THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) – In its first advisory opinion in seven years, the International Court of Justice held Monday that the United Kingdom’s Cold War move to separate a collection of atolls from the rest of Mauritius was “unlawful.”
The case concerns the Chagos Archipelago, a group of seven atolls located in the Indian Ocean. Nearly 60 islands make up the atolls, some uninhabited. Until 1965, the Chagos Archipelago was considered a dependency of the island nation of Mauritius.
The archipelago was uninhabited prior to France’s discovery of the area. The French started a colony of approximately 50 to 60 people on the island of Diego Garcia, which later became a staging post for the slave trade. Those born on the island are known as Chagossians. The United Kingdom took possession of all of the French dependencies with the Treaty of Paris in 1814.
A century and a half later, concerns about the expansion of the Soviet Union led the U.K. to look at building a military base in the region. The United States agreed and offered a subsidy on the U.K.’s nuclear program to help facilitate the base. As for the Chagossians, Britain claimed they were not inhabitants but rather transients on the atoll with no right to remain.
In 1965, the U.K. detached the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius, forming the British Indian Ocean Territory together with other islands detached from Seychelles. The British government paid Mauritius was paid 3 million pounds and pledged to return Chagos when it was no longer needed for defense purposes.
A year later, Britain leased the archipelago to the United States for military purposes, evicting 2,000 Chagossians in the process. In 1971, the British government paid Mauritius 650,000 pounds for resettlement costs stemming from the eviction.
In 1982, the U.K. paid 4 million pounds to Mauritius for the “full and final settlement of all claims whatsoever,” without admitting liability for the displacement of Chaggosians. Many Chagossians signed this agreement with a thumbprint, as they were unable to read or write.
The road to the International Court of Justice began as United Nations General Assembly Resolution 71/292, put forth by Mauritius, which requested an advisory opinion on the territorial dispute. The resolution, signed by 30 other countries and the African Union, was adopted in June 2017 in what was widely considered to be a diplomatic blow to the U.K.
At oral arguments in September 2018, the U.N. court heard from 22 countries and the African Union. Mauritius argued Britain forced detachment of the archipelago in exchange for Mauritius’ independence.
“The choice we were faced with was no choice at all; it was independence with detachment or no independence with detachment anyway,” Anerood Jugnauth, counsel for Mauritius and its former president, told the court during oral arguments.
Though the U.K. used part of its oral arguments to offer an apology for the “shameful” way it had treated the residents of Diego Garcia, it contended the dispute should be resolved between it and Mauritius without the U.N.’s involvement. As Matthew Rycroft, the British ambassador to the United Nations, noted during the General Assembly meeting where the resolution was voted upon, “How many other bilateral disputes left over from history could be brought before the General Assembly this way?”
But in Monday’s opinion, read to a packed courtroom, the U.N. court unanimously agreed it had jurisdiction to hear the case. Then it held the detachment of the Chagos Archipelago was unlawful.
“This detachment was not based on the free and genuine expression of the will of the people concerned,” the court held, finding that because Mauritius was a British territory at the time it could not freely agree to anything.
The court also held Britain has an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible.
After the ruling, a visibly excited Louis Olivier Bancoult, leader of the Chagos Refugee Group, told reporters, “What has been done to us and what has been done to Mauritius is unlawful.”
Dr. Laura Jeffery, a senior lecturer in anthropology at the University of Edinburgh who studies forced displacement called the International Court of Justice’s opinion “an extremely comprehensive opinion that comes down on one side.”
The court’s opinion is not binding and is not a judgment in the dispute between Britain and Mauritius. Instead, it will be used as guidance for the U.N. General Assembly.
The European Court of Human Rights rejected a similar case in 2012, finding Mauritius’ acceptance of payment meant there was no human rights violation.
In 2016, the British government said it would not support the Chagossians’ resettlement of the island, and would instead pay 40 million pounds to improve the communities where they are currently living.
The United States currently operates a large naval and air base on Diego Garcia, the largest atoll in the archipelago. Its lease for the island runs until 2036.