Foreign AffairsSpeeches

Daniel Kawczynski – 2022 Speech on the Sovereignty of the British Indian Ocean Territory

The speech made by Daniel Kawczynski, the Conservative MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham, in Westminster Hall, the House of Commons, on 7 December 2022.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the sovereignty of the British Indian Ocean Territory.

Before I start to talk about this British overseas territory, I would like to say that I returned last week from another British overseas territory—the Falkland Islands—with my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) and the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who is the shadow Minister for the overseas territories. We have just spent nine days together in the Falkland Islands, inspecting the defences of the islands, meeting islanders and, most importantly, commemorating the 40th anniversary celebrations of the liberation of the islands in June 1982. I pay tribute to the shadow Minister. During our visit, he and I disagreed on almost everything: politically, culturally, socially—everything. But we were in unison and total agreement on the need to protect the Falkland Islands and their right to self-determination, a concept to which I will return over and again during my speech and this debate. It is the lesson we have learned from the conflict in the Falkland Islands.

I recognise that the British Indian Ocean Territory is different from the Falkland Islands, and there are different perspectives, narratives and parameters, but one thing that is not divisible and is equally important in any British overseas territory is the concept of self-determination; we cannot negotiate sovereignty of a territory without the legitimacy of consultation with the islanders and the people originally from that territory.

I mention the Falkland Islands because we have to learn from our mistakes and from the mistakes the Foreign Office has made in the past. Something I was told over and again during our visit to the Falkland Islands was that Lord Chalfont, a Labour Minister in the Foreign Office in the late ’60s, was sent to the Falkland Islands in 1968 by the Foreign Office to try to convince the islanders to abandon Great Britain, ditch their links with Britain and become Argentinian. The Falkland Islands’ people repeatedly referenced—and have written pamphlets and books about—that occasion, when a Labour Foreign Office Minister was sent to the Falkland Islands to try to entice, cajole and manoeuvre an entire people to abandon their cultural heritage, their links and their status as part of the British family. I am pleased that the Falkland Islanders sent Lord Chalfont back home with the unequivocal message, “We wish to remain British, we are British and we are determined to continue to be part of the British family.” I would argue that the poor handling of the Falkland Islands situation by the Foreign Office in the late ’60s and ’70s led and contributed to the war that then was instigated in 1982.

Something I will not forget from my visit to the Falkland Islands is when my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell, the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth and I were taken to the top of Mount Tumbledown, and saw the horrendous situation our armed forces faced in trying to retake the islands. We paused on many occasions during our trip to lay wreaths and spend time quietly together, commemorating the lives of the British soldiers who gave up their lives to protect that British territory.

When the Foreign Office makes mistakes and miscalculates, it is not civil servants or politicians who suffer, but British soldiers, who sometimes have to lay down their lives. Now I believe the Foreign Office is making the same mistakes with the British Indian Ocean Territory that it made with the Falkland Islands. I am deeply concerned that the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), made the decision in her extraordinarily brief premiership to start negotiations with Mauritius over the sovereignty of those 58 beautiful islands in the Indian ocean.

I have debated this issue with many colleagues, and the message from some of them is this: we are in negotiations with Mauritius, due to rulings against us at the United Nations and at the International Court of Justice, so let us conclude those negotiations and then at some stage we will consult the Chagossians. Those are the responses I have received to many written parliamentary questions: “Do not interfere in the negotiations now. Let us conclude these sensitive negotiations—it is all rather discreet—and at some stage in future we will consult the Chagossians.” No, no, no. That puts the cart before the horse. If the Government have any intention to transfer even one of those 58 islands, they need to have a referendum of the Chagossian people. They need to make a decision themselves, rather than our Government even starting to negotiate with Mauritius.

Right hon. and hon. Members will know that the Labour Government of the late 1960s expelled between 1,400 and 1,700 Chagossians. I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) is here, as he represents a large contingent of Chagossians who settled in his constituency when they arrived in the United Kingdom. I look forward to hearing what he has to say. The hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) also represents 400 Chagossians. Between them, those two gentlemen represent the lion’s share of Chagossians who live in the United Kingdom.

Sir James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East) (Con)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; he is making an excellent speech. Who would vote in that referendum—Mauritian Chagossians, Chagossians in the constituencies he just mentioned, second generation, third generation, people who have moved around the world? There is no one on the islands who is Chagossian. Who would the referendum be for?

Daniel Kawczynski

That is a pertinent, sensible and critical question, but not one I have an answer to in this debate. I want to raise the concept and the extraordinary need to ensure that Chagossians are consulted. In written answers, the Government have stated they will consult the Chagossians. If we secure a commitment to a referendum of the Chagossians, it is for the Government to work with legal minds far superior to mine to create the framework in which a referendum could take place.

I want to apologise, as I am sure others will, to the Chagossian people. Those beautiful people were expelled from their islands in 1968 to make way for an American military base. Nothing can erase the shame we feel as British citizens that our ancestors treated the Chagossians in that way. To rip them away from their beautiful islands and cast them to the Seychelles, Maldives, Britain and Mauritius is unforgiveable. At this stage, we can only apologise for what happened to them.

The military base was set up to counter growing Chinese and Soviet belligerence in the Indian ocean and beyond. Today we see a similar belligerence from Russia and especially China. That is the point I want to get across in this debate: we have to look at what is going on in that region.

James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)

I may be one of very few parliamentarians, if not the only one, who has been to the British Indian Ocean Territory on duty as a military person, so I have seen at first hand how important that base is to NATO and beyond. For me, it is clear; we have two submarine Z-berths there and a large airbase, which was directly involved with the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is an American airbase that is owned by the British. To my mind, it would be pathological nonsense to concede access to that part of the world.

Daniel Kawczynski

I completely agree with my hon. Friend and I am grateful to him for his intervention. I will not give way again for a few minutes, because I have a lot to get through.

Let me explain the key issue. I want to put it on the record and I want to criticise my own side. I am not prone to criticising the Conservative party, but I will enjoy myself this afternoon; I want to let rip.

Seven years ago, I started to ask questions of the Conservative Government, including on the Government’s understanding of the situation in relation to another member of the UN Security Council. By the way, it is a situation peculiar to only five nations in the world to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and with that status comes a tremendous amount of responsibility. I asked the then Foreign Secretary, Mr Hammond, “What is this Government’s perception of the fact that China has hoovered up hundreds of atolls in the South China sea—stealing them from Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines—poured concrete on them and turned them into giant military installations, which extends China’s reach by over 1,000 kilometres by stealing all those islands from all those countries?”

I have met the ambassadors of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and others, who have expressed to me great concern about what the Chinese are doing. It is only because of British and American freedom of navigation exercises through the South China sea that this waterway, through which 65% of the world’s trade passes, is still open. Otherwise, the Chinese would have tried to turn it into a Chinese lake.

The Government’s response was extraordinary. Mr Hammond said: “The British Government does not get involved, nor has any opinion, on the disputes about uninhabited atolls in the South China sea”. How regrettable that that answer came seven years ago, because I would argue that it was the Government’s lack of action in response to China stealing hundreds of atolls that was the thin end of the wedge; Britain’s inaction gave the brutal Communist dictatorship of China a green light: “Yes, it’s okay for us to steal other people’s territories. Yes, it’s okay for us to pour concrete on to these atolls and turn them into military installations, because the British aren’t going to do anything about it”.

Sir James Duddridge

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; he is making very strong points about China and its influence on the atolls. Is it his impression that that is about China setting up military bases, or is it about telecoms—listening in and disrupting global communications—rather than establishing military bases? That would be even more worrying than the assertion he has made.

Daniel Kawczynski

I agree with my hon. Friend; of course, it is a combination of both factors, with the Chinese trying to extend the tentacles of their reach throughout the whole region in order to put smaller countries under pressure.

The Chinese control Mauritius through their belt and road policy, as they do so many other small nations around the world. Guess which is the first African nation that received a free trade agreement with China? Mauritius. Guess which country—a tiny island, with a small economy—has received over $1 billion in investment from China over the last few years? Mauritius. The moment that we give Mauritius some of the outer islands, of which there are 58, it will lease one or some of them to the Chinese almost instantaneously. We do not know what conversations are taking place between Beijing and Port Louis, but we cannot discount what the financial statistics say about Chinese control of Mauritius.

Certain politicians and colleagues have made a nuanced argument to me: “Do not rock the boat; these are very delicate negotiations. We have to maintain our control over Diego Garcia. If that means giving away some of the other islands and coming to a compromise, so be it.” No. If the mantra is to keep Diego Garcia while giving some of the other islands away, imagine what would happen to the viability and sustainability of UK and American bases on Diego Garcia. It would be absolutely intolerable for us. I have visited our military bases on Diego Garcia. I have spent days meeting with American officials on the islands; they briefed me and showed me around the naval vessels and installations. Having those huge military bases with the Chinese just a stone’s throw away from us on the other islands would be completely unacceptable.

I visited Peros Banhos, one of the outer islands, after sailing overnight from Diego Garcia, which is where the military base is. Islanders on Peros Banhos were expelled in 1970 because the island was perceived to be too close to our military base. The Chinese have shown form. They are the world experts on turning atolls into military installations. There is an argument that Peros Banhos and the other islands are too small, too insignificant and too far below sea level for them to be viable. Well, the Chinese have proved that concept completely wrong; they have created installations successfully in the South China sea.

There has been an appalling injustice, which we must now right. Rather than accommodating the spurious demands of Mauritius, we need to consult the indigenous people living in Britain, Mauritius, the Maldives and the Seychelles. I want to read a statement from Frankie Bontemps, who is a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley. He is an NHS worker at the hospital in Crawley, and is from the Chagos islands. I had a long and somewhat emotional telephone conversation with him last night. He is a tremendous man, whom I look forward to meeting in the House of Commons. He writes:

“I am a founding member of Chagossian Voices. I don’t agree that islands should go to Mauritius. Chagossians have never been consulted at any stage and Chagossians were never represented, either at the International Court or before. Chagossians have been used by the Mauritian government at ICJ to get sympathy by providing an account of suffering…Then they were dismissed…as ‘Mauritians of Chagossian origin’. They have erased our identity.”

That is the allegation: “they have erased our identity”. The statement goes on:

“The Mauritian Government was also complicit in the exile of Chagossians and the ‘sale’ of the islands in 1965.”

That is a fascinating concept. Mauritius took £3 million of our taxpayers’ money in 1965. Think for a moment how much £3 million was in 1965. It took our money as final settlement for the islands. It was complicit in helping the removal of the Chagossians from Diego Garcia and the other islands, and now, 60 years on, it wants to overturn that agreement and take away from us islands that are more than 2,000 km away from it.

Mr Bontemps goes on to say:

“Chagossians do not feel they are Mauritians and Chagossians feel they are still being exploited by the Mauritian government. Mauritius wants sovereignty of the islands for financial gain and I do not think there will be resettlement of Chagossians”

under Mauritian rule. He goes on to say this, which is very evocative, powerful and emotional:

“It is wrong to describe Chagossians as Mauritians. Their origins are as slaves from Africa and Madagascar. The Chagossians have been there for 5 or 6 generations with their own language and culture, food and music traditions. It is a remote and unique culture different to Mauritius…The judgment of Lord Justice Laws & Mr. Justice Gibbs in November 2000 said Chagossians are the ‘belongers’ on the islands. As ‘belongers’ Chagossians should be their own deciders of their futures, not the Mauritian Government. Self-determination should have been for the Chagossians, not for Mauritians who have their own island more than 2,000 km away. So far only UK and Mauritius have been consulted. Chagossians have never been allowed to participate in decisions about their future, from exile until now. Chagossians should now be asked to decide the future of the islands. Chagossians should be around the table. It’s our human right.”

Mr Bontemps then goes on to say that he has written a letter to the Foreign Secretary asking for those assurances, dated 11 November 2022, and he has not as yet received a reply.

I would like to thank Rob Crilly, a reporter from The Daily Mail USA edition, who has written a story about this debate. As a result of it, I was contacted this week by Republican Congressman Mike Waltz, a ranking member of the military readiness sub-committee of the Congress of the United States of America. He is now likely to become chairman of that powerful and important group, as the Republicans recently won the congressional elections. US bases are under its jurisdiction. I had a long, fruitful discussion with Congressman Waltz’s team and highlighted my concerns about the negotiations that our Government have entered into with Mauritius. I briefed them about this debate, and they are extremely concerned by the news. They are worried about the ramifications for them and what will happen to their naval base if they have to share the archipelago with the Chinese.

Even if we retain Diego Garcia, the other islands will be up for lease to the Chinese. We have seen what Mauritius is doing with Agaléga—

Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (Ind)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Daniel Kawczynski

In a second.

Agaléga is one of the Mauritian islands, which it has leased to the Indians. The indigenous population of that atoll has been removed and massive destruction has taken place on it to accommodate an Indian military base, so the Mauritians have form. They understand the importance of the Indian ocean and how geographically significant it is. Mauritius is in the market to gain as many of these atolls as possible and ultimately to sell them to the Indians, the Chinese or whoever is the highest bidder. That is in stark contrast to the United Kingdom, which is seeking to protect the 58 islands. A massive conservation area twice the size of the United Kingdom has been created around the islands, which is protecting marine and wildlife. There is no fishing and no oil drilling—nothing takes place. Anybody interested in what Mauritius is doing with these atolls should google that information. Mauritius wants the islands to sell them to make money. Ultimately, if we allow it to do that, it will facilitate the militarisation of the Indian ocean.

Patrick Grady rose—

Daniel Kawczynski

I am concluding my arguments—I will give way in a second—but what I would like to say is this. We have beaten the French to secure participation in AUKUS, which is one of the most important miliary agreements signed in the Government’s tenure in office, and we are re-entering the Indian ocean and the Pacific through our arrangement with the Americans and the Australians. AUKUS is essential.

It was Lee Kuan Yew who remonstrated with the United Kingdom when we left Singapore in 1971. He understood the ramifications for that region were the United Kingdom to abandon her bases. In that period of retrenchment and lacking in self-confidence that we went through in the early ’70s, we left all those areas, and Lee Kuan Yew and others foresaw the difficulties that would ensue. Finally, we have the confidence to re-enter the Indian ocean and the Pacific. The AUKUS military agreement is essential, in conjunction with our membership of the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership—the far east trading bloc—which we are entering next year.

The islands are essential for our geopolitical strategy of supporting allies in the Indian ocean and the Pacific from growing Chinese belligerence. I speak as the only Member of Parliament to have been born in a communist country and the only British Member of Parliament who has lived under communist oppression and tyranny, so I know what the communists are capable of and I know how the Chinese communist Government threaten and bully many smaller countries in the region. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) said, it would be madness to allow the Chinese to enter the Indian ocean through its puppet client state of Mauritius.

I hope that the Chagossians following the debate across the United Kingdom, as well as those in Mauritius and the Seychelles, listen to us and hear the strength of feeling that many hon. Members have, demonstrating that we, as a former imperial power, recognise the mistakes we have made and that, in a new modern era, we will put the concepts of integrity and self-determination at the forefront. If any of the islands is to be abandoned, that can be done legitimately only through the acceptance of the Chagossian people, and the fascinating thing is that I do not think that that is there. I look forward to hearing from my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) and will stop shortly so that he can speak. However, in all my discussions with the Chagossians, I hear that they are up for this—they are up for remaining British. We can convince them to vote to remain British in a referendum. Will the Minister tell us why we are negotiating with the Mauritius Government before the Chagossians have been consulted?

The last thing I will say—I will use parliamentary privilege for the first time in 17 years—is that British citizens, who I will not name, are actively conspiring to aid and abet Mauritius to take these islands from the United Kingdom. I will not begin to tell hon. Members what I think of those individuals, but I very much hope that they will be thwarted in their actions.