The Battle for Chagos Archipelago

By Mrinal Roy

The return of the Chagos Archipelago to the sovereignty of Mauritius will be a cathartic outcome for the country. It will also be a victory of justice and righteousness over the wrongs of history

An unprecedented development: Labour leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn has condemned Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to defy the ruling of the UN’s principal court which concluded that Britain should hand back the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritius. He accused May of disregarding international law and the right of exiled islanders to return to their homeland


It is an extremely momentous week for Mauritius. It has been a long drawn and arduous battle to regain sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago. A potent momentum has been built over recent years for our lawful claim over the Chagos Archipelago thanks to the unstinted support of the 55 members of the African Union and an increasing caucus of friendly countries as well as rights activists. There is a sense of bated expectation that finally the wrongs of colonization will be repaired and that the Chagos Archipelago which was unlawfully detached from the colony of Mauritius in 1965 will be returned to the sovereignty of Mauritius.

It must be recalled that on 25 February 2019 the UN International Court of Justice (ICJ) had, after examining the circumstances in which the Chagos Archipelago was detached from the colony of Mauritius in violation of various UN General Assembly Resolutions approved as from 1960, concluded that its detachment by the colonial power, the UK, from Mauritius in 1965 prior to independence was unlawful. The Court also stated that the obligations arising under international law and reflected in a series of resolutions adopted by the General Assembly during the process of decolonization of Mauritius require the United Kingdom, as the administering Power, to respect the territorial integrity of that country including the Chagos Archipelago.

It declared that the detachment of the Chagos Archipelago in 1965 had not been based on a “free and genuine expression of the people concerned” and added that the continued administration of the Chagos Archipelago by the UK was ‘a wrongful act’. It therefore concluded that “the UK has an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible and that all member states must co-operate with the United Nations to complete the decolonization of Mauritius.”

Unequivocal ruling

The unequivocal opinion of the International Court of Justice could not have been clearer. The UK is illegally administering the Chagos Archipelago since 1965. Thus, as a follow up to the decision of the ICJ, Senegal tabled on behalf of the African Union a resolution in the UN General Assembly urging the UK to withdraw ‘its colonial administration from the Chagos Archipelago unconditionally within a period of no more than six months from the adoption of the present resolution, thereby enabling Mauritius to complete the decolonization of its territory as rapidly as possible.’

The resolution also urged all Member States to cooperate with the United Nations to ensure the completion of the decolonization of Mauritius as rapidly as possible and to refrain from any action that will impede or delay the completion of the process of decolonization of Mauritius in accordance with the advisory opinion of the ICJ.

The long-drawn battle of Mauritius to regain sovereignty over a part of its territory which was unlawfully detached by the UK in 1965 will thus come full circle with the return of the Chagos Archipelago to the sovereignty of Mauritius.

It must be remembered that the request to seek an advisory opinion of the ICJ was approved by the United Nations on 22 June 2017 by a large majority with 94 countries supporting the request and 15 countries voting against. There were 65 abstentions. The UN General Assembly referred to various UN resolutions, including Resolution 2066 (XX) adopted by the General Assembly in December 1965 in which it asked the UK not to dismember the territory of Mauritius and violate its territorial integrity ahead of decolonization, to motivate its decision to seek an advisory opinion of the ICJ.

The UN General Assembly thus asked the ICJ for an opinion as to whether the decolonization of Mauritius had been carried out in a lawful manner, given the detachment of the Chagos Archipelago from the territory of Mauritius. It also asked the Court to advise on the consequences arising from the United Kingdom’s continuing administration of the Chagos Archipelago under international law, including the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. It pointed, in particular, to Mauritius’ inability to resettle its nationals, including those of Chagossian origin, on the islands.

This General Assembly decision thus triggered a process which led to the ICJ ruling in favour of Mauritius and this week’s General Assembly vote on the resolution tabled by Senegal on behalf of the African Union, calling for a swift end to the colonial administration of the Chagos Archipelago by the UK to complete the decolonization of Mauritius.

UK’s defiance of the ICJ ruling

It is therefore flabbergasting that the UK is still claiming that it holds sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago when the ICJ which is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations has, after examining as per the request of the UN General Assembly all the facts, the counter arguments advanced by the UK and UN resolutions governing decolonization and the obligation not to dismember the Territory of Mauritius and violate its territorial integrity, concluded that the Chagos Archipelago was unlawfully detached and should be returned to the sovereignty of Mauritius ‘as rapidly as possible.’ The primary role of the ICJ is to settle international legal disputes submitted by states and give advisory opinions on legal issues referred to it by the UN. The disputed stance of the UK government and its defiance of the ICJ ruling risks isolate the United Kingdom.

In an unprecedented development, the Labour leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn had earlier written to Prime Minister Theresa May to condemn her decision to defy the ruling of the UN’s principal court which concluded that Britain should hand back the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritius. He accused Theresa May of disregarding international law and the right of exiled islanders to return to their homeland.

The final act?

Intense lobbying by Mauritius, the 55 members of the African Union and the growing caucus of friendly countries such as India aimed at canvassing as many of the 65-member countries who abstained at the last vote in June 2017 to support the legitimate claim of Mauritius. Among those countries which abstained were the EU states, China (a UN Security Council member), Sri Lanka and various ACP and island states such as Jamaica, Saint Lucia, Barbados or Saint Kitts And Nevis, whereas the 15 countries which voted against included Japan and the Republic of Korea. The prime objective of Mauritius has been to maximize the tally of votes in favour of the resolution to bring the full weight of international opinion and pressure on the UK government so as to assure the swift return of the Chagos Archipelago to the sovereignty of Mauritius.

The positive outcome of the vote by the UN General Assembly members on 22 May on the resolution tabled by Senegal calling on the UK to end the colonial administration of the Chagos Archipelago and to return it to the sovereignty of Mauritius is a major step towards the complete decolonization of Mauritius. A host of countries including from the non-aligned group co-sponsored the resolution. Despite tremendous diplomatic pressure, a higher number of 116 countries including China, Austria, Greece, Ireland, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland voted for the resolution in support of Mauritius whereas only 6 countries (UK, USA, Australia, Israel, Hungary and Maldives) voted against.

It is noteworthy that the US took a very subdued stand on the resolution. The enhanced majority obtained puts more international pressure on the UK which is more and more isolated. It was abundantly clear during the debate on the resolution that decolonization, the sacrosanct principle of unswervingly upholding the rule of international law and the legal stances of the International Court of Justice as well as the values and principles of the Charter of the United Nations were the determinant leitmotivs underpinning the majority vote in favour of the resolution.

The enhanced support of the UN general Assembly members considerably helps the just cause of Mauritius and weakens that of the United Kingdom, the more as the British government’s stance is strongly contested and decried within the UK by Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition. The vote also puts the onus of implementation of the resolution on the UN General Assembly as well as the full weight of UN pressure on the UK to return the Chagos Archipelago to the sovereignty of Mauritius. The battle is not over as yet.

The return of the Chagos Archipelago to the sovereignty of Mauritius will be a cathartic outcome for the country and Chagossians who have endured a forced exile from their homes in the archipelago over decades. It will also be a victory of justice and righteousness over the wrongs of history and the abject excesses of colonialism. More importantly, it will be a beacon of hope and open the way to set right similar wrongs by colonial powers not only in Mauritius but also in so many countries across the world.


* Published in print edition on 24 May 2019

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