What Cameron’s u-turn on resettlement means
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What Cameron’s u-turn on resettlement means
London has taken a U-turn in its talks with Mauritius over the Chagos with Foreign Secretary David Cameron ruling out any resettlement of the islands. Here is why Cameron’s announcement significantly complicates any deal between Mauritius and the UK over the Chagos.
The Agalega plan
Lord David Cameron, the UK’s foreign secretary, has ruled out any resettlement of the Chagos islands. At a foreign affairs committee in January the former Prime Minister said that any resettlement on the islands was “not possible”, reversing a stance where resettlement was one of the subjects that the UK was engaging Mauritius on as part of a potential deal over the handover of the Chagos islands back to Mauritius. In the 1960s, the UK excised the Chagos islands from its then-colony of Mauritius to make way for a US military base on Diego Garcia.
In 1967, the UK bought out the company Chagos-Agalega Co Ltd for £600,000 before depopulating the islands between 1967 and 1973 with the bulk of the 2,000 Chagossians deported to Mauritius. Today, descendants of the Chagossians are scattered between Mauritius, Seychelles, and the UK. Since then, the right of resettlement has been a prominent demand of Chagossian groups, and more recently, the Mauritian state, which has claimed the islands as its own.
Back in 1972, London gave Mauritius £650,000 to set up housing and pig-breeding cooperatives to help resettle the Chagossians in Mauritius. The Mauritian government led by Prime Minister Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam pushed for more funds, and approached the US for help. While on an official visit to meet US President Gerald Ford to try to convince him to allocate Mauritian sugar exporters an annual quota of 100,000 tonnes, Ramgoolam broached the subject of what to do with the Chagossians.
Three options cropped up: find jobs for some of the Chagossians, try to convince the UK to cough up more money to resettle Chagossians within Mauritius, or the US helping Ramgoolam with a pet project; resettle the Chagossians on Agalega where they could return to coconut cultivation and subsistence fishing. Ford liked the last option and at the end of September 1975, the Mauritian government announced a scheme to relocate the Chagossians on Agalega. The scheme collapsed when it turned out that out of 421 Chagossian families in Mauritius, only eight were willing to resettle on Agalega. The rest wanted to stay in Mauritius. At the same time as Ramgoolam’s Agalega plan was falling apart, in 1975 Michel Vencatessen lodged a case in London’s High Court, setting off a long battle on compensation, rather than resettlement
The compensation fight
Vencatessen’s case set off a chain of events. In 1976 the UK Government sent Russel Prosser, an advisor at the UK’s ministry of overseas development, to Mauritius. He was accompanied by John Goldsack, an agricultural expert. Prosser’s job was to advise the Mauritian government on how best to spend the £650,000 that London had earlier given to the government (out of that, only £1,000 had been spent until then). What Prosser recommended was building low-cost housing for 426 families, setting up a resettlement committee and putting old and infirm Chagossians under the care of the Catholic Church. Ramgoolam wanted an additional £300,000 for bigger houses, extensions to schools and a British programme officer to oversee the welfare of the Chagossians in Mauritius. In the end, nothing much materialised with Chagossians insisting on immediate cash payments rather than housing; by 1977 the £650,000 was distributed among 557 families with each Chagossian adult getting Rs7,590.
That did not go far. By 1979, Chagossian groups pressed for greater compensation. At the time, a British lawyer made his way to Mauritius carrying a British offer of £1.25 million in return for Chagossians to sign away their right to return to the Chagos islands. 1,200 Chagossians signed the papers. But when the implications became clearer, the lawyer left Mauritius with Chagossian groups sending a telex saying that they had renounced the agreement. In 1980 and 1981, Chagossian groups began holding large protests within Mauritius, forcing London to return in 1980 with the same offer: £1.25 million, except this time there was no requirement to sign away their right of return. Just that they would not be able to sue the UK in a court of law.
By 1981, Hervé Sylva – a teacher who worked closely with displaced Chagossians – came out with a report commissioned by the Mauritian government. His report drew a grim picture of the living standards of Chagossians in Mauritius, including cases where 31 people had to share three rooms in Roche-Bois, 21 people crammed into two rooms at the docker’s flats in Baie-du-Tombeau, or 14 people forced to share a single room in Cité La Cure. Based on this report, the Mauritian government demanded £8 million based on land prices, the cost of building a 250 square meter house for 900 families and an ‘allowance’ of Rs15,000. This was rejected by the UK, until in 1982 when it returned with an offer of £4 million. Convinced that this compensation offer did not interfere with the Mauritian state’s right to legally contest its sovereignty over the Chagos, the Mauritian government and Chagossian groups agreed to the offer, setting up the Ilois Trust Fund Board to distribute the compensation to 1,579 individuals. Until 1987, the Board gave out the compensation in terms of cash payments
The dead end
From compensation battles, the fight now turned into one of the right to resettle the Chagos islands in 1999. The Chagos Refugee Group (CRG) embarked on a protracted legal fight within British courts. Unlike the Vencatessen case in 1975, which did not contest the validity of the deportations and demanded compensation, the CRG case argued that London had no right to forcibly deport them as UK citizens and demanded the right to return to the Chagos islands. In 2000 the UK’s High Court granted them the right to return – as UK, not Mauritian, citizens. But in June 2004 the UK government decreed that nobody would be allowed to resettle the islands. In May 2006 the High Court ruled that the decrees were unlawful, restoring the right of resettlement, but that was overruled by the UK’s apex court, the House of Lords in 2008 reinstating the ban. By November 2016, the UK government insisted that it would not permit Chagossians to return to the islands.
Facing a dead-end inside the UK court system, the CRG and other Chagossian groups now switched strategies: if they could not return to the islands as UK citizens, they would do so as Mauritian ones, and began backing the Mauritian state in its own separate fight to exercise sovereignty over the islands. And this switch seemed to be working; by 2015 a Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that a Marine Protected Area (MPA) established by the UK in 2010 to expressly rule out repopulating the islands, was illegal. Then in 2019 the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) in an advisory opinion ruled that the UK’s continued occupation of the Chagos was “unlawful”, followed by a UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution that demanded that the UK vacate the islands by November 2019.
Then in 2021 the UN’s International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), looking to set the maritime boundary between Mauritius and Maldives, declared that the UK had no sovereignty claim on the Chagos before in April 2023 setting up a binding international maritime boundary between the two states, recognizing the Chagos as Mauritian territory. Faced with these reversals in international courts, the UK agreed in November 2022 to start talks with Mauritius on the future of the Chagos, including on the right of resettlement.
One big problem when it comes to resettlement is that it has always been more of a political, than a practical programme. In 2002, the UK government commissioned the engineering firm Posford Haskoning to look at the feasibility of resettling the islands. The 2002 study looked only at resettling the outer islands under the assumption that the US would not be keen on sharing the atoll of Diego Garcia with a permanent, resident population. The study concluded that it would be uneconomical to recreate a local economy based on coconut cultivation and in the absence of critical infrastructure such as a port or an airport and rising sea levels, nor could a viable tourism industry be built there.
In short, resettlement would just be too expensive to be worth it for London with the UK government in a statement in June 2004 stating: “Whilst it may be feasible to resettle the islands in the short term, the costs of maintaining long-term inhabitation are likely to be prohibitive. Even in the short term, natural events such as periodic flooding from storms and seismic activity are likely to make life difficult for a resettled population… Human interference within the atolls, however well managed, is likely to exacerbate stress on the marine and terrestrial environment and will accelerate the effects of global warming. Thus, resettlement is likely to become less feasible over time.”
Post-2016, Chagossian groups such as the CRG threw their weight behind Mauritius’ fight for sovereignty over the Chagos
The previous Maldivian administration offered to help organize a second expedition by the Mauritian government to the Chagos islands to study resettlement options.
Then in 2014 the firm KPMG came out with its own report – commissioned when Cameron was Prime Minister. Unlike the 2002 study, the KPMG report did not exclude Diego Garcia as a potential resettlement site. In fact, it was one of only three islands, the others being Ile du Coin and Boddam, as viable resettlement options. The KPMG study estimated that Diego Garcia could hold a resettled population of between 1,000 and 2,000 people, Ile du Coin around 60, and Boddam about 63 people. In the end the KPMG report concluded that resettlement was feasible but only for between 150 and 500 people and only on the Eastern end of Diego Garcia and using air, naval and water infrastructure already built there by the US for its base. The cost of resettling 500 people would be £106.9 million over four years. It was with this in mind that Cameron recently stated: “When I was prime minister, it was all about trying to see if we could relocate Chagossians back on to the outer islands; lots of work was done, and it was not possible”. And which is also why in 2016 London opted for a £40-million package for Chagossians instead.
The in-built contradiction in the resettlement demand runs something like this; the bigger and more viable resettlement plans are, the more expensive and unpalatable it gets. The smaller and cheaper it is, the less likely it is to interest any Chagossians to actually go there. Putting the rhetoric aside, there is a big question mark on how many Chagossians actually want to be resettled away from Mauritius and the UK – where a big community has been established since 2002 when London started giving out passports to Chagossians and their descendants – to go and live on the Chagos islands. In 2015 for instance, KPMG interviewed the CRG and 190 Mauritian Chagossians, most of whom said they wanted to resettle on Diego Garcia, Peros Banhos or Salomon, but if they could get similar facilities that they do in Mauritius. And out of these, half were elderly while the bulk of working-age Chagossians were electricians, masons, maids, watchmen, blacksmiths, lorry drivers and storekeepers. Necessary skills in an upper middle-income economy like Mauritius but useless in a future settlement on the Chagos centred around coconut cultivation and fishing. While in public Mauritian politicians have insisted on the right of resettlement, in private they are willing to admit that any resettlement would be nothing more than a modest, symbolic affair.
Cameron’s u -turn on the resettlement issue should not come as much of a surprise: after all, while Cameron was prime minister the Chagos file hardly moved at all. In fact, the reason why Mauritius turned to the ICJ in the first place was because the Cameron government ignored an ultimatum to reach a deal that the Mauritian government had placed before it back in May 2016. And it was during Cameron’s previous tenure as Prime Minister that the 2016 decision to rule out resettlement was crafted. If anything, Cameron’s stance is actually a return to how London has traditionally dealt with the Chagos issue.
Secondly, post-Cameron, the Conservative party has produced a list of unstable prime ministers, Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, each succumbing to inner party revolts. Truss may have agreed to talks with Mauritius on the margins of a UN meeting in September 2022, but did not stay in power long enough to oversee any talks. Her successor Rishi Sunak may have continued that policy, but now the government is backpedalling with the political return of Cameron as foreign secretary as well as the factionalism within the ruling Conservative party.
David Cameron, the UK’s Foreign Secretary, has ruled out the resettlement of the Chagos islands.
For London, the Chagos is an important card to play; since its exit from the EU, London has become even more dependent on the relationship with the US. And Chagos is an important way for London to keep itself strategically important in Washington’s eyes, particularly given the rising importance being given to the Indo-Pacific and the Chagos being the last UK holdout in the region. The UK losing its strategic importance is a key theme within the Tory right, which is why the current Sunak administration is unwilling to make more enemies within the party by reaching a deal on the Chagos.
Cameron ruling out resettlement also significantly complicates the Mauritian position. To keep Chagossian groups such as the CRG on board with its legal strategy, Port-Louis has increasingly entwined its own fight for sovereignty over the Chagos with the demand for resettlement. Since 2022 Mauritius has defined its goal as having its sovereignty over the Chagos acknowledged, keeping the base on Diego Garcia, and turning the Chagos into a marine protected area with 9,000 out of the 650,000 square kilometre zone that makes up the land and maritime area of Chagos to be set aside for resettlement. “The ongoing struggle of Mauritius to complete its decolonization and the resettlement of Mauritian citizens, including those of Chagossian origin are indissociable,” Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth said in parliament back in July 2023. Each budget since 2019-2020 has earmarked Rs50 million for preparing for resettlement. With Mauritius insisting on resettlement as a key part of any deal it hopes to reach with London, Cameron ruling out resettlement entirely is a problem.
Resettlement has been a key demand of Chagossian groups dispersed in Mauritius, Seychelles, and the UK.
Domestically too, this creates some political complications. Since a first expedition to Blenheim Reef was organized by Mauritius back in February 2022 to survey the area as part of its boundary dispute with the Maldives, the Mauritian government has staked a lot of political capital in announcing a second such expedition, this time to study options for resettlement on the Chagos. The Maldives too was brought on board to help organize the trip (the previous expedition had to be carried out via Seychelles). With London now ruling out the possibility of resettlement and a new government coming to power in Malé, it remains to be seen whether Mauritius will follow through on this pledge
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