

FCO BIOT POLICY REVIEW CONSULTATIONS

Last month we highlighted the Foreign Office (FCO) were taking steps to invite submissions for its BIOT Policy Review as part of its commitment to “take stock” following last December’s controversial European Court of Human Rights ruling from Strasbourg.

 

Since this announcement was made the FCO have stayed true to their word (something quite unique for anyone who has followed this issue over the years) and have already met Olivier Bancoult, Sabrina Jean as well as other Chagossians both here in the UK and in Mauritius as well.

 

 

 

 

Some pictures from the visit to Mauritius

 

 

 

 

We at the Association welcome the initiatives and, while we insist that such steps are inevitably long overdue, it is vital that they are embraced and encouraged in the spirit in which they are made.

 

 

 

SABRINA JEAN STATEMENT

On the 8th July Sabrina Jean the chair of the UK Support Association (UKChSA) released the following statement ahead of the FCO BIOT Policy Review team meeting in Crawley, which took place ten days later:

 

“We are delighted that the UK government is at last looking at returning the Chagossian people to our homeland in the Indian Ocean.

We were illegally deported from the Chagos Islands forty years ago, and Mark Simmonds, current minister for the Foreign Office, is to be congratulated for starting the process of return.

 

It is crucial that results of the review be completely transparent and fair – as the government has promised today.

 

Given the many experts available to advise on resettlement, the extensive research that has already taken place, and the Chagossian community’s ongoing openness to the various possibilities, we are confident that the process can be concluded far more swiftly than the estimated 18 months. 

 

Indeed, we think it is essential that the report is completed during the lifetime of this parliament – if the government is sincere in its determination to find ‘a just settlement for the Chagossian people’, as the Foreign Secretary stated, then it must act while it is in power.

 

We look forward to working together with the Coalition government to return to our homeland.”

 

The meeting on Thursday 18th July was useful in terms of providing an opportunity for Chagossians to express their views on the future of the islands but it was felt that more time should have been allocated for such an exercise and the Association has noted that a number of Chagossians were unhappy at being unable to make their submissions.

 

OLIVIER BANCOULT STATEMENT

Following a meeting with the FCO in Mauritius on 26th June, the leader of the Chagos Refugees Group Olivier Bancoult released the following statement:

 

“First of all, once again, I would like to express my gratitude to all those who have expressed their support to Chagossians worldwide. Furthermore, I would like to reassure all my Chagossians brothers and sisters that the Chagos Refugees Group ‘CRG’ shall continue in its endeavour to ensure that justice ultimately prevails.

As I am sure you are all aware, representatives of the FCO expressed their wish to exchange dialogues with members of the Chagossians’ Community. The Chagos Refugees Group (CRG) once again, showed their good faith and agreed to cooperate with this initiative. Nonetheless, on the 26th of June 2013 during our meeting with Sangeeta Ahuja Team Leader B.I.O.T Review Task Force and Martin Longden Head of Falkland & Southern Ocean Department (O.T.D) both from F.C.O, we honestly stated that while the Chagossians have always expressed their willingness to cooperate in view to find a solution to our plight, more often than not, the FCO has bypassed, ignored and dismissed our views. We cited the unilateral declaration of the Chagos Archipelago as a Marine Protected Area as the perfect example of our views and interests being disregarded despite the fact that we voiced out our concerns and opposition loud and clear.

During our meeting with Dr Sangeetah Ahujah and Martin Longden in the presence of the British High Commissioner Nick Leaks, we were given to understand that this initiative to open dialogues on resettlement is being carried out in light of the fact that the Foreign Secretary expressed his intention in December 2012 to review its policy. Furthermore, we were told that according to the FCO there are essentially two main obstacles that hinder the right to return. The feasibility of resettlement remains a controversial issue according to the FCO. Furthermore, the Deputy Commissioner of BIOT has confirmed that the United States remains opposed to resettlement as it purportedly threatens their defence interests. However, they proposed that we do not address the defence interests of the United States but to focus on the feasibility of resettlement instead. While we agreed to discuss the feasibility of resettlement, we made it clear that we remain sceptical because we cannot ignore the fact that the FCO could at a later stage conclude that defence interests dictate that resettlement cannot be envisaged. Furthermore, we explained that the feasibility of resettlement is a novel issue as many studies have been conducted. While we are not against a feasibility study, we believe that such initiative should be conducted jointly at every single stage and the Chagossians must be consulted throughout and within a well defined and appropriate timescale. Additionally, during the discussion, issues such as citizenship, scholarships, pensions schemes have also been addressed. The FCO representatives accompanied by the British High Commissioner also visited many houses wherein the Chagossians are living in Mauritius and thus witnessed their abject living conditions.

 

The very fact that we are participating in this process is proof of our good faith and commitment. Yet, we can only hope that this latest initiative of the FCO is one that is being pursued genuinely. In this regard, we kindly note that on the 9th of July 2013 that is after our meeting with the representatives of the FCO which was held on the 26th of June, Mark Simmons has stated the intention to review the resettlement policy.

 

We are happy that the meeting was conducted in an honest manner during which both parties have had the opportunity to freely express their positions. We hope that such meetings will be conducted on a regular basis because communication and dialogues are essential in our quest for justice.”

 

DAVID SNOXELL TRIBUNE ARTICLE

APPG Coordinator David Snoxell was invited for the third time this year by the Left-wing magazine Tribune to contribute an article on the latest developments in our struggle for justice.  This time the focus was on the recent ruling regarding the Judicial Review into the MPA in June.

 

“The MPA seems to have started off from good intentions, but officials soon saw that it could have the added advantage of making it more difficult for the Chagossians to return. WikiLeaks revealed that one official urged the United States embassy, when in discussion with Chagossian advocates and the APPG, to “affirm that the USG requires the entire BIOT for defence purposes” as a means of countering the argument that resettlement on the Outer Islands would have no impact on Diego Garcia.

 

While the US embassy cables reporting on the meeting with FCO officials revealed that the MPA was discussed partly in terms of blocking resettlement, it is clear that then Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s primary concern was to secure a green legacy, days before the general election was called. But he could hardly have been unaware of scientific, public and parliamentary support for an MPA which took account of Chagossian resettlement.

 

The documents released for the judicial review provide fascinating insights into the advice being submitted to the Foreign Secretary, leading up to the announcement of the MPA on April 1 2010. Officials cautioned that the results of the public consultation should be announced but not rushed, pending careful “management” of the Chagossians and Mauritius. ‘There was further work to do with stakeholders before establishing an MPA.’”

 

STEALING A NATION SCREENINGS- REVIEW

Earlier this summer Adam Burton organised a number of screenings in London of John Pilger’s award winning 2004 documentary ‘Stealing A Nation’.  These events enabled an opportunity to promote the cause of the Chagossian struggle for justice and created a fantastic platform to enable us as an organisation to reach out to new supporters.  One such attendee was Virou Srilangara​jah, a supporter who also joined us for our AGM earlier this year.  He has very kindly written a review on the session he attended back in June:

 

“On Wednesday 19th June I attended a public film screening of John Pilger’s meticulous 2004 film about the plight of the Chagossians, ‘Stealing a Nation’. Despite the numerous awards it has accumulated, it has only been broadcast on British television once – almost a decade ago.

 

While it is fantastic to have such an esteemed figure as John Pilger on our side, it is also important that the Chagos islanders enter the consciousness of ordinary British citizens, who will play a huge factor as the 2014 renewal for the base in Diego Garcia comes ever closer. This was wonderfully exemplified by a Chilean mother who came along with her British-born son of university-age, both of whom contributed to a thoroughly engaging discussion afterwards and had not known about the Chagossians prior to the screening.

Our group conversation also brought up what had happened since the recording of the film, particularly legally (ECHR decision, judicial review, etc) but we also reflected upon the tragic deaths in exile of two of the most prominent Chagossians in ‘Stealing a Nation’, Lisette Talate and Charlezia Alexis.


Overall, we can be optimistic with the knowledge that the Chagossian people’s struggle has gained more support from the British public and if the empathy and passion of the discussion afterwards is an indicator of public opinion, we can be hopeful in future for increased coverage in the media and for more positive outcomes in the political sphere.

Finally, a thank you to Adam Burton for organising this recent series of screenings in East London, and had also put in the effort in creating and distributing flyers to members of the public prior to the event. Also thanks to the very hospitable Eleanor from our lovely venue, independent bookshop, X Marks the Bökship.”

 

A huge thanks and appreciation to Adam once again for giving up his own time to coordinate these sessions and for all the other work has been doing on the cause recently.  Sabrina and I met Adam recently and have discussed a number of ideas which we hope to explore further over the coming months.