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UN sea tribunal hears Indian Ocean boundary dispute

Some 37,000 square miles in the Indian Ocean are claimed by both Mauritius and the Maldives, with important fishing rights hanging in the balance.

HAMBURG, Germany (CN) — Two Indian Ocean island nations faced off Monday before a United Nations maritime tribunal in a territory conflict with broad implications. 

Mauritius argued before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea that it, not the Maldives, is the rightful owner of a disputed portion of ocean territory, including the waters around a group of islands claimed by the United Kingdom. 

“We are neighboring countries, we share interests and common challenges,” Dheerendra Dabee, the agent for Mauritius, told the nine-judge U.N. panel in his opening statements. 

By accepting jurisdiction in the case in 2021, the Hamburg, Germany-based court has already effectively 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.

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. Mauritius and the Maldives disagree on where the distance should be measured from. 

“With the greatest respect to our friends from the Maldives, they are wrong,” lawyer Philippe Sands, arguing on behalf of Mauritius, told the full courtroom. He said that the Maldives' proposed boundary takes 99% of the disputed area for itself. 

In hearings about jurisdiction, the Maldives argued Mauritius had no grounds to bring the complaint because the area in question bordered a U.K. territory. But the court found that “the United Kingdom is not an indispensable party to the present proceedings,” in line with a 2019 advisory opinion from the International Court of Justice, or ICJ, that the continuing British occupation of the islands was illegal. 

The U.K. took possession of Mauritius, which included the Chagos Islands, from France in 1810, using the islands primarily for plantations. A century and a half later, concerns about the expansion of the Soviet Union led the U.S. to look for a location for a military base in the region, ultimately convincing the U.K. to lease it one island, Diego Garcia. 

When Mauritius gained its independence in 1968, London severed the Chagos Islands from the rest of the country. British authorities then forcibly deported some 2,000 Chagossians, allowing them to take just one suitcase and nothing else, not even their pets. Many of those removed have continued to wage a legal battle to return. 

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. 

Earlier this year, Mauritius was finally able to send a team to survey the area in question. The group included Chagossians, who were able to return to their homeland without an armed British escort. The group was forced to sail from the East African island nation of Seychelles, rather than the much closer Maldives, because of pressure from London. The U.K. has so far refused to respect the 2019 ICJ decision. 

Mauritius and the Maldives are not alone in having contested boundaries in coastal waters. Last year, the ICJ ruled in favor of Somalia in a maritime border dispute with Kenya, also based on the Law of the Sea convention. The two were fighting over a 40,000-square-mile expanse of oil and gas-rich waters in the Indian Ocean. 

The Maldives will give its opening statements on Thursday.

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