Britain faces UN tribunal over Chagos Islands marine reserve
Ruling by permanent court of arbitration in The Hague may challenge UK’s unilateral declaration of marine protected area
Britain’s colonial-era decision to sever an Indian Ocean archipelago from Mauritius and turn it into a US military base will have to be justified before an international tribunal – a process that could lead to the return of the islands’ exiled inhabitants.
The unexpected ruling this month by the permanent court of arbitration in The Hague that it can hear the case is a challenge to the UK’s unilateral declaration in 2009 of a marine protected area around the Chagos Islands.
Decisions by the tribunal, which arbitrates in disputes over the United Nations law of the sea, are binding on the UK. At the preliminary hearing the UK’s attempt to challenge the court’s jurisdiction was defeated. Britain is now obliged to explain highly sensitive political decisions dating back to 1965.
The legal battle, begun more than two years ago, raises fundamental questions about who has sovereignty over the Indian Ocean territory. Mauritian government officials believe it could lead to the unravelling of Britain’s disputed claim and the eventual return of the islanders.
The Mauritian prime minister, Navinchandra Ramgoolam, has also alleged that the decision to establish a 545,000 sq mile marine reserve was carried out in defiance of assurances given to him at the time by the then UK prime minister, Gordon Brown.
Talking to the Guardian in London, Ramgoolam said: “We welcome the fact that the UN tribunal will have the whole case before it when it next meets. Never before have [the UK] had to explain why they detached the Chagos Islands from Mauritius.”
In 1965, three years before Mauritius was given its independence, the UK decided to separate the Chagos Islands from the rest of its then Indian Ocean colony. The Mauritian government claims this was in breach of UN general assembly resolution 1514, passed in 1960, which specifically banned the breakup of colonies prior to independence.
The Chagos archipelago was subsequently declared to be part of the British Indian Ocean Territory (Biot) from which, in 1971, most of the 1,500 islanders were deported. The largest island, Diego Garcia, was then leased to the US as a strategic airbase. The lease is due to be renegotiated by December 2014.
Britain’s skullduggery over the Chagos Islands is at last due for an airing.
There was never an intention for a ‘marine protected area’. The ‘M’ should be read as ‘military‘.
The Americans wanted/needed a base in the Indian Ocean, and the British obliged.
The chances are high that Britain could get caught with its pants down and egg all over its face!