Decolonization of Mauritius – Chagos Archipelago Dispute

decolonization of mauritius chagos archipelago

The UN General Assembly on May 2019 adopted a resolution that welcomed the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion on the legal consequences of the separation of Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965. This resolution, in accordance with the ICJ’s advisory, has demanded the complete withdrawal of the UK and the US within six months from the archipelago. Countries like Australia, the US, the UK, Hungary, Israel, and Maldives were against this resolution. It has stated that the decolonization of Mauritius was not in accordance with the right to self-determination and that the UK’s sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago establishes a “wrongful act”. However, the stance taken by the major colonial powers like the US and the UK shows their unwillingness to adapt to the new era, the one that is defined by freedom and liberty of their previously colonised territories.

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Where is the Chagos Archipelago?

  • The Chagos Archipelago is a group of seven atolls consisting of more than 60 tropical islands.
  • It is located about 1,772km away from Kanyakumari in the Indian Ocean Region and is 500km south of the Maldives archipelago.
  • The Chagos was the home to Chagossians, a Bourbonnais Creole-speaking population for more than a century and a half until the UK expelled them between 1967 and 1973 to allow the US to build a military base on Diego Gracia, the largest island of the archipelago.
  • Since 1971, only Diego Gracia has been inhabited with only the military and civilian contracted personnel. Since then, the natives were not allowed to return to their homeland.

How did this archipelago become part of British Overseas Territories?

  • The Chagos Archipelago is one of the 14 British Overseas Territories.
  • This archipelago was discovered by the Portuguese explorers in the 16th
  • However, the French gained ownership of this archipelago after the Dutch abandoned it in the late 18th
  • The UK took over these islands as a part of the Treaty of Paris after it captured Mauritius in 1810.
  • The aftermath of the Second World War saw the establishment of the UN. Self-determination was established as one of the pillars of the UN Charter which led to the increasing decolonisation movements across the world.
  • The UNGA in 1960 adopted the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to the Colonial Countries and Peoples.
  • Thus as a result, in the early 1960s, the UK granted independence to Mauritius.
  • However, there was a catch. The Chagos islands were detached from the colony of Mauritius by the UK in 1965 and in 1966, the largest island of this archipelago was leased for 50 years to the US so that it can be used as a military base.
  • Also, the natives of this region were expelled out between 1967 and 1973 for the military reasons.
  • In 2016, the UK extended the Diego Gracia’s lease to the US until 2036 and also explicitly stated that the natives cannot return to the archipelago.

What are the arguments against the British’s sovereignty over the archipelago by the Mauritius government?

  • Mauritius started the legal battles against the UK in 2010, when the British government declared a Marine Protected Area (MPA) of 200 nautical miles around the archipelago.
  • Mauritius disputes the UK’s rights to assert maritime rights in the seawater surrounding the archipelago.
  • In its argument in the Arbitral Tribunal that adjudicated the dispute, Mauritius contends that the UK has no rights over the Chagos islands as a coastal state.
  • Mauritius also argued that Britain also does not have sovereignty over the islands and thus it cannot be deemed as a coastal state.
  • In other words, MPA set up by the British government is not legally valid.
  • Mauritius further added that the MPA set up by the UK is not compatible with its duties under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) towards Mauritius.
  • The tribunal agreed that the MPA set up by Britain was incompatible with UNCLOS.
  • However, it had also implicitly accepted that the UK enjoys the sovereignty over the archipelago as the provisions of the conventions brought forth the references to the duties of the coastal states towards the other states.
  • After several other legal battles, Mauritius had successfully petitioned the UN to seek the ICJ’s advisory opinion on the legality of British’s claim over the archipelago in 2017.
  • It argued that it was forced by Britain to give up sovereignty over the archipelago.
  • It has also stated that it was not legal for the UK to disintegrate its territory.
  • It demanded the resettlement of the natives in the Chagos Archipelago.
  • Mauritius also put forth the right to self-determination.
  • It stated that the UK’s claim over the archipelago is a breach of UN Resolution 1514 which is known as the Colonial Declaration.
  • Colonial Declaration had explicitly banned the breaking up of the colonies before independence.
  • This was to prevent the colonial powers from reabsorbing their colonial territories under the veil of the overseas territories and safeguard the independence of the newly independent countries.

What was the ICJ’s advisory on this issue?

  • The ICJ had ruled that placing the archipelago under the British administration was not based on the free speech of the native inhabitants of the islands.
  • It also advised the UK to relinquish its control over the archipelago.
  • This advisory encompasses the US’s military base on Diego Gracia.
  • In response, the UK stated that the ICJ had given an advisory opinion not the judgement.
  • On May 2019, the UNGA had voted in favour of setting up of 6-months deadline for the withdrawal of the UK and the US from the Chagos Archipelago so that it can be integrated with Mauritius.
  • Notably, France and Germany, among the fifty-six nations had abstained from this vote.

Conclusion

  • The stance taken by the major powers like France and Germany shows their reluctance to take a proactive role in the decolonization of the archipelago.
  • Despite UN Resolution 1514, major powers like France and Britain till hold several colonial territories.
  • The UNGA’s vote in favour of Mauritius shows the current era’s anti-colonial sentiments and the decreasing powers if the developed nations like the UK, the US, and France.
  • This decision by the UNGA is a relook into the broader issues of the post-colonial claims on sovereignty over the certain colonised countries.
  • This resolution brings in the question of the legality of the arrangements made in the colonial era.

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