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House of Commons Hansard
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Chagos Islands: UN General Assembly Resolution
03 July 2019
Volume 662

[Virendra Sharma in the Chair]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the UN General Assembly resolution on the future of the Chagos Islands.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma, and to have the chance to debate the issue of justice for the people of Chagos and the country of Mauritius. The topic is not unfamiliar to Westminster Hall, or indeed to the Minister, but recent developments at the UN warrant a fresh perspective. Last week, at Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions, the Minister said that I could expostulate as much as I wish on this matter. Well, it seems that my wish has been granted. Incidentally, Mr Speaker was not sure whether it would not be better to expatiate on the matter. Whether it is expatiate or expostulate, what most people involved in the historical and ongoing treatment of the Chagos islands situation experience is exasperation. The UK Government’s obstinacy, especially in recent years, and their refusal to make any concessions to those seeking redress is astonishing and frustrating in equal measure. As I will show, it is becoming damaging to the UK Government themselves and to Britain’s global reputation.

I pay tribute to the many campaigners and champions working on this issue, many of whom have been far more deeply involved and for far longer than I or any of my colleagues have. They include the Chagossian community—both the original islanders who were forced off their homeland and their descendants, who have not given up and will not give up on the dream of a right to return, and especially Olivier Bancoult, who has led the community for many years—the lawyers, including Philippe Sands, Richard Dunne and Richard Gifford, who have supported those efforts over the years; David Snoxell, the former UK high commissioner to Mauritius, who ably co-ordinates the all-party parliamentary group of which I am an officer; Tom Guha, who runs a grassroots support group; my good friend and constituent William Henderson, who lectures in international law at Glasgow Caledonian University and first made me aware of the issue; and hon. Members who have kept the issue alive, not least the Leader of the Opposition and the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), who chairs the APPG.

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I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene very briefly, as a fellow member of the all-party parliamentary group. Does he agree that this is about the dignity of the Chagossian people? This goes to the heart of their right to return to their homeland.

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Absolutely. The question of the future of that community goes to the very heart of this debate. It is encapsulated in the issues that arose at the United Nations. The people who support the all-party parliamentary group have provided invaluable advice and briefing in advance of the debate. They can all be assured of the ongoing solidarity and support of the Scottish National party—our former First Minister was a champion of this cause—and our allies in Plaid Cymru.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I agree absolutely with my colleague on the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), about the dignity of the people of the Chagos islands. I am sure that my hon. Friend will come to this, but does this not raise a critical issue for the UK: respect for the rule of law?

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Absolutely—the rule of law and the rules-based international order, which the Government like to champion so much.

The immediate context of the debate is the overwhelming decision of the United Nations General Assembly on 22 May—by 116 to just six votes against—to back resolution 73/295, calling on the UK—in fact, demanding that the UK does this—to

“withdraw its colonial administration from the Chagos Archipelago unconditionally within a period of no more than six months”.

It called on

“the UN and all its specialised agencies to recognise that the Chagos Archipelago forms an integral part of the territory of Mauritius...and to refrain from impeding that process by recognising, or giving effect to any measure taken by or on behalf of ‘the British Indian Ocean Territory’.”

The resolution affirms that

“because the detachment of the Chagos Archipelago was not based on the free and genuine expression of the will of the people of Mauritius, the decolonisation of Mauritius has not been lawfully completed.”

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The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent case. The issue of the Chagos islands is not unique. Many other self-determination campaigns are looking at this case. I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on West Papua. If this is not a just cause, how can there be justice for other islands and peoples like those of West Papua?

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Speaking as a member of a self-determination movement, I wholeheartedly agree. I had the huge privilege of meeting Benny Wenda from the West Papua campaign recently. The SNP has a long history of solidarity with that cause. These are not difficult problems for the Government to solve. I will come on to why there are some good reasons why they should do so.

The UN handed down that resolution in the context of an advisory opinion issued by the International Court of Justice on 25 February, which reached exactly the same conclusions. It is a comprehensive, definitive statement made under the due process of the international rules-based order. The UK Government, who are a permanent member of the UN Security Council, self-define as a soft-power superpower, believe that Brexit will lead to a glorious new era of empire 2.0, have invested millions of pounds in a global branding exercise called “Britain is GREAT”, and repeatedly demand that any number of other countries around the world comply with decisions of the United Nations, have none the less chosen to reject the resolution pretty much outright. They have left themselves in a state of diplomatic humiliation and international isolation. The five other countries that supported the Government at the UN were the Maldives and Hungary, Australia and Israel—neither of which are without critics of their own human rights records—and the United States of America, which is led by a man who is basically an international laughing stock. It is pretty damning stuff.

Whenever any of us has questions about whether blindly ignoring the advisory opinion of the ICJ and 116 other members of the UN General Assembly is a good idea for a country that is busy trying to extract itself from the biggest and most successful economic, social and political Union in history, the Government and the Minister simply double down. They say that Chagos has been under continuous British sovereignty since 1814 and has never been part of the Republic of Mauritius, but that ignores the fact that the islands were a dependency of Mauritius when it was administered first by the French and then as a British colony until 1965, when it was detached from Mauritius as a precondition of independence, the declaration of which was drafted by UK lawyers in 1968. It ignores the ICJ’s findings that the colony, by definition, could not freely agree to detachment as part of its territory prior to independence.

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It is important to note that the judgment, so to speak, that came out of the ICJ was an advisory opinion, not a binding judgment. It is very important that we do not give the impression in this Chamber that it was more than it in fact was. Is the hon. Gentleman not overstating the case somewhat?

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It is a very powerful statement that was made by a very significant number of countries, and it has left the United Kingdom isolated diplomatically.

The Government say that the UK needs to retain the Chagos islands in order to support the US military presence on Diego Garcia—as if supporting a base for weapons of mass destruction, which has helped facilitate extraordinary rendition, should somehow help us sleep more easily at night. However, the existence of the base is not dependent on British sovereignty, and it is only on the largest of the 55 islands. The rest remain uninhabited as a result of the forced deportation of the community in the ’60s and ’70s. It would be perfectly possible to settle there.

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A few years ago, I visited the Chagos island, including the outer islands. I genuinely do not think they would sustain life. Even on the main island, where clearly there is sustainment of life, because there is a big US base, the cost per person is astronomical. Is the hon. Gentleman as concerned as I am about Mauritius’s motives? The Chagossians in Mauritius live in slum conditions in some cases. They are much better off in the United Kingdom.

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I will have more to say about the UK Government’s support fund, which has not been spent on trying to improve the lives of the Chagossians in the United Kingdom, but surely that is a decision for the Chagossian community itself. The principle of the right to return is in some respects at least as important as the ability to return.

The Government say, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) did, that the ICJ opinion and the UNGA resolution are advisory and not binding, but the opinion confirms that the existing legal obligations already emanate from international law. The effect of all that is that the UK Government have got themselves into a petty and unseemly row with the Government of Mauritius. The Prime Minister of Mauritius, in his response to the UN resolution, described the forced expulsion of the Chagossian population as

“akin to a crime against humanity.”

The Rome statute of the International Criminal Court includes

“Deportation or forcible transfer of population”

and

“Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering”

in its definition of crimes against humanity.

The UK Government have repeatedly expressed sincere regret at the actions of the British state in depopulating the islands. In a recent written answer to Baroness Whitaker, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon conceded that

“the manner of the removal of the Chagossians from the British Indian Ocean Territory in the 1960s and 1970s was wrong”,

so perhaps there is a case to answer. But instead of engaging constructively with Mauritius—instead of seeking some kind of arbitration method, seeking to build consensus around an alternative resolution at the UN or simply agreeing to take steps to implement the decisions—how has the UK reacted? How has the soft-power superpower, the defender of the international rules-based order, the Brexit Britain reinventing itself on the world stage, reacted? It cancelled the Queen’s birthday party at its embassy in Mauritius. Tyrannical regimes and terrorist cells around the world must be trembling in fear. Despots cracking down on human rights and freedom of speech, and illegal traders in arms and drugs, must be watching in horror. Mess with the United Kingdom—upset this diplomatic colossus, Mother Britannia, which once ruled the waves—and there will be no gin and tonic or cucumber sandwiches for any of you.

The Minister has rejoiced in his reputation as deputy Foreign Secretary—I am not sure whether that was ever an official status or just a title bestowed on him by Mr Speaker—and surely, like many of his colleagues, he will be reflecting over the coming weeks on his legacy from his time in office. What a hero he would be if he used the next few weeks to right the historical wrongs that have been perpetrated in the Chagos islands. What a legacy he would leave for the new Prime Minister—he has served under both candidates as their alleged deputy—if the Chagos issue had been resolved and the UK’s diplomatic standing had been picked up from rock bottom.

The Minister could arrange for a little more than £300,000 or so of the £40 million package that was promised to the Chagossian community to be spent. Let us start a genuine programme of facilitation that allows the original generation and their descendants at the very least to visit their ancestral homeland. To date, the management of that fund has been pretty shambolic. It was designed to

“improve the lives of Chagossians in the communities where they now live,”

but can the Minister tell us how much has actually been spent supporting projects here in the UK run by and in the interests of the Chagossian community? I understand that the FCO started a needs analysis to determine how that money could best be used, but that was scrapped, and since then there has been no news about how the Government intend to use the funds. Perhaps he can shed some light on whether that needs analysis will be picked up again or how the Government intend to use the money.

Will the Minister arrange to meet the all-party parliamentary group, perhaps with his colleague Lord Ahmad, to hear these concerns out in more detail and discuss a way forward? Even without acknowledging or complying with the full UN resolution, he could unilaterally reinstate the right of return for the Chagossian community—even a recognition in principle that that right exists would be an important first step. The UK Government’s own feasibility study of resettlement found that it was “practically feasible”, and a UK Government consultation with the community found that 98% of Chagossians are in favour of the right to return.

The Minister could work with his colleagues in the Home Office to ensure that all members of the Chagossian community on these islands are fully recognised as UK citizens should they wish to seek citizenship. He cannot argue on one hand that the Chagos islands are not part of Mauritius but have his Home Office colleagues argue on the other that new generations of Chagossians and their partners and spouses are not entitled to citizenship.

The Minister will be aware that the Select Committee on Home Affairs called on the Government to back the British Indian Ocean Territory (Citizenship) Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), which would give all Chagossians the opportunity to register as British nationals. The Foreign Affairs Committee has also called for urgent reforms to citizenship law for people from other overseas territories. At the very least, the Minister should grow his consultation and engagement with the Chagossian community. The Chagos archipelago was and is their homeland and, as the SNP has always held, sovereignty should ultimately lie with the people.

Even if the Minister moves on, this issue is not going away; he or his successor will continue to be held to account. I am afraid that I have not run out of written questions to keep Ministers busy. I still live in hope that the BIOT Administration will take up the permission so proudly granted by Her Majesty’s Treasury for overseas territories to mint their own commemorative £1 coins. There are lots of ongoing issues with the management and development of the marine protected area—not least, perhaps, the fact that the people best able to exercise stewardship of it might just be the communities that lived on the islands for generations.

The scrutiny will not just be here in Parliament or in the UK. The UN resolution finishes with a request to the Secretary-General to submit a report to the 74th session of the General Assembly on the actions of the UK to implement its decision. The choice for the Minister and the UK Government is either to take the bold but obvious step of complying with the UN resolution or to face further embarrassment and isolation on the world stage.

The UK can show that it is serious about the rules-based order and being a soft-power superpower by submitting itself to the conclusions of that rules-based order. It can show that it wants to be a good neighbour and to deal effectively and appropriately with its colonial legacy, or it can continue to promote splendid isolation and British exceptionalism. It can act as if rules are for other people and that might is somehow right, but that is a dangerous path to go down. It weakens and undermines, perhaps fatally, any credibility the UK Government might want in tackling other great international and diplomatic issues of our time. Mother Britannia can no longer get away with waiving the rules. As long as the injustice surrounding the Chagos islands stands out and remains unresolved, it provides an excuse for unco-operative regimes elsewhere in the world to ignore other resolutions of the UN and decisions of the ICJ. The UK and the Minister ought to do better.

I mentioned the solidarity and support that we in the SNP and our friends in Plaid Cymru have always had with the Chagossian cause. I just wonder what message the UK Government’s intransigence on this issue sends to the devolved nations. We were told in 2014 by David Cameron that Scotland should “lead, not leave” the UK. Well, the overwhelming majority of MPs returned from Scotland want the right of return restored to the Chagossian community and want the UK to comply with its international obligations. If we cannot have influence on a matter such as this, what is the point? Would we not be better having our own seat at the top table, with our own vote at the UN General Assembly? Perhaps we should even look at reforming the whole system.

So here we are. Here is the Minister’s opportunity to build his legacy. Let us not hear a rehash of the various written statements and written answers that have emerged from the FCO; let us have genuine engagement and dialogue, stand up for the rules-based international order and finally get the justice that the people of Chagos, and the Chagos islands themselves, deserve.

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Thank you, Mr Sharma, for chairing our proceedings. I also thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for securing the debate—at least, that is what I thought 20 minutes ago.

I think it would be helpful if I set out the background to the Government’s position on the British Indian Ocean Territory. The UK has administered the islands that make up the British Indian Ocean Territory since 1814, when France ceded the islands to Britain. It also ceded Mauritius, which then included the Seychelles. For administrative convenience, and following French practice, the islands were administered as a dependency of Mauritius until 1965, when, with the full agreement of the Mauritian Council of Ministers, they were detached to form part of the newly established colony of the British Indian Ocean Territory, which we know as BIOT.

Mauritius entered that agreement in return for certain benefits, including a sum of £3 million and a UK commitment to cede the territory when it is no longer needed for defence purposes. That UK commitment still stands. Mauritius affirmed the 1965 agreement numerous times following independence, and the agreement was held to be legally binding by a UN convention on the law of the sea tribunal in 2015. No international court or tribunal has ever found our sovereignty to be in doubt.

In 1966, the UK agreed with the US to make BIOT available for the defence purposes of the UK and the US. The UK does not lease the territory to the US and receives no financial payment from it. The US presence on BIOT is governed by a series of letters, called exchanges of notes, of which the overarching agreement sets out that the whole territory should be made available for UK and US defence purposes for an initial 50-year period from 1966 to 2016.

On 16 November 2016, the Government announced that neither the US nor the UK had given notice to terminate the agreement. Therefore, the US presence on Diego Garcia will continue for a further 20 years until 30 December 2036. BIOT has been a key strategic asset and continues to be vital for defence use by the UK and its allies. The joint UK-US facility on the territory has helped us and our allies to combat some of the most challenging threats to international peace and security, including from terrorism, organised crime and piracy. It is increasingly important at a time of conflicts of international significance, and those functions are only possible under UK sovereignty.

When Mauritius took the matter to the UN General Assembly in 2017, it did so using the argument that our continued administration of BIOT means that the process of decolonisation remains incomplete. That argument completely fails to acknowledge the 1965 agreement. Mauritius’s claim to sovereignty over the islands, which we strongly refute, is not a decolonisation matter, but a bilateral dispute between Mauritius and the UK. It is therefore disappointing that the matter should ever have been referred to the International Court of Justice by the UN General Assembly. It is an accepted international principle that states should not be compelled to have their bilateral disputes adjudicated on by the ICJ without their consent, particularly on questions of sovereignty. Circumventing that principle sets a very dangerous precedent.

Nevertheless, the Government have considered the Court’s advice carefully. We have concluded that the approach set out in the advisory opinion failed to give due regard to material facts and legal issues that the UK Government explained in detail in our submissions to the ICJ. For instance, it did not take account of the 1965 agreement with Mauritius or the numerous affirmations of that agreement made by Mauritius since independence. Furthermore, it fails to address the fact that the UK and US have entered into a binding treaty obligation to maintain UK sovereignty over the whole territory until at least 2036.

When the UN General Assembly voted on the matter in May this year, following the ICJ advisory opinion, we fully expected a large number of member states to support the resolution in Mauritius’ favour, framed as it was around the emotive theme of decolonisation. However, it is important to note that nearly 80 member states did not vote in favour of the resolution. Many of them shared our concern that Mauritius had circumvented the principle that the ICJ should consider bilateral disputes only with the consent of the states. Furthermore, some states explained publicly that they had voted in favour of the resolution out of respect for the ICJ and not necessarily because they agreed with the substance of the resolution.

The UK, too, respects the ICJ. Despite our concerns, we participated fully in the ICJ process so as to ensure that we could present accurate facts and arguments, including on why granting the Court jurisdiction on a bilateral dispute without the consent of both parties could have wider implications for all UN member states in the future.

The issue of sovereignty has recently become entangled with arguments about resettlement, which we have just heard. We need to remember that the outer islands are not just remote but tiny, the largest being no bigger than Hyde Park. They are also extremely low-lying and have no functioning infrastructure. The UK commissioned an independent feasibility study on the practicalities of resettlement, and the study recognised that there would be significant challenges. An interesting comparison to note in passing is that Scotland has 790 islands, of which only 94 are inhabited.

In my role as Minister for Europe and the Americas, I am proud to play my part in the UK’s efforts to defend and strengthen institutions such as the UN and to uphold the norms that underpin the rules-based international system.

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In his speech, the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) suggested that the UK was somehow flouting international law, but we are a nation of laws. Does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree with me that it would be a gross mischaracterisation to suggest that that has happened in this case? What we are discussing is not a judgment that is binding on the UK, but an advisory opinion, which is not; there is a difference. Does the Minister agree?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right, as indeed was my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge); and, in acknowledging what my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) has just said, I say very clearly that the UK continues to be seen as one of the most prominent international champions of the rule of law across the globe.

The UK recognises the important role that the UN has played, and continues to play, on the issue of decolonisation, including in territories formerly administered by the UK. We will continue to engage fully in the UN General Assembly and to be a staunch defender of human rights institutions and norms. We will also continue to support the role of international courts when states have failed to meet their responsibilities. That is clearly not the case in this instance. We regret that this issue continues to occupy the time and attention of the General Assembly. The UK remains committed to seeking resolution of this bilateral sovereignty dispute with Mauritius through direct, bilateral dialogue.

I have to say, as I conclude, that I do rather sense—

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Will the Minister give way?

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Well, just this once.

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The Minister is very generous. I think that he was directly asked whether he or another Minister would come to the all-party parliamentary group to discuss this issue in more detail, out of respect for Parliament. Is that date definitely in the Minister’s diary now? Has the United Kingdom had any direct discussions with Mauritius about this matter? Was it not a little bit petty to cancel the Queen’s birthday party, and was that a ministerial decision?

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The party was cancelled because it did not seem appropriate. That was not a petty protest; it just did not seem appropriate to have a celebration of that sort, given the mood. Given that there are likely to be changes in this Government within three weeks and the primary responsibility for this matter rests with my noble Friend Lord Ahmad, I cannot commit as the hon. Member for Keighley (John Grogan) requests. It is the responsibility of Lord Ahmad; I merely answer on the issue here in the House of Commons.

I shall conclude, having listened to so many salvos from the hon. Member for Glasgow North, merely by saying that I feel the reasoned and clear legal points that we have always put as the Government do rather sit in contrast to the hon. Gentleman’s speech, which I think can only be characterised as confected, specious, sarcastic nonsense.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.