More than 50 years after the United Kingdom separated a key archipelago from Mauritius, the small island state won a major battle last week. But the fight for control of Chagos is far from over. KRISTEN VAN SCHIE reports.
It was a categorical defeat on the international stage for an increasingly isolated United Kingdom.
In a vote of 94 to just 15, the country’s attempt to block a United Nations resolution on the legality of the UK’s claim over the Chagos islands was crushed last week.
But for the Mauritian team pushing to have the matter referred to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), it was a turning point in a decades-long fight to regain control of the Indian Ocean archipelago.
“It was obviously a moment of great joy and at the same time great humility,” Ambassador Jagdish Koonjul told Daily Maverick. “It just felt very warm and touching that there were so many countries supporting a cause like ours over decolonisation… of course, we are certainly not at the end of the process, but this was a kind of a turning point to our struggle.”
The Chagos archipelago was separated from Mauritius by Britain in 1965 in the run-up to the island state gaining its independence three years later.
The residents of that archipelago, the Chagossians, were forcefully removed, while the largest island – Diego Garcia – was in 1966 leased to the United States for the construction of a military base.
What Mauritius was asking for last week was an advisory opinion from the court on whether their decolonisation process was lawfully completed, given the separation of Chagos.
Based on the timeline of previous opinions – which have included whether international law was violated by Kosovo’s declaration of independence (it was not) and the construction of Israel’s border wall with Palestine (it was) – it’s a process that will likely take around 18 months, going through two rounds of written statements before oral hearings and several months more of deliberation.
The UK has repeatedly insisted the disagreement should be settled not in a court, but directly with Mauritius.
“Since September, we’ve had three substantive rounds of talks,” the UK’s ambassador to the UN Matthew Rycroft told the General Assembly last week. “Despite every effort by the UK, we’ve not yet succeeded in bridging the differences between us. I regret this, but we remain committed to bilateral discussion.”
Mauritius has cast those talks in a harsher light, with the country’s former prime minister Anerood Jugnauth calling them “pointless”.
The UK has committed to transferring sovereignty of the archipelago to Mauritius when Chagos is no longer needed for defence purposes. But when that will be is anybody’s guess. Just as the 50-year lease agreement with the US was set expire last year, it was renewed for another 20 years.
“The United Kingdom was unwilling to discuss a date certain for the completion of the decolonization of Mauritius,” Jugnauth told the General Assembly. “It was unwilling even to talk about decolonisation…. as there is no prospect of any end to the colonisation of Mauritius, the General Assembly has a continuing responsibility to act.”
In principle, the UK had its supporters. Many countries said they would prefer for the issue to be dealt with through dialogue. But when it came down to votes, the UK found itself in a lonely corner, its only major partners the US, Australia and Israel.
Some 65 countries, including France, China and Russia, abstained from voting.
“The fact that the three other permanent members did not vote against the resolution goes a long way in signalling to the court that they don’t object to it dealing with this, and that’s every important,” Philippe Sands, legal counsel to Mauritius, told Daily Maverick.
The 94-15 count was described as an “embarrassing” and “humiliating” defeat in the British press. The Guardian called it “a blow to the UK’s international prestige”.
A foreign office spokeswoman said the result was “disappointing” and maintained that it was “inappropriate” to take the dispute to the courts.
“We will be robustly defending our position at the ICJ,” she told Daily Maverick.
For Mauritians, the result was an expression of continental unity as African countries voted unanimously in support of the resolution.
“It was obviously a moment of great joy and at the same time great humility that you could have such a feeling of unity and solidarity, especially among the African group,” Ambassador Koonjul told Daily Maverick. “They are the ones that really pushed for it and that has certainly been of instrumental support for us to get to where we are.”
Whatever the eventual finding, an advisory opinion is not binding. Thirteen years after finding that the Israeli border wall with Palestine was a violation of international law, the wall stands all the same.
If the court does find in Mauritius’ favour, the approach the UK takes will determine how it sees itself as a country, said Sands: “The United Kingdom is a country that abides by its international commitments; one would expect that they would take very, very seriously the advisory opinion, whatever it is.”
With the political side of the campaign over, it’s now up to Sands and the rest of the legal team to prepare for the ICJ.
“I think there’s a feeling that the enormous amount of work has paid off,” he said. “But no one is counting their chickens. There’s still a lot of work to do.” DM
Photo: DIEGO GARCIA (March 2008) A tugboat from Navy Support Facility Diego Garcia helps guide the fast-attack submarine USS Dallas (SGN 700) through the shallow lagoon as the submarine pulls into port to conduct a voyage repair period. U.S. Navy photo (Released)