October 2007 update: Minutes of the AGM

MINUTES OF AGM, 28TH OCTOBER 2007

1. Apologies from Trustees unable to attend: Margaret and Wilfred Brown, Daniel Simpson and Graham Tattersall.
2. Minutes of the last meeting have been circulated and agreed.
3. Matters Arising.
At the last AGM we completed an application to become a registered charity. This was refused on the grounds that there was an on-going court case and that we could be regarded as political. As the Association is cross-party and only interested in encouraging the government to KEEP the law and give the Chagossians justice and their rights this is hard to understand.

4. Chairman’s Report
In the past this association’s meetings have all been held up north, where most of our founder members are based. The fact we’re here in London is a sign of how much our support base has widened – we decided to hold it here this year to allow more of our supporters to attend, and we’re glad that we did, because this is the most people we’ve ever had at an AGM, and it’s fantastic to see so many faces.

At our last AGM in Keighley a year ago, there had just been a major court decision in the islanders’ favour, but we were still waiting for the next one.

Twelve months on and you could say we are in roughly the same situation. Perhaps the Government would like us to feel as if we haven’t come anywhere since then, but in fact we have come quite a long way.

As we all know, on 23 May this year the Court of Appeal upheld the High Court’s decision to quash the Orders in Council of 2004 which banned the islanders from returning home. Now the Government has taken its appeal to the House of Lords, and the latest news is that the Lords have agreed to hear the appeal.

However, we can hope that the end is in sight – this is the Government’s last avenue for appeal, and there’s an encouraging early indication of the Lords’ attitude to the case in that they have required the Government to pay costs for both sides regardless of whether they win or lose.

Resettlement looks like a less distant prospect with each day that passes, and we are starting to see more serious attention given to the issue by politicians and the media.

As ever, the various Chagossian groups have been very active over the course of the year supporting the communities in Mauritius, the Seychelles, the UK and elsewhere, and raising awareness of the struggle through their events and activities.

Through the hard work of some of our supporters, we recently secured a grant of £15,000 from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, to conduct a study into resettlement of the islands – which is now underway. We’re in the process of applying for a further grant to conduct a diplomatic strategy to make sure resettlement gets its rightful place on the Government’s agenda.

The Foreign Affairs Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into the governance of the Overseas Territories, which has received evidence from various sources regarding Chagos, and we hope that this will bring some much needed scrutiny to the shocking way the Government has dealt with Chagos over the years.

And, of course, since last year we have a new Prime Minister and a new Foreign Secretary. We hoped that this might mean a change in the intransigent attitude to Chagos that we’ve seen from Government over the past few years. Things they’ve both said hinted that this might be the case. There was talk of “entrusting more power to parliament and the people,” and of Government becoming “a better servant to the people”. We were promised a Britain “that lives out its values at home and abroad” – but we’ve seen precious little change in policy.

The court verdict in May got widespread news coverage. From the newspaper headlines, which included things like “Chagos families win legal battle”, “Chagos islanders celebrate court victory and “Exiled islanders win 40-year battle to return home”, you’d be forgiven for thinking the struggle was already over. That’s how it might look to someone reading the court documents, but the legal battle isn’t even over yet, and that’s only part of the story.

So this Association continues to work towards its aims: resettlement, proper compensation and an apology. What we now hope is that the unnecessary delay and hassle of the legal battle will soon be behind us, so we can move on to the next stage, of meaningful engagement with Government and all relevant parties, and really starting to make these things happen.

One of the points we have on the agenda today is the election of a new secretary and chair. I’ve been chair for a year and a half, and Celia Whittaker has been secretary ever since the start, six years ago. Unfortunately neither of us can carry on devoting the time to it that we have been so we’ve both decided to step down. We’ll both continue as trustees and still hope to be closely involved with the association’s activities. I’ll be stepping back and focussing on running the website. We look forward to having some new ideas and energy in the Association to take things forward.

I’d like to thank everyone for their support – this Association relies completely on people giving their spare time and effort – it’s only as strong as the people supporting it. And I’m glad to say I think that means it’s stronger than ever.

5. Secretary’s Report
I am pleased to say that the number of supporters who receive the monthly Updates via e-mail from me is well in excess of 500. But this figure does not take into account the fact that supporters pass their Updates on to others. We know this because we sometimes get results to appeals from someone not on our list! Committee members also have their own lists of contacts they keep Updated.

It is good that many supporters are pro-active and work hard at spreading information about the Chagossians and getting their MPs involved. For example, supporters wrote to their MPs to encourage them to back John Austin’s campaign to get BIOT included in the UK Overseas Territories Association. It now is.

We regularly receive requests from students for help with their theses and journalists searching for information for articles. We always hope that these will be read by growing numbers of people. This past year there have been articles and letters in many papers including the Washington Post, Time, Telegraph, Observer, Private Eye, tabloids and many papers around the world. Also letters have been published in the press from supporters.

We have ongoing correspondence with the FCO but, all too often, get told matters are “sub judice” or information cannot be given under the Freedom of Information Act because it is “not in the national interest”. Very frustrating.

This has been the year of the petition, including some started by private individuals; one at 10 Downing Street – which just received the standard FCO reply; Churches Together in Coventry and Warks and David Cameron’s website. (The latter elicited a positive response at the time but complete silence since).
The Chagos Conservation Trust has a very different purpose from our Association but some individual members have been more encouraging this year. (More about the CCT later)
There has been no change re Ascencion Island but they have now started their own Support Association.
There have been various meetings and debates involving the Chagos Achipelago including the Commonwealth Society “Diego Garcia – Land of No return?” a discussion in Canterbury commemorating George Champion “Diego Garcia and Slavery?” and an LSE showing of the John Pilger film and a discussion.
John Pilger’s film was shown again on ITV. There was an item about the current Chagossian situation in “From Our Own Correspondent”. Another programme was aired on Radio 4 and Jacques Aristide also made a film. This all helps. John Loader’s film is still available.
There have been two dramas based on the Chagossian story – one in the Republic of Ireland and one in Wales.
Some truly poignant and beautiful photographs of Chagossians by Phuc Quac are available for viewing on the web.
There has been much interest from other Overseas Territories about the progress of the Chagossian struggle because the use of Orders in Council will affect them too.
“ Musichana” is an interesting project which we will follow with great interest.
Worrying developments are the base extension on Diego Garcia and the many reports that the Island is being used for special rendition. Reprieve has reported on this.

In 2001, Paul Heaton, Margaret and Wilfred Brown, Sylvia Boyes and myself started this Association after separately contacting Richard Gifford, the London solicitor who has worked tirelessly for the Chagossians. We had learnt about the Chagossian exile from the press coverage when they won their first case and he put us in touch with eachother. Six years later I have decided to resign and let someone with new, fresh ideas take over as secretary. They have been interesting years and have put me in contact with many wonderful, caring people – and a few not so wonderful too.

I have no intention of losing interest in the cause and will stay a very active supporter.
I would have more time to do talks (I had an interesting trip to Swansea from Lancashire last month). Graham Tattersall (who is unable to be with us today) has done some very good work talking to Local labour Party groups and I would like to follow his example.

Thank you to everyone who has helped me so much over the years – most of all, my husband.

6. Treasurer’s Report
Funds raised this year amounted to £4870.81
Plus Rowntree Reform Trust Grant of £7,500
And interest of £35.49

Money given by the Association to help the different Chagossian groups amounted to £2870.00.
£43.53 was spent on postcards printed by the CRG to commemorate their visit to their homelands and these are being sold to raise more funds.

Closing balance is £9736.60
This includes £7500 is from the Rowntree Trust to be used for a specific task and £1000 is being transferred immediately for house repairs on Mauritius.

Any donations can be sent to the Treasurer, Sylvia Boyes at 43, Wimbourne Drive, Keighley, Yorkshire. BD21 2TR

7. Election of Officers
Chair : Ann Stewart
Vice-chair : Robert Bain
Treasurer : Sylvia Boyes
Secretary : Joanna Harma
Assistant secretary : Hengride Permal
Web-master : Robert Bain

8. Any other business
a. Ann Stewart gave a summary of the Symposium organised by the Chagos Conservation Trust earlier in the month. This mainly consisted of ecology and conservation matters but there was some discussion on resettlement.
b. Baroness Sarah Ludford then brought up the possibility of EU funding. Richard Gifford also had some useful input on this topic (This year there have been 17 billion euros set aside for use in Overseas Territories of EU state which have not been allocated.) It appears the money could be made available but the relevant governments have to make the request. This money is for economic regenerative schemes for impoverished peoples in the Overseas Territories. The UK government has made no effort to claim or use this cash to benefit the Chagossians because they are not ON their territory!
c. Sylvia Boyes wondered what effect the military extensions were having on the coral as large amounts had been blasted and used for construction work but Simon Hughes (Sec of CCT) said they were no longer having an effect and that the UK government encouraged the US to obey the rules on conservation issues.
d. It was then pointed out that there were huge fuel bunkers on Diego Garcia and that the coral reefs had been blasted for deep-water anchorage in the lagoon. Extensions were still on-going and this must have some effect.
e. Jon Castle pointed out that all military installations use huge amounts of energy and this has to be an on-going issue. Many environmentalists are deeply critical of the base.
f. Iain Orr made the point that a Chagossian presence in the Islands could help in many ways from conservation projects through to keeping an eye on illegal sea-cucumber poaching. Investment in the fruitful waters of the Archipelago could lead to both economic and ecological benefits in the future.
g. Richard Gifford pointed out that any move to re-settle has to go on hold again because of the government taking further legal action.
h. Hengride Permal says that there are problems for Chagossians in Crawley but they continue to write to MPs and have written to Gordon Brown who has not yet replied. A picket is planned at Downing Street on November 10th. This will be from 2.00 until 5.00 (Not 1.00 to 4.00 as it says on the flier – because of a procession in Whitehall by another group.)
i. Hengride also wondered where the money the UK government says it paid in compensation actually went.
j. Submissions have been made to the Foreign Affairs Committee which is looking into the Governance of Overseas Territories. The Committee, once they have received all submissions – are there will be several relating to the Chagossians – will decide to whom they wish to speak and when. More information can be gleaned about this from the Foreign Office website.
k. Concern was expressed by Phil Rossiter at Diego Garcia being used for torture purposes. “Reprieve” has made a submission to the Foreign Office Committee, we believe.
l. The new Chair, Ann, said she was looking forward to working with ALL groups of Chagossians and it would be useful to have a list of people from the Archipelago who are resident in the UK.
m. Ayten Bouquet read a statement on behalf of her husband, a staunch supporter of the Chagossians, who plans to sail his boat to the outer islands next year.
n. Jon Castle told the meeting a little more about the trip on “Musichana”. He will be part of the crew.

There being no other business, the retiring Chair thanked everyone for coming and closed the meeting.