Recovering the Chagos Archipelago

Matters of The Moment

A wrong imposed at the time of independence is thanks to the International Court of Justice finally to be set right

By Mrinal Roy

Finally, 54 years after the Chagos Archipelago was unlawfully detached from Mauritius in 1965 there is a feeling of elation in the country that Mauritius would finally regain its territorial integrity. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) advisory opinion by a majority of thirteen votes to one that the process of decolonization of Mauritius was not lawfully completed when Mauritius acceded to independence and that the United Kingdom should end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible is unequivocal. It is a proud and momentous development in our history. It is a special and cathartic moment for the nation. A wrong imposed at the time of independence is thanks to the ICJ finally to be set right.

The opinion of the United Nations highest court although advisory carries tremendous weight, the more so as it also urges all Member States to give every support to the United Nations to complete the decolonization of Mauritius. The ICJ decision is bound to rally a large majority of UN members to the cause of Mauritius who already benefits from the unstinted support of the 55 members of the African Union and a host of friendly countries and put pressure on the United Kingdom to return the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritian sovereignty as rapidly as possible.

The findings of the International Court of Justice in essence establishes with reference to international law that the detachment of the Chagos Archipelago from the territory of Mauritius by the United Kingdom, the administering Power, despite explicit UN resolutions urging colonial powers as from 1960 not to disrupt the territorial integrity of colonies during the process of decolonization, was unlawful.

Unequal equation

It is important to understand the particular context of decolonization in the 1960s as well as the chronology of events. The UN General Assembly fully aware of the pitfalls resulting from the unequal equation between small colonies and the all-mighty colonial powers bent on leveraging the yearning for independence by the people in the colonies to inter alia detach part of their territory to safeguard their geopolitical and other interests, adopted a series of resolutions for a speedy end to colonialism and to protect the territorial integrity of the colonies at the time of independence. 

Thus, well before 1965, the year the Chagos Archipelago was detached from Mauritius, UN resolution 1514 (XV) of 14 December 1960 established the key principles to be adhered to by the colonial power during the process of decolonization. This included ‘the necessity of bringing a speedy and unconditional end to colonialism in all its forms and manifestations’ and the sacrosanct principle ‘that any attempt at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations.’ 

Following the news of the detachment of the Chagos Archipelago from the territory of Mauritius in November 1965, UN Resolution 2066 (XX) adopted by the General Assembly in December 1965 specifically addressing the question of Mauritius and other islands composing the Territory of Mauritius urged the United Kingdom “to take no action which would dismember the Territory of Mauritius and violate its territorial integrity”.

Similarly, UN General Assembly Resolutions 2232 (XXI) et 2357 (XXII), adopted in 1966 and 1967 which raised the case of Mauritius and 24 and 26 other countries respectively again reaffirmed that ‘any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of colonial territories and the establishment of military bases and installations is incompatible with the purposes and Charter of the United Nations and the General Assembly Resolution 1514 (XV)’ of 14 December 1960.

Unlawful detachment

After recalling the circumstances in which the colony of Mauritius agreed in principle to such a detachment, the Court concluded that this detachment was not based on the free and genuine expression of the will of the people of Mauritius. It highlighted that the obligations arising under international law and reflected in the resolutions adopted by the General Assembly during the process of decolonization of Mauritius required the United Kingdom, as the administering Power, to respect the territorial integrity of Mauritius which included the Chagos Archipelago.

The Court therefore concluded that, as a result of the Chagos Archipelago’s unlawful detachment and its incorporation into a new colony, known as the BIOT, the process of decolonization of Mauritius was not lawfully completed when Mauritius acceded to independence in 1968. The United Kingdom is therefore under an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible.

The determinant UN resolutions and guiding laws for such a game changing verdict by the ICJ have been in force since 1960.The sound legal basis of the ICJ ruling brings added weight to the concerted efforts of the caucus of UN members to press the United Kingdom to restore the territorial integrity of Mauritius and return the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritian sovereignty as rapidly as possible. Mauritius must therefore pursue its diplomatic efforts to rally in the light of the ICJ unequivocal opinion, a much wider support to its cause among the UN members including the members of the UN Security Council so as to put pressure on the United Kingdom to complete the decolonization of Mauritius by handing back the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritian sovereignty. 

In  a statement issued this week in the wake of the ICJ verdict, the Organization of African Unity which played a key role in the process leading to the advisory opinion of the ICJ  reaffirmed ‘the African Union’s determination to pursue and intensify its efforts towards the full decolonization of Mauritius, in line with international law.’ It urged ‘the United Kingdom to end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as quickly as possible’.

People’s oversight

In the aftermath of the ICJ decision there were glib statements made with reference to the US base in Diego Garcia. This is a serious issue which requires careful thought. It cannot be treated in a cavalier manner. As it is a matter which concerns the whole country and the people, it is important that there is a broad debate and a national consensus which unlike1965 fully involves and takes on board the views of the people on the way forward bearing in mind peace in the Indian Ocean, the timeframe of any eventual agreement, economic and security imperatives as well as the resettlement of Mauritians of Chagossian origin in the archipelago.

* * *

Brexit: Baffling irrationality

How can one of the major democracies of the world land itself in such a quagmire on something so vital to its future?

Less than a month before the scheduled exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union on 29 March 2019, the UK is still bogged down by its own divisions, partisan politicking and baffling irrationality on such a crucial matter which would define and shape its future. A flood of companies are leaving the UK after Brexit for the Netherlands, Ireland, France, Germany and other EU member states.

The handling of Brexit by the UK government has spawned an enduring mess which seriously affects the future prospects of the United Kingdom. Instead of rationally obtaining through comprehensive consultations a consensus on the way forward and urgently seeking an extension of the 29 March 2019 Brexit deadline to negotiate a deal which rallies the broad support of MPs and the people, Prime Minister Theresa May seems bent on seeking adjustments within the straight jacket of the draft Brexit deal she negotiated with the EU which was emphatically rejected in Parliament by a record-breaking 230 votes in January 2019.  EU leaders have indicated that they would consider a British request for a delay in the Brexit date favourably.

In the latest development of this unending saga started more than two and half years ago with the UK’s European Union membership referendum held in June 2016, Theresa May is pushing her game of brinkmanship and testing the patience of MPs and the people to the limit. She has thus promised this week that if MPs reject her latest Brexit agreement including any changes agreed with EU in a vote in Parliament by 12 March 2019, MPs will be offered a vote on whether the UK wants to leave the EU without a deal and alternatively on a limited delay of the Brexit date. This is despite the fact that a no-deal Brexit would be disastrous and is anathema to both the EU and the UK. 

Such inane filibustering when her Brexit deal is widely contested is flabbergasting. Valuable time is being wasted. Despite the political logjam, she had declared her opposition to the only rational thing to do at this juncture, namely to seek a delay of the Brexit deadline and insists that any extension should be a one-off and certainly short-lived.

Unsurprisingly, the pound sterling strengthened following the news of a possible Brexit delay. This should have been a clear pointer as to the way forward. The disconcerting Brexit saga baffles rationality. How can one of the major democracies of the world land itself in such a quagmire on something so vital to its future? The core problem has been that those who were the most rabid proponents of Brexit at the time of the referendum have been unable to come forward with a Brexit negotiating game plan, let alone conjure a credible one. Will political expediency have the final word?   Elementary logic dictates that in the absence of a broad consensus on the tenor of a Brexit deal in Parliament, the issue of Brexit should be put back to the vote of the people.

Eye opener

The Brexit negotiations have mapped out and enabled people to have an insight into the pitfalls and difficulties as well as the fallouts of an exit from the EU. It is already affecting our exports to the UK and the flow of UK tourists to the country. It has also been a big eye opener and a reality check for both those who voted to leave as well as those who wanted to remain in the EU. It is also evident that the major sources of angst among the people in member states are the dominant role of Brussels and EU institutions in defining the common EU rules and laws governing every aspect of member states such as their finances, trade, tax laws, border control and immigration etc and the livelihoods of EU citizens which the supporters of Brexit and swathes of EU citizens want to take back control over.

The EU governing template is a cause of constant friction between member states and Brussels as attested by the recent locking of horns between Brussels and Italy on the latter’s budget proposals. Such a situation is untenable as it carries the seeds of other ‘Brexits’.  Brussels can no longer be smug and continue to bury its head in the sand. Brexit should therefore also be a moment for deep introspection and a thoughtful reappraisal by EU member states and its key leaders on the current EU model to urgently usher appropriate reforms which comfort and rally the member states rather than cause profound dissent and exits.


* Published in print edition on 1 March 2019

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