Mauritius called the UK an “illegal colonial occupier” on Friday, after it ignored a UN mandated deadline to return the Chagos Islands, a small archipelago in the Indian Ocean, to Mauritius. The United Nations had given UK six months to process the transfer, a move the UK and the US have bitterly resisted.
What is the Chagos Islands dispute about?
Mauritius has argued that the Chagos Islands has been a part of its territory since at least the 18th century, till the United Kingdom broke the archipelago away from Mauritius in 1965 and the islands of Aldabra, Farquhar, and Desroches from the Seychelles in the region to form the British Indian Ocean Territory. In June 1976, after the Seychelles gained independence from the United Kingdom, the islands of Aldabra, Farquhar, and Desroches were returned by the UK.
The UK declared these islands as an overseas territory in November 1965. After Mauritius gained independence from the UK in 1968, the United Kingdom refused to return the Chagos Islands to Mauritius claiming in petitions submitted to the Permanent Court of Arbitration that the island was required to “accommodate the United States’ desire to use certain islands in the Indian Ocean for defence purposes”. The largest island on the Chagos Islands archipelago, Diego Garcia, is where the US and the UK operate a large military base and was also used as a US military base for the US-led attacks against Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, the military facility was also used as a CIA interrogation site.
After independence, Mauritius had proposed an exchange allowing the UK to let the US use the Chagos Islands for defence purposes till those needs ceased, in exchange for increasing the quota of sugar imports into the US, a move that would contribute to Mauritius’ economy. The UK rejected the proposal stating that the US could not be involved in any treaty despite using the islands themselves.
In addition to claiming the islands as its territory, the UK in conjunction with the US embarked on a six-year long forced depopulation of the Chagos Islands. To accommodate the military base where UK and US military personnel live and work, native inhabitants of the land were forcefully removed and subsequent denials were issued by the UK claiming that the displaced people did not belong to the Chagos Islands.
For decades there was no litigation concerning the violation of human rights and sovereignty in the Chagos Islands. However, in 2015, Mauritius initiated legal proceedings in these matters against the United Kingdom in the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in the Netherlands. The UK made several attempts to resist Mauritius’ attempts to take the matter to international court by claiming that the issue was a bilateral matter.
What happened at the Permanent Court of Arbitration?
In a scathing rebuke of the UK, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in 2015 that the “United Kingdom failed to give due regard to Mauritius’ rights” and declared that “the United Kingdom had breached its obligations under the (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).” The ruling also called out the UK for deliberately creating a marine protected area in the waters surrounding Chagos Islands in 2010. In leaked diplomatic cables by WikiLeaks, pertaining to the US Embassy in London, it was revealed that the UK and the US had intentionally created the “marine protected area” around the Chagos Islands to prevent the original inhabitants of Chagos Island from being able to return.
According to the ruling, judges at the Permanent Court of Arbitration found that “there was evidence that the United Kingdom had ulterior motives in declaring the MPA (Marine Protected Area)” and “found that the United Kingdom violated the standard of good faith”. The court found that the Marine Protected Area created by the UK in connivance with the US was illegal and that “British and American defence interests were put above Mauritius’s rights”.
What happened at the UN General Assembly?
In June 2017, at the UN General Assembly, 94 countries voted in support of Mauritius’ resolution to seek an advisory opinion on the legal status of the Chagos Islands from the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The US and the UK were among the 15 countries that voted against the resolution. The vote came as a blow for the UK and the US because 65 countries abstained from voting, including many EU countries, on whom the duo may have been banking on for support.
The view of some observers was that the result of the vote was a signal that the UN was unlikely to support continued colonisation of territories or colonial legacies of which occupiers were unwilling to divest control.
What happened at the International Court of Justice?
In February 2019, the UN’s highest court of justice, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), ordered the UK to return the Chagos Islands to Mauritius “as rapidly as possible”. Mauritius had submitted before the court that it had been coerced into giving the islands to the UK as part of colonial occupation of the country, a move, it stated, that was in breach of UN resolution 1514 that was passed in 1960, which specifically banned the breakup of colonies before independence. The UK argued that the ICJ did not have any jurisdiction to hear the case at all. Of the 14 judges overseeing the ruling, the only judge to dissent was an American.
After the ICJ ruling, the United Kingdom Foreign Office said that the ICJ ruling was “an advisory opinion, not a judgment” and claimed that “the defence facilities on the British Indian Ocean Territory help to protect people here in Britain and around the world from terrorist threats, organised crime and piracy.”
What happens now after UK missed the UN deadline to return Chagos Islands?
The UN had given the UK six months to return the Chagos Islands to Mauritius. After the UK missed the deadline to do so, Mauritius called the UK an “illegal colonial occupier”. The African Union also issued its own rebuke against the UK and demanded that the nation put an end to its “continued colonial administration”.
The UK is slowly finding itself more diplomatically isolated after its failures at the UN General Assembly concerning Chagos Islands. The shambles that is Brexit has also alienated the UK to a certain degree in terms of its relations with other EU members. For now, the UK might possibly be searching for reassurance in the fact that the ICJ ruling is not binding and no immediate sanctions or adverse actions will be taken against it.
The next step at the UN General Assembly in 2020 would be the question of resettlement of and potential compensation for the displaced Chagos Islanders who faced homelessness, poverty and associated hardships after being forcefully removed from their homeland by the UK and the US.
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