October 2010 update

PARLIAMENT

The Chagos Islands All-Party Parliamentary Group held its 15th meeting on 13 October. The chairman welcomed Baroness Kinnock to the group.

The group reviewed developments since its last meeting on 21 July. They took note of the letters sent by the FCO during the recess concerning the Foreign Secretary’s review of Chagos policies. They were not persuaded that the recast FCO arguments against restoring the right to return and withdrawing from the case before the ECtHR in Strasbourg were either clear or compelling. They remained of the view that the case should be withdrawn and the right of return restored. The group looked forward to meeting Mr Bellingham (FCO Minister for Africa and the OTs) on 15 November and to discussing these issues with him. This would be an opportunity to feed their views into the Foreign Secretary’s review, given that Parliament had not yet been consulted. The group also noted the comments on Chagos by the Foreign Secretary at the FAC on 8 September and Dr Cable’s letters of 9 and 16 September to a constituent, in the first of which he supported a just and fair settlement and the dropping of the Strasbourg case, letters which had been widely disseminated on the internet.

The group discussed the need for an up-to-date independent study on the practicalities of resettlement for which they had been asking FCO Ministers since the formation of the group in December 2008. The Group decided that, given the controversial nature of the 2002 Feasibility Study and the questionable 2001 data on which it was based, they should explore the possibility of commissioning and funding a new study. It was suggested that both DfID and the European Development Fund should be approached for funds. The Group considered a paper by Richard Dunne (Sea-Level Rise in the Chagos Archipelago – the up-to-date evidence) which showed that sea level trends (1968-2008) may even be negative or much smaller than hitherto thought. The 2002 study rates were overestimates by between 20% and 150% and were unrealistic if regional sea-levels are actually falling or nearly static. This was an additional reason for undertaking a new study.

The group was informed that a judge would consider the application for judicial review of the proposed MPA and the FCO’s response. The group understood that no further measures would be taken to entrench the MPA in law, pending judicial proceedings. The Group felt that the MPA should go forward with the involvement and agreement of all the parties concerned, including the Chagossians, Mauritius and Maldives. The opposition expressed by the Mauritius Foreign Minister to the MPA, in his speech to the UN General Assembly in September, was noted, as was the decision of the Assembly of the Africa Union in Kampala on 27 July concerning sovereignty. The group was informed about current activities and questions in the European Parliament.

At the request of the Chagos Environment Network the Group agreed to meet representatives at its 17th meeting on 15 December. The next meeting will be on 15 November when Mr Bellingham meets the group. The chairman said he would like to meet Mr Bancoult and delegation during their visit to London on 21 October for a meeting with the Minister.

David Snoxell
Chagos Islands APPG Coordinator

Parliamentary questions in the House of Commons:
13 October 2010
Adrian Sanders (Torbay, Liberal Democrat) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what his policy is on the return of Chagos Islanders to the Chagos Islands, and if he will make a statement.
Henry Bellingham (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Africa and the United Nations), Foreign and Commonwealth Office; North West Norfolk, Conservative):
The Government have looked into policy on the British Indian Ocean Territory and have decided to defend the claims for resettlement and compensation which the Chagos Islanders have brought to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. This is because we believe the arguments against allowing resettlement on the grounds of feasibility and defence security are clear and compelling. Nor do we see the case for compensation as this has already been paid in full and final settlement of all claims. Both of these issues have already been decided by the UK courts.
However, we do want to keep channels of communication open to the Chagossian communities and explore new ideas for their engagement with the Territory, short of resettlement. We plan to continue our support for islanders wishing to visit to tend family graves, engage in heritage conservation and contribute to environmental work, including the implementation of the Marine Protected Area.

Mr. Bellingham’s assertion that “both of these issues (resettlement and compensation) have been decided by the courts”, whilst technically correct, is highly economical with the truth. Nine senior judges ruled in favour of restoring the right of abode to the Chagossians and only three Law Lords did not – but the three Law Lords won, sadly. All courts have said that the compensation was meagre and inadequate – even the Law Lords agreed with that – but further compensation was time barred.

“Exploring new ideas short of resettlement” is just stringing the Chagossians along. What “new ideas” can there be? Engaging them in “implementation of the MPA” is like asking them to help choose the menu when they are not invited to the dinner – and it’s in their house!

18 October 2010
Henry Smith (Crawley, Conservative):
To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs pursuant to the answer of 16 September 2010, Official Report, column 1186W, on the Ilois: resettlement, on what defence security grounds he has determined his policy against resettlement of the Ilois; and what discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Defence on Government policy on the settlement of civilian populations in the vicinity of defence installations. (Ilois = Chagossian)

Henry Bellingham:
Full immigration control over the entire of the British Indian Ocean Territory is necessary to ensure and maintain the availability and effective use of the territory for defence purposes of both the UK and the US with whom the UK has treaty obligations. US authorities have always made clear their concerns about the possible restoration of a settled civilian population in the territory which, they have said “would severely compromise Diego Garcia’s unparalleled security and have a deleterious impact on our military operations.” In October 2010, the US reconfirmed that they remained concerned about the implications of any resettlement of the outer islands.
My officials keep in close contact with their Ministry of Defence counterparts over British Indian Ocean Territory issues.

The quotation in Mr. Bellingham’s answer is part of a letter from Lincoln Bloomfield, State Department, in November 2004. It was provided at the request of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to help their case in the High Court (which they lost).
21 October 2010
Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park, Conservative) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what progress his Department has made on the establishment of
a marine protected area in the British Indian Ocean Territory.
Henry Bellingham
The Government believe that the Marine Protected Area (MPA) proclaimed in the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) on 1 April 2010 by the BIOT Commissioner is the right way forward for furthering the environmental protection of the territory and encouraging others to do the same in important and vulnerable areas under their control.
The BIOT Administration are no longer issuing new fishing licences but are honouring those already issued. These licences expire at the end of October.
The BIOT Administration are continuing to work on the implementation of the MPA. This includes preparing implementing legislation in BIOT law, enforcement arrangements, establishing administrative and scientific research frameworks, funding, dialogue with interested parties and exploring the opportunities for involving representatives of the Chagossian community in environmental work in the territory.

21 October 2010
Henry Smith
To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs pursuant to the answer of 19 October 2010, Official Report, columns 493-94W, on Ilois: resettlement, on what date the US administration first communicated to his Department its present policy on resettlement of the Chagos Islands; who in the US administration made the original policy statement; at what level of the US administration was the policy most recently reconfirmed; what information he has received from the US administration on the nature of its present concerns; and on what occasion he last discussed the issue with his US counterpart.
Henry Bellingham
The 1966 Exchange of Notes which concerns the Availability for Defence Purposes of the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) was signed on behalf of the US Government by Mr David Bruce, the US ambassador, on 30 December 1966. This Exchange of Notes made the whole of the territory available for defence purposes-not just Diego Garcia. US concerns over resettlement were set out in letters from the State Department in November 2004 and January 2006. US concerns over the implications of resettlement were most recently reconfirmed in October 2010 during the formal UK/US Political-Military Talks on BIOT when US officials set out the US Government’s position.

Regarding that last sentence, concrete evidence of who said what exactly and to whom, preferably in writing, would be good.

As usual, letters continue to be sent out by the FCO to Chagossian supporters containing empty promises and crocodile tears. This is part of a letter sent to Dr. Liam Fox to pass on to a supporter:

“I realise that the decision not to change the fundamental policy on resettlement, compensation and on the MPA will be a disappointing one for the Chagossians and their supporters. However, we do want to keep channels of communication open with the Chagossian community and see value in talking to them about the implementation of the MPA….”

Unhelpful and mendacious. Oddly, the junior Minister at the FCO who signed the lette, says that the “Government will….” as if Dr. Fox were not part of that Government and, being a Cabinet Minister, of a much higher rank than the Junior Minister!

Olivier Bancoult was in London on 21st October for a meeting with Mr. Bellingham, accompanied by Roch Evenor and Samantha Seewoosurrun.

A statement beforehand on behalf of Olivier said:

This is the first meeting between Olivier and a member of the new British Government. In spite of the difficulties encountered in putting together this meeting, namely the discussion surrounding the presence or absence of lawyers, Olivier and his executive committee have decided to give this meeting every chance in order to make it a first in a series of successful meetings with the new Minister. Olivier hopes to find in the Minister someone from the British Government who will finally listen with sincerity to what he has to say about his people and who will look at the whole situation from a new angle, hopefully with a view to bringing an end to more than 40 years of struggle and misery.

Prior to his meeting with the Minister, Olivier had discussions with Jeremy Corbyn MP and David Snoxell, co-ordinator of the APPG.

Here is an extract from Dr Sean Carey’s New Statesman blog:

Yesterday, Olivier Bancoult, the leader of the Chagos Refugees Group in Mauritius, as well as Roch Evenor, chair of the UK Chagos Support Association, and two representatives from the thousand or so Islanders and their descendants who have settled in Crawley, met Henry Bellingham, the FCO Minister for Africa and the Overseas Territories and his officials at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Interestingly, no lawyers from either side were present at the meeting, which lasted about an hour. This reflects the sensitivity on both sides about the case concerning the Islanders’ right of return which is currently before the European Court of Human Rights, and perhaps a recognition that in the end there will be a need for a political accommodation, regardless of the outcome of the court case.

Both sides are playing their cards close to their chest – the FCO, for example, has indicated that it will not be issuing a statement. But it is clear that the Chagossians found Henry Bellingham friendly and far more open than any of his predecessors with whom they have had contact.

This won’t come as a surprise to seasoned observers as Henry Bellingham is well liked amongst his parliamentary colleagues….. but it seems that he had nothing new to offer the Islanders other than tea and sympathy. Indeed, Mauritian newspaper, Le Matinal, reported this morning that Bellingham was certainly not going to halt the coalition government’s commitment either to carry on the legal case in Strasbourg or backtrack on the announcement made by former foreign secretary, David Miliband, on 1 April that the British Indian Ocean Territory is to be made into the world’s largest marine reserve, which would effectively block any returning Islanders making a living from fishing.

Nevertheless, the two sides have agreed to a further meeting, probably in the third week of November, when it is likely that bestselling novelist, Philippa Gregory and TV presenter Ben Fogle, patrons of the UK Chagos Support Association, will also attend.

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT

Charles Tannock MEP is European and Conservatives Reformists Group Foreign Affairs Spokesman in the European Parliament. In an article, The Dark Side of Defending Freedom, available to read on the Project Syndicate, 2010 website, he says:

The price of freedom…is eternal vigilance. But that price can take the form of morally squalid decisions in which innocent people bear the brunt of the cost of freedom’s defense.

UKCSA recommends that you read the excellent and very supportive article.

Still with the EU: France and Roma

On 29th September, all 27 European commissioners decided to set France a deadline to remedy their failure to observe European law, namely that which allows all EU citizens freedom of movement across the whole union. It would be good if all 27 commissioners could give the UK a deadline by which they should allow all British passport holders (which includes Chagossians) to live in their homeland.

However, the commissioner responsible for development policy, Andris Piebalgs, indicated to Dr. Tannock that the Commission would consider any request from the UK for co-financing the Chagossians return to their homeland.

PRESS, WEBSITES etc.

In that short period of great joy between Dr. Vince Cable’s two letters (the first saying the government had decided not to fight the case in Europe etc., the second letter being a complete reverse), Professor Richard P. Dunne (University of Newcastle) said this in Reef News and Issues:
Earlier this year there was a debate on Coral List concerning the Chagos Archipelago and the proposal by the UK Government to implement a Marine Protected Area (MPA). Readers may recall that the indigenous population was expelled in the 1960s to make way for the US Military Base on Diego Garcia. Since that date the Chagossians have been denied a right of abode and most recently had pursued their case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). The case was due to be heard later this year.

On 1 April 2010 the former Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, announced the UK’s intention to implement a MPA in the Chagos Archipelago. To date no further action had been taken pending a Judicial Review of that declaration by the Chagossians which was filed in the UK Courts in August.

In a remarkable about turn, the new Coalition Government revealed in a letter from Rt Hon Dr Vince Cable MP dated 9 September that it is abandoning its defence of the ECtHR case, “opting instead for a friendly settlement” with the Chagossians. Furthermore the letter declared that “The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, is also committed to a fair settlement of this long-standing dispute. Steps have already been taken to ensure their [Chagossians] return.”

This is wonderful news for everyone. It ensures that the Marine Protected Area now has a real chance of being implemented, that the islanders will be entitled to return and indeed could participate in the enforcement of the MPA, preventing it from just becoming a “paper park”. Although the concept of a complete “no-take zone” throughout the MPA, and an archipelago devoid of any human habitation (apart from the massive base on Diego) was attractive to certain conservationists and heavily lobbied by some parties, it was also naive and patently unjust. Although it is still early days and there will be many issues to be resolved, we now have the opportunity to move forward with this important decision, whilst including all the stakeholders…

Professor Dunne ends by saying: It is an important day for both conservation and human rights.

This Association sees this as a humane, practical and very worthy alternative view to that of the Chagos Conservation Trust and some other conservation groups.

Peter Sand, a Lecturer in International Environmental Law, University of Munich has written an article for the current of Environmental Policy and Law “The Chagos Archipelago: Footprint of Empire, or World Heritage?”

The article discusses the proposed establishment of a Marine protected Area and the international legal issues raised, including human rights, law of the sea, environmental and disarmament aspects. Contact UKCSA if you would like to read the full article.

The Guardian, and all the Mauritian press, covered a claim made by the Maldives to extend their area of seabed. From the Guardian:

The Foreign Office has signalled its formal opposition at the United Nations to a claim by the Maldives Islands for 160,000 square kilometres of the Indian Ocean seabed that may encroach upon British overseas territory.

The letter to the UN is aimed at protecting national interests in the Chagos Islands, an archipelago from which the native population were expelled 40 years ago to make way for a US airbase (military base) on the atoll of Diego Garcia. Leaders of the exiled Chagossians contrast the rapidity with which the Foreign Office has defended its interests with the protracted refusal to permit them to return to the islands, known as British Indian Ocean Territory…

The Maldives government submitted its claim for an expanded tract of seabed on 26 July this year to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. Britain posted its response on 9 August….

The Foreign Office’s prompt response to the Maldives’ plans comes as the government has dismayed thousands of displaced Chagossians and their descendants by reversing both Conservative and Liberal Democrat pre-election support….
Roch Evenor, chairman of the UK Chagos Support Association, said: “[The Foreign Office] seems to be more interested in defending the seabed than the interests of Chagossians.

“Why did [politicians] give us all that sweet-talking before the elections and then afterwards we are back to square zero? We feel emotionally drained.”

WEDNESDAY 3 NOVEMBER IS CHAGOS DAY

This will be the tenth anniversary of the Chagossians’ first victory in the High Court, London.

Chagossians in the area are invited to a silent vigil outside Parliament from 11.00 am to 2.00 pm, Old Palace Place. Please bring banners and flags if you have any. All friends and supporters will be very welcome.

Finally, a most interesting article by Patrick Allen, published in SecEd, a newspaper distributed to all secondary schools in the UK. Patrick is head of music and chair of arts at Ifield Community College in Crawley:

WHAT I HAVE LEARNED FROM THE CHAGOSSIANS

Crawley in West Sussex, where I teach music in a comprehensive school, has found itself at the centre of a curious and tragic human migration. It has come upon us gradually since 2005 and is transforming the culture of the town and the school.

It has caused me to completely rethink my views on music education, musical ability and musical culture and has led to a very special group of young people performing at the Royal College of Music and at the finals of the National Festival of Music for Youth in the space of a year – despite having no formal musical training.

The young people have arrived from Mauritius, but have their family origins in the Chagos Islands from which they were removed (by the British) in the 1960s and 70s to make way for an American airbase on the island of Diego Garcia.

Despite their entitlement to British citizenship, and a presence on the island going back 250 years (to which the French took their ancestors from Africa as slaves), all of the islanders were transported to a newly independent Mauritius and more or less left to fend for themselves.

A series of actions in the courts have led to them being granted, then denied, the right to return to their islands and after the courageous actions of a small group, they have been allowed since 2004 to settle in the UK.

As a result, about half of the worldwide diaspora of Chagossians live in Crawley. Getting to know this group of young people has been one of the most remarkable musical experiences of my 30-year teaching career.

The fact is that the Chagossians have arrived with a living, breathing “culture”. Not a culture you buy into or consume, or measure your social position by, but a culture which unites the community and provides a real social and human bond.

Musically they have advanced skills in listening, performing and composing, which have not been taught in the formal sense, but learned as part of their family and community life. However their skills were not immediately evident and remained overlooked for some months.

Arriving from a sunny island to a cold and tight-lipped England must have been a shock. Add to this the burden of education in an alien language and the assortment of disaffected and distracted young people who tend to inhabit the lower streams in which they were initially placed, it is hardly surprising that many either clammed up or became frustrated in their early days. Such are the burdens of tests and league tables, that many schools’ sole concern was to fast-track them through English, thereby focusing on their weaknesses.

Indeed – even as a music teacher – watching these students arrive in increasing numbers in classes, one’s concern would be will they understand my instructions? Will they be able to work with other students? Do they know their way around the keyboard? That is to say: do they have the skills to adapt and conform to my agenda?

By chance I had three of the community in one year 9 class. A fourth arrived on a day when I gave the class a series of open choices for musical composition. The new boy chose to work with congas, and immediately started drumming with a level of skill and style that was very surprising. This encouraged two of the others to join in, providing complementary rhythms on djembes. A girl in the group picked up a triangle and provided a highly syncopated backbeat.

The piece swirled around, evolved and transformed with energy and excitement. I was so surprised I immediately asked the rest of the class and the head of year to come and listen.

Over the following weeks, I let the Chagossians in the class follow their own pathway. I brought them whatever they needed. Exciting developments included the turning of a drum on its side to become a ravanne and the revelation that one student was a virtuoso ravanne player. “I learned from my uncle,” he said.

One day a member of the class came running to say “the Mauritians are singing!” It had taken four weeks for them to feel secure enough about their environment to start performing their own songs in their own language. As time has gone on, they have revealed a vast repertoire of songs – and compose their own.

It occurred to me that if I had four musical Chagossians in one class, then surely the others must be musical too. I asked them to bring their friends along to a meeting so I could hear more play. Fifteen arrived. They chose the instruments they wanted: congas, a bass drum, the ocean drum/ravanne. djembes, shakers, assorted sizes of hand drum. The group started to improvise. What followed left me completely floored. One drummer set up a beat, the others joined in both complementing and adding to the rhythm. One player would then move the emphasis of the beat, the others would adapt.
Sometimes players would stop to allow others to take a lead or solo. The rhythm moved from 6/8 to 4/4 and elsewhere. Complex polyrhythmic layers would develop, with players adding subtle shifts of emphasis and driving the piece in a new direction.

The Chagossian musicians now form an important element in all our concerts, both as musicians and highly skilled dancers. Last year I took a group to perform for music teachers at the Royal College of Music, and this year they formed an important part of our choir performing at the Music for Youth National Festival. “School music at its best,” was how the adjudicators described it.

My work with the Chagossians has made me realise the following things.

The social environment of the class can cause students to conceal skills and knowledge. As an unconfident minority of newcomers, the Chagossians were reluctant at first to reveal their musical skills and cultural heritage. They really did not want to stand out in any way. It was only when they were strongly encouraged and then grouped together that they felt confident enough for their skills and culture to be properly revealed.

Confidence and security create growth. As well as feeling ill-at-ease in classes when they first arrived, many had compounded this by internalising the idea that they were in a “superior” culture. This was reinforced by an insistence that they should only speak English at school (even though their English was very poor). Many felt sure they would not be able to participate in lessons or answer any questions. This created a nervousness – even in music lessons.

An inflexible curriculum, which does not take into account the actual students in the class, can bury talent. Our required schemes of work and target-driven school systems initially did not allow their musicality to shine. It was only when I departed from them that the Chagossians became liberated. Even the finest Olympic athletes would appear incapable if the curriculum only allowed them to copy diagrams of the human body and be tested on the mechanics of running. Do we have the flexibility and opportunities in our classrooms for real talent to be revealed?

Music blossoms in a social context and when it is integral to the community. The Chagossian students use music as a means of social bonding and communication. It is a team effort with each individual voice important: “Music is life”, one of them said to me.

And in our own schools and society? I am ashamed to say I don’t think we quite measure up. Although music education in the UK has a lot to be proud of, music has become divorced from a shared social context both in society and school. The conversion of music into a consumer product, the emphasis on “fame” in society, combined with the test, level and target-obsessed culture of our education system tend to alienate us from the essential life-force of music.

Their music and the musical skills are handed down aurally – oral and aural learning combined with physical dexterity. When I ask where they learned I get a wide variety of responses – from a grandfather, a cousin, an uncle, at school, at the scouts, by playing with friends on the beach for tourists. Music is also seen as a physical skill and sensation. Their whole being is involved in the playing and singing: emotions, feelings of fellowship and the body.

Having recognition for their music has made them feel more confident and accepted at school. I have tried to make sure all the teachers and pupils in the school know about what they can do. They are now viewed quite differently by staff and pupils, but above all by themselves. They now see that they are important members of our school community and that they and their full cultural identity is becoming valued. Their success in music is transforming their achievement across the school.