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Chagos Archipelago

Volume 796: debated on Tuesday 26 February 2019

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice, published on 25 February, on the legal consequences of the separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice. I declare an interest as a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Chagossians and as a former Minister responsible for that region.

My Lords, this is an advisory opinion, not a judgment ruling. The opinion refers to our administration, not occupation. Of course we will look at the detail of it carefully. The defence facilities in the British Indian Ocean Territory help to protect people in Britain and around the world from terrorist threats, organised crime and piracy. We reiterate our long-standing commitment to cede sovereignty when we no longer need the territory to help keep us and others safe.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her reply. However, as the advisory opinion of the ICJ, with only the American judge dissenting, is that the expulsion of the 1,500 Chagossians in the late 1960s, together with the separation of the archipelago from Mauritius on independence, was unlawful and wrong—and bearing in mind that there is no dispute between the key parties that Diego Garcia can remain as a US strategic base until 2036—would the Minister agree that, before the issue goes to debate at the UN General Assembly, the Government should take the lead by initiating discussions with the Mauritian Government with a view to helping to restore the rights of the Chagossians in the other 53 outer isles and thus help to restore the reputation of Britain’s human rights record?

I shall say two things to the noble Lord. First, in its statement to the court, the UK made clear Her Majesty’s Government’s sincere regret about the manner in which the Chagossians were removed from the British Indian Ocean Territory in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As the noble Lord will be aware, this is an advisory opinion, not a judgment, but we will look at the detail carefully. It is a complex opinion and needs careful analysis. The noble Lord makes a good point that there will be a desire to engage with Mauritius.

My Lords, the fact of the matter is that this is a clear wrong that should be put right. When the Minister talks about an advisory decision, she has to remember that 33 countries signed the referral to the international court, along with Mauritius. The whole of the Commonwealth is united against us on this subject. Can the Minister tell the House exactly how we will institute discussions not just with Mauritius but with Commonwealth countries which are concerned about this wrong being put right?

As the noble Lord will be aware, there was not unanimous support for the original referral. Concerns were expressed, particularly by the US, Australia and Israel, that this was setting a dangerous precedent for other bilateral disputes. The United Kingdom has a very good record on observing and implementing human rights and supporting other countries in relation to human rights. We are very clear that there is a reason for the history of this matter. It is a long-standing history, and the noble Lord’s party was involved at its inception. There is a careful determination to be made on analysis of the judgment, which the United Kingdom Government will undertake. The important thing is to consider what we are doing in relation to the Chagossians, who are currently principally located in Mauritius, the Seychelles and, interestingly, the United Kingdom, particularly in Crawley and Manchester. The noble Lord will be aware that the United Kingdom Government do a lot to support those communities.

My Lords, previously when this issue has come up, our European colleagues have supported us. Rightly, that did not happen this time. Does that augur well for global Britain?

This is an interesting and challenging situation. The United Kingdom Government are very clear that, while we do not share the view of others that this is a court judgment—we take the view that it is an advisory opinion—we will look at that opinion and analyse it carefully. We are certainly prepared to engage with Mauritius, but there are other considerations. The British Indian Ocean Territory is still needed for defence and security purposes. It is being used to combat some of the most difficult problems of the 21st century, including terrorism, international criminality, instability and piracy.

My Lords, bearing in mind the valid point made by the noble Lord, Lord Luce, that the American base on Diego Garcia could continue for many years ahead, if we are to consider America’s and our joint defence interests carefully in coming years and look at the American argument sympathetically, can we make sure that the Americans in turn, including the Washington policymakers, pay a little more attention to our interests and work with us in that area in a more constructive way than they have in the past?

I think the noble Lord’s observation will be noted. It is an important point that, in the conduct of international affairs, there has to be mutual respect and recognition, and if people cannot work together, they are very unlikely to be able to reach sensible conclusions and agreement on important issues.

Will the Minister acknowledge that considerable work has recently been done to demonstrate that the resettlement of the islanders is economically, diplomatically and environmentally feasible so that the UK can now bring its policy in line with justice and thereby get more credit in the outside world?

The noble Baroness may be aware that in 2014 there was an independent detailed review and public consultation. That was carried out by KPMG. Resettlement was decided against on the grounds of feasibility, security, defence and cost. It looked carefully at the practicalities and ruled out resettlement due to the difficulty of establishing modern public services, with limited healthcare and education and the lack of economic opportunities and jobs.

My Lords, the Minister has said that his country has a good human rights record. It is not part of a good human rights record to forcibly expel islanders—innocent people—to make way for an American base, or to encourage them by shooting the dogs with which they used to go fishing. That is not a good human rights record. Should we not now accept the international court’s judgment gracefully and apologise to the islanders?

As I have already indicated, the Government will look at the detail of the advisory opinion very carefully. It is complex, and it needs analysis. I say to the noble Lord in the context of current times, as distinct from those of more than 50 years ago, that the United Kingdom has done a great deal to engage with Chagossians. As the noble Lord may be aware, we have funded a package of support over a period of ten years, starting in 2016. That has enabled visits by Chagossians to the ocean territory. One is going on at the moment. These visits have been very well received by participants, and there are plans for more visits. The UK has been endeavouring to engage with Chagossians and do something constructive to help them remain related to their cultural origins.

My Lords, the Minister has rightly said that this saga has dragged on for decades. In addition to considering the judgment, will the Government enter into discussions with the Governments of the United States and Mauritius with a view to settling the claims of the Chagossian islanders?

I cannot comment in detail as to precisely how the Government will approach the future relationship. I have made clear what the Government propose to do at the moment. I have also made clear the positive relationship which the Government have with Chagossians and the very constructive financial support we are giving. The Government will consider the advisory opinion and then determine how best to address matters.

My Lords, when we are dealing with a matter so important from a strategic point of view, as my noble friend has indicated, trying to balance the human rights issue is of course a matter of some importance to this country. Does she agree with me that it is important that our representative at the United Nations General Assembly, when this matter is debated, puts a strong case to make it clear that this country needs to be involved in strategic planning, for the security, safety and freedom of the world?

I thank my noble friend for making a significant point—a point that I am sure has not escaped other Members in this Chamber. The ocean territory occupies a strategic position of significance. We currently have UK personnel working there. The facility is used for docking Royal Navy ships. We also operate a patrol vessel addressing marine protection and countering illegal fishing of endangered species. The base has been used as a humanitarian base for natural disasters in the region. The base is extremely important in the context of a number of significant areas.