Westminster debate sees UK Government remain unyielding over UN demands that the British-controlled territory be returned to Mauritius
- Glasgow MP Patrick Grady stresses SNP and Plaid Cymru solidarity with Chagossians and support for their right of return
- Grady: “As long as injustice surrounding the Chagos Islands stands out, and remains unresolved, it provides an excuse for uncooperative regimes elsewhere in the world to ignore other resolutions at the UN.”
- UK minister Alan Duncan denies the issue is one of decolonisation, and stresses the need to maintain UK-US military base on Diego Garcia due to terrorism, organised crime and piracy
THE UK GOVERNMENT continues to dispute a UN General Assembly resolution calling for the Chagos Islands to be returned to Mauritius, following a heated debate at Westminster brought by the SNP, which supports moves to allow exiled Chagossians and their descendants to return to the island.
The debate follows the May resolution by the UN, which overwhelmingly backed a motion condemning the UK’s continued control over the Chagos Islands, which the UK maintained following the independence of Mauritius. The motion passed with 116 states in favour, and only six against.
The motion endorsed an advisory opinion in February this year by the International Court of Justice at the Hague that the UK return control of the Chagos Islands to Mauritius “as rapidly as possible,” stating that continued British control of the islands is illegal and “constitutes a wrongful act.”
Ahead of the debate, SNP MP for Glasgow North Patrick Grady commented: “The forced removal of the Chagos Islanders is a stain on the UK’s international standing and the Tory government must take steps to reverse its previous decision to refuse those residents the right of return and to resettle in their homeland.”
“The forced removal of the Chagos Islanders is a stain on the UK’s international standing and the Tory government must take steps to reverse its previous decision to refuse those residents the right of return.” SNP MP Patrick Grady
Speaking at Westminster Hall this afternoon, Grady said: “What has been handed down is in the context of an advisory opinion issued by the ICJ on the 25th of February that reached exactly the same conclusions as the UN resolution. It is a comprehensive, definitive statement made under the due process on the international rule-based order.
“And we have the UK Government, which is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, which self-defines as a ‘soft power superpower’, which believes that Brexit is going to lead to a glorious new era of Empire 2.0, which has invested millions of pounds in a global branding exercise called Britain is Great, and which repeatedly demands any number of other countries around the world comply with decisions of the United Nations, and it’s chosen to reject this resolution pretty much outright. It’s left itself in a state of diplomatic humiliation and international isolation.”
Grady noted that, among the five other countries which supported the UK position on the Chagos Islands at the UN, neither Australia and Israel were “without their own critics” when it came to their respective human rights records, while the United States is led by Donald Trump, who Grady described as an “international laughing stock.”
Challenged that the UN had only offered a non-binding, advisory opinion, Grady reiterated that it was nonetheless an important decision which has left the UK isolated. “What the opinion does is that it recognises and confirms that the existing legal obligations already emanate from international law.”
Grady described the UK Government’s response to the government of Mauritius as “a petty and unseemly row”, and agreed with prime minister of Mauritius, who described the expulsion of the Chagossians as “akin to a crime against humanity.”
Mocking the UK’s response to the prime minister’s comments, Grady said: “How has it [the UK] reacted? It cancelled the Queen’s birthday party at the embassy in Mauritius. Tyrannical regimes and terrorist cells around the world must be reacting in trembling and fear… Mess with the United Kingdom, upset this diplomatic colossus, Mother Britannia which once ruled the waves, and there’ll be no gins and tonics and cucumber sandwiches for any of you.”
Regarding previous UK Government arguments that control of the Chagos Islands was necessary due to the necessity of a US-backed military base on the island of Diego Garcia, “as if supporting a base for weapons of mass destruction that has helped facilitate extraordinary rendition should somehow help us sleep more easily at night,” Grady argued that maintaining the US presence was not reliant upon British sovereignty.
Grady went on to say that the UK Government’s own study on the resettlement of the Chagos Islands was “practically feasible”, and that a UK Government consultation had found that 98 per cent of Chagossians were in favour of a right of return. He further urged ministers to work with the Home Office to make sure that all of the Chagossian community on the islands were recognised as British citizens, “should they wish to seek it.”
The SNP’s position was that “sovereignty should ultimately lie with the people,” said Grady, who stressed the party’s support for the Chagossians, a “solidarity” also expressed by Plaid Cymru.
Grady said that the UK Government could show “it wants to be a good neighbour and deal effectively and appropriately with it’s 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.
“As long as injustice surrounding the Chagos Islands stands out, and remains unresolved, it provides an excuse for uncooperative regimes elsewhere in the world to ignore other resolutions at the UN and decisions of the ICJ.”
Asking what message the UK Government’s position sends to the devolved nations, Grady said: “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 to see the right of return restored to the Chagossian community, and the UK comply with its international obligations. And if we can’t have influence on a matter like this, what’s the point? Wouldn’t we be better having our own seat at the top table, without our own vote at the UN General Assembly?”
Responding, Alan Duncan pointed to a UK Government decision in 2016 which would see the US presence on Diego Garcia maintained until 2036, describing the base as “vitally important”, saying: “The joint US-UK facility on the territory has helped us and allies combat some of the most challenging threats to international peace and security, including from terrorism, organised crime, and piracy.
“These functions are only possible under UK sovereignty.”
Duncan strongly disputed the sovereignty claim of Mauritius over the islands, and denied that the issue was a decolonisation matter, but a bilateral dispute between Mauritius and the UK. It was therefore “disappointing” that it was referred to the ICJ, Duncan said.
The UK Government has considered the Court’s advice, Duncan said, and concluded: “The approach set out in the advisory opinion failed to give due regard to material facts and legal issues,” such as the 1965 agreement with Mauritius, and the binding agreements made between the UK and the US regarding the Chagos Islands.
Duncan reiterated the UK position that the principle of the ICJ only considering bilateral disputes with the consent of the states had been circumvented by Mauritius, and attributed the high levels of support for Mauritius in the international community to the “emotive” nature of the dispute.
Duncan said an independent UK Government-commissioned feasibility study found there would be “significant challenges” to the resettlement of the Chagos Islands, adding: “I find it an interesting comparison to note, in passing, that Scotland has 790 islands, of which 94 only are inhabited.”
Duncan reaffirmed the UK’s support for the institutions of the UN and for international courts when states fail to meet their responsibilities, but argued: “That is clearly not the case in this instance. We regret that this issue continues to occupy the time and attention of the Assembly.”
Picture courtesy of David Holt