Saturday, 19 July 2014

Goodbye UKChSA

The UK Chagos Support Association (UKChSA) is in disarray as myself and three of the nine existing senior committee members have resigned simultaneously.  It is an extraordinary turn of events, and this post deals with many of the issues that have led to this unprecedented course of action.  It is, for all concerned, an entirely tragic state of affairs, but to remain in such a discredited organisation would only serve to legitimise the Association which is not fit for purpose.

My first contact with the UKChSA (or UKCSA as it was originally known in those days before a cement company objected to the use of the acronym) came in the autumn of 2004.  It was the morning after the broadcast of John Pilger’s ground-breaking documentary “Stealing a Nation” and Celia Whittaker was the first person who ever interacted with me about the cause.  Within a couple of weeks I was emailing friends to raise awareness about the cause and my journey as an activist highlighting the plight of Chagossians was born.

It was a path which would lead to me lobbying MP’s and journalists.  Social networking was exploding as a phenomenon and it was not long before I came into contact with Peter Harris and Sabrina Jean.  In the spring of 2010 I was contacted by somebody who managed a youth news agency I was part of between 1994 and 1998.  She was now living in Canada and  wanted me to write something for a website she worked on.  I leapt at the opportunity.  The piece was well received and six months later I was invited to write again for the website following the exposure of the Wikileaks scandal.

Just over twelve months later, I was elected on to the committee of the UKChSA after being asked by Celia to replace her as editor of the monthly newsletter.  She was standing down after a decade in the role. It was something that filled me with immense pride.  I had really enjoyed writing again, but this was the opportunity to utilise that passion in the most productive way possible.

I made a few initial observations during the period when I was working closely with Celia as the handover from her capable hands to my inexperienced care started to take shape.  I noted that the UKChSA was doing a wonderful job but I feared that it played a role in contributing to a picture of a divided movement.

I highlighted the roles of the various groups and felt that in the long run the best possible solution was to have one group communicating one voice.  This was so that when some politicians who oppose our objectives seek to paint an image of the Chagossian cause being characterised by several groups, with different objectives (even when there was uniform consensus across so many critical areas), this could be avoided. A significant weapon utilised by opponents of campaigners for the cause would be removed at a stroke.

The best solution is to have one group: the Chagos Refugees Group, with one leader, who handles the negotiations with the relevant parties at that level.  When you have multiple groups with multiple leaders, even if there is a consensus in some areas, it still creates a messy picture.  And critically it is seized upon by the Foreign Office who will exploit any conflicting voices, especially if they can find ones which reinforce its own hideous agenda.  Like the old DGS (which I think Sabrina tells me is as good as gone now) who thanks to saying things that David Milliband wanted to hear, held a dubious election where Allen Vincatassin was anointed the  official honour of being the President in waiting of the Chagos Islands.  This despite the fact that he led a group whose number of supporters were spectacularly dwarfed by the numbers affiliated to the CRG and Olivier Bancoult.

Celia recognised the point and agreed in principle but always maintained that such a proposal would only work if it had consensus across the board from day one.  It had been attempted at various stages over the years without success which was why we were where we were.  Celia and I were always on the same page, it is something I appreciated early on during our contact and certainly didn't change when I took over editing the newsletter full time in June 2012.

The first year was an interesting experience for me as I spent most of the time observing and gaining a greater insight into how business was managed at that level of the Association.  Roch Evenor was the Chair of the Association and I valued his contribution as a capable pair of hands to lead the organisation.  He was a reliable individual, but not necessarily someone who could perhaps inspire passion.  He lacked the vision of someone like Sabrina for example.

There was what some might describe as a negligent ignorance when it came to things like the potential of social media.  But I think this would be unfair to single out Roch on this.  It is something that I found was universal across the committee, Sabrina aside, a fact perhaps reflected by the age of the individuals.  Even the person who was tasked with managing the official UKChSA Twitter account, Robert Bain, was somebody who lacked the dedication to ensure that such a vital apparatus was being utilised to its maximum capacity.  This was the flagship Twitter account, the focal point for supporters on that particular platform.  There were times when supporters would even ask my why they should follow the account as it was so rarely updated anyway.  Not just when there was a quiet time for news related to the cause, but often at times when the cause was prominently in the media because of a significant development.

It was something which I believed was hurting the Association, so following discussions with Sabrina, we approached Robert suggesting that the role of supervising such a vital tool was perhaps too much for one person.  We offered to help, to share the load as it were.

Our polite offers of assistance were repeatedly rebuffed.

Eventually enough was enough.  Sabrina and I were very frustrated at the way in which the Association was almost sleepwalking at times, particularly during periods when we should be more active than ever in response to specific developments, courts cases or the publication of significant articles.  As an interim measure, a brand new Twitter account was born.  Within two months, it was the largest and most active account supporting the cause.

We decided that in order to ensure that the Association was best equipped to move forward, progressively, and to ensure that all tools were being utilised as effectively as possible, new leadership was urgently required.  This would need to come in the form of annual elections which would take place at the AGM.

In April 2013 the AGM was held and Sabrina became the new chair after Roch had been voted off the committee.  The AGM also included the development that the joint-patron, Philippa Gregory, had stood down in her capacity as the Press Officer on the committee.  

A couple of months later, something very unusual happened.  With no election or extraordinary AGM, Philippa Gregory became the co-Vice Chair of the Association, with the other co-Vice Chair being Marcus Booth who had been voted into his role at the AGM in April 2013.  This had followed an even more bizarre sequence of events in which it had initially been suggested for Philippa to be the vice-Chair!

Sabrina rightly rejected the proposal out of hand, but collectively as an Association we should have scrutinised this unusual course of events.  However, Philippa’s explanation that she had only wanted a “title to speak to the press” was taken at face value, although why she could not re-assume her previous role as the Press Officer is again something of a mystery.

Around the same time a new organisation was set up, which was being spearheaded by the same Philippa Gregory.  This new group was called “The Alliance”, but unfortunately the group was claiming to be something that it wasn't.  It was projecting itself as the unified voice of the Chagossian community, when it lacked the endorsement of the leader of the biggest group of Chagossians in the world: the Chagos Refugees Group (CRG) led by Olivier Bancoult.  In short, this was a faction making bogus claims which were unfounded and claimed to speak on behalf of everyone despite lacking the fundamental cross-group consensus to proclaim such bold boasts.

“The Alliance” had credible objectives, but the way it had been established amounted to something that was being imposed upon the will of the CRG as opposed to seeking their engagement and consensus from day one.  As I pointed out earlier: the principle of having a unified voice, speaking as one and communicating or negotiating with Foreign Office officials, is a fantastic concept.  It is something that all supporters should be working towards.  However it can only work if you have that crucial consensus from the very beginning.  Without consensus you do not have the authority to claim to speak on behalf of the community as a whole and in doing so you are essentially making bogus assertions.  I would actually go even further and suggest that the boasts deriving from the leadership of the new group amounted to conduct that would be described as fraudulent.

Sabrina and I took the view early on that we would not support the work of this new faction.  The sole purpose of this organisation was to drive a wedge between Chagossians in the UK and Chagossians based elsewhere, mainly in Mauritius and Seychelles.  The logic being that if you undermine the influence of Olivier, you effectively weaken his position.

Sabrina and I did not like what was going on, there were occasions when the Alliance were requesting funds from the UKChSA and we always made the point of voting against the proposal.  This came to a head at the turn of the year when Hengride Permal (by now a key member of the fledgling breakaway “Alliance” faction) the UKChSA assistant secretary, engaged in some entirely unsavoury and unacceptable behaviour during a series of abusive emails, beginning with an attack on my predecessor Celia. When I made it clear that such language was unacceptable, especially when referring to somebody who had dedicated so much time to the cause, Hengride redirected her anger towards me.

It is true that Sabrina and I did consider carefully whether the best course of action would be to stand down from the Association in protest at the appalling conduct of not just Hengride, but the silent endorsement of other committee members like Philippa, Marcus and Bernadette Dugasse.  However we decided that we would stay on, a new AGM was on the horizon and the opportunity would be available to air such issues and conduct elections to see if such senior committee members should remain in their roles.

In January 2014, emails were sent out suggesting dates for the 2014 staging of the AGM.  As with normal protocol, the information was circulated and committee members voted on the relevant dates offered.  Five of the nine committee members indicated that Sunday 6th April would be a suitable date for the hosting of the AGM. In accordance with all normal UKChSA committee business, the decision was noted and the date was subsequently communicated to all supporters in the January edition of the newsletter.  This notice was then reposted in the February and March editions of the newsletter, the latter being just a week before the AGM date.

24 hours before the AGM, by which time many supporters had already committed travel plans to be in London the following day including one who was travelling down from Durham, Marcus and Philippa took objection to the staging of the AGM.  They alleged that protocol had not been observed, that the AGM had never been properly consulted nor called.  They decreed that the AGM taking place the following day amounted to an illegal gathering and Marcus even went as far as to suggest that legal challenges would ensue.

Following lengthy conversations, and checking over emails and newsletters, Sabrina and I were confident that we had adhered to the correct procedures and that the AGM would take place on the 6th April as advertised.  We were confident that we had followed the correct procedures, that the required number of votes had been cast to validate the announcement and that sufficient notice had been communicated.  At one stage Marcus even went as far as to suggest that the notification of the AGM in the newsletter was “irrelevant”, which as I highlighted at the time, almost brought into question the purpose of the newsletter altogether.  Why was a newsletter being produced if senior members of the committee (the vice-Chair no less!) were not even bothering to keep up to date with the news?

On Sunday 6th April we hosted our AGM, a meeting which was attended by five of the nine members of the existing committee. This included the Chair, the Treasurer and the Secretary.  The meeting agreed that the re-election of the new committee would take place by email and that the April edition of the newsletter would confirm all of this along with the report from the AGM which was circulated shortly after the meeting.  

As usual I carried on as normal, so on the 18th April I started preparing the April edition of the newsletter as was my monthly routine.  And just like any other month I finished my draft and sent it over to the same people who checked the monthly editions of the newsletter.  So it went to Celia, George Beckham, David Snoxell- all fine and all approved.

Just before it was about to go to Sabrina for the final check, I got an email from Celia.

Celia said she had concerns over the future of the treasurer of the UKChSA and was worried that the role may go to a Chagossian (potentially limited by literacy/numeracy skills) or someone else who was under-equipped to manage the role.  I explained to Celia that Sabrina and I had spoken about this ahead of April 6th and agreed with the point because we shared a similar view.  Such an important role needed someone of a level of experience.  This is why Sabrina and  I agreed that we would support and actively encourage supporters to vote for Perri to return as Treasurer.  Perri of course was one of the committee members who also attended the AGM on the 6th April.  I duly confirmed all of this to Celia in an email

Despite this email, later that day Celia then wrote effectively the same email she had written to me earlier, repeating exactly the same concerns, only this time she copied in everyone on the existing committee.  In addition she made the completely irresponsible suggestion that the agreed proposal from the AGM to host the elections for the new committee via email should be abandoned.  This would be replaced by a new proposal which was that the existing committee be retained for a further twelve months.  With no elections.

Celia had known about the tensions leading up to the AGM- that we needed a new committee, that the existing committee had broken down, that procedures weren't being followed, that some committee members were openly abusing other committee members in a completely discourteous and inappropriate manner.  She knew that Sabrina, Gianny, Paul and myself would not stay on the existing committee without new elections.

Needless to say Celia's proposal for retaining the existing committee was endorsed and supported by five of the nine members of the existing committee.  Sabrina, Gianny, Paul and I were outvoted and could basically stay, or go.

That was the end of April.  I had a full and frank exchange with Celia by email in which I outlined everything, right back to the fact that the only reason Hengride and I fell out in the first place back in January this year was because she had been insulting Celia in the emails.  My view at the time was that there was no way I would let anybody question Celia's commitment or the amount of time she has dedicated to the cause over the years.  Celia did say that she wished she could turn the clock back, but to be honest, this was empty rhetoric.  Celia is someone I kept completely in the loop- always.  If I had kept Celia in the dark ahead of the AGM in terms of how Sabrina and I felt, our frustrations, the fact we wanted to see changes, then of course her response and ignorance would have been understandable.  But in this instance it simply didn't wash.  She knew why Sabrina and I couldn't work with the existing committee, and she knew that the four of us would walk away.

Following a number of discussions with Sabrina, it was decided that I would not publish the April edition which now had this new adopted proposal about retaining the existing committee for another year.  I wanted to resign immediately but Sabrina wanted me to wait as she had been in contact with Olivier, and he was coming to the UK soon (initially predicted to be in mid-May) and we would have an opportunity to plan our next move.  Unfortunately Olivier's mum was suddenly taken ill, I understand Sabrina also mentioned that his uncle passed away too, so naturally he won't be coming to the UK anytime in the near future.

We was just hanging on, hoping something would change and that Olivier would arrive, but as you all saw last month that all changed and the newsletter was published, despite the fact that I had never officially tendered my resignation.  In fact my intentions had only been communicated to Sabrina and Celia.   But in reality it was all a technicality, there was no possibility that we could stay after what had happened.  Another interesting development was that the newsletter was then published without being sent to Sabrina prior to release.  It was always the convention that the Chair of the Association would be the last person to view the newsletter before it was sent to supporters and campaigners.

Sabrina protested at the fact that newsletter was now being published by Steffan Donelly before she had an opportunity to approve its contents.  These concerns were apparently acknowledged when Steffan replied to Sabrina, however another edition was released again recently and again Sabrina had not been consulted prior to publication.  When Sabrina communicated these concerns to Celia, Celia proceeded to spout the most baseless lies. She claimed that the procedure had always been to send the newsletter to David Snoxell prior to publication and that it was never sent to anyone else as part of the preview process.

Sabrina knew immediately that this was untrue.  Indeed I still have the proof in my emails that during my tenure as newsletter Editor, the draft was always sent to the same individuals prior to publication.   The newsletter would go to Celia first, then to George Beckham, it would then be reviewed by David Snoxell before the Chair of the Association would have an opportunity to review its contents prior to being released to all of the supporters. Celia’s suggestion that this was not the case made Sabrina and I furious.  This was not simply a mistake, or an error or an oversight- this was a downright lie!  Celia knew this was a lie too and this was the final and definitive proof if ever was needed that people who we were once thought were decent and honourable individuals were now having their integrity rightly questioned.

When Sabrina showed me the latest emails with Celia last night, she agreed that the time had come for us to tell everyone about what was happening.  We realised that by going down this route, we were absolutely crossing the point of no return.  But as Sabrina explicitly stated to me last night: our time at the UKChSA was now at an end.  The time had come for supporters to know exactly what has been going on, which is why this post has been circulated to as many supporters as possible.

While our time with the Association has come to an end, there are still big questions that must be asked.  And it is no exaggeration to say that if the UKChSA was an official charity, I would be submitting these questions to the Charities Commission as my belief is that the UKChSA as an organisation is not fit for purpose.

Questions such as what did happen to the money that was given to Hengride Permal?  This money was given to her on the basis that it was for a football team.  But Sabrina helped to set up a football team, which she attained funds for, which she presented receipts for, and a team which was subsequently officially registered with the global umbrella body for non-FIFA affiliated nations, CONIFA.  They have played matches, they have a campaign being championed by David Vine which many of you would have seen already on the social networks.  This is all legitimate.

So what happened to the team that Hengride set up?  So far there has never been one receipt, not one football match, not even a kick about with jumpers for goalposts.  The only thing that happened is that the money was sent to Hengride.  Where it went afterwards, is anyone's guess.  And I have the emails myself from Perri asking again: where are the receipts?

If this money cannot be accounted for then surely is that not a matter for the police?  This is money which has been donated from supporters, supporters who think they are supporting the plight of Chagossians.  

There are further questions which must be answered about the nature of the relationship between the unelected Patron Philippa Gregory (who somehow ended up back on the committee with no election) and Mark Gonzalez, who has to date been the subject of payments of thousands of pounds for some kind of workshop which as yet nobody can yet quantify why such a large outlay was made for an organisation with such limited funding.  Funding which then is subsequently denied to completely deserving applications like people wanting to return to Mauritius to attend the funeral of a Chagossian relative for example.   During the financial year of 2013/14, Mark Gonzales was the recipient of a total of £2380 from an organisation (UKChSA) that in the same year only banked £3056. Almost 80% of the UKChSA’s budget was given to Gonzales, £2000 for workshops and £380 for expenses.  This must be investigated as it is completely unacceptable that such a vast outlay can be committed to an individual project when other, and possibly more worthy, applications were turned down as a result.

We now have decisions to make in terms of how we move forward. Clearly the most obvious choice would be to bolster up the UKCRG, turn it into a UKChSA and take it from there.  And let me be clear that I don't doubt for a moment we could make it absolutely fantastic and do a lot of good work through that structure.

But I do have grave concerns about that proposal and this is mainly because it undermines that fundamental principle for me personally about not wanting to add to the problem.  Starting a new group is not great when it all it does is add another element to the mix which in turn becomes another opportunity for the Foreign Office to exploit.

I am absolutely gutted on a personal level how this has all turned out.  UKChSA was such a special organisation for me, it’s heartbreaking to see what is happening now.  I would not know a single one of you at all if it was not for Celia, so this has completely knocked me for six.  But we had to communicate this post to every single supporter possible, and allow themselves as individuals to decide if they would continue to support an organisation which has such huge questions over the way in which it is being managed.

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