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Maldives tells sea tribunal dispute with Mauritius hinges on control of islands

The territory at stake, a 37,000-square-mile expanse of the Indian Ocean, is surrounded by the Maldives and islands claimed by both Mauritius and the United Kingdom.

HAMBURG, Germany (CN) — The island nation of the Maldives told a United Nations tribunal on Thursday that a maritime boundary fight is primarily about control over the disputed Chagos Islands rather than its border with Mauritius. 

Mauritius and the Maldives have been fighting over a 37,000-square-mile expanse of the Indian Ocean before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, with both claiming the fish-rich waters as their own economic zones. 

Ibrahim Riffath, attorney general of the Maldives, told the nine-judge U.N. panel the case brought by Mauritius exists “primarily to advance its dispute with the United Kingdom.” Proceedings opened on Monday, with Mauritius giving its opening statements.

When the Hamburg-based court accepted jurisdiction in the case in 2021, it de facto ruled the U.K.’s continued possession of the Chagos Islands – a strategically important group of islands that has been partially leased to the United States military – is illegal. Nonetheless, the U.K. maintains control over the archipelago.

When Mauritius gained independence from the U.K. in 1968, London severed the Chagos Islands from the rest of the country so it could lease one island -  Diego Garcia - to the U.S. for a military base. The U.K. forcibly deported some 2,000 Chagossians who have continued to wage a legal battle to return. 

In a 2019 advisory opinion, the International Court of Justice, the U.N.'s highest court, ruled that the continuing British occupation of the islands was illegal and the Chagos Islands are rightfully part of Mauritius. The U.K. has so far refused to respect the ICJ decision. 

London had previously come to an agreement with the Maldives as to where the maritime boundary should be placed, which is now disputed by Mauritius.

The Maldives takes issue with how Mauritius conducted a technical survey in the area.

“It surveyed many things but not the location of the four base points,” Payam Akhavan, a member of the Maldives legal team, said Thursday, referring to the locations where Mauritius would like the boundary lines to be drawn from. 

Under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, countries with ocean borders have control of the waters extending 230 miles from their coast.  

Earlier this year, Mauritius sent a team asses the region, which takes days to reach by boat. The team was forced to sail from the East African island nation of Seychelles, rather than the much closer Maldives, because of pressure from London.

In 2010, the U.K. declared much of the region a protected maritime area. The region is rich in fishing waters, which could be profitable for the Mauritian economy, which is heavily dependent on tourism. 

Hearings will continue into next week. 

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