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UN tribunal divides contested ocean territory between Mauritius and Maldives

With important fishing rights hanging in the balance, the Maldives was awarded a slighter larger share of disputed Indian Ocean territory.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — A United Nations maritime tribunal ruled Friday on a border dispute between two Indian Ocean neighbors, effectively splitting some 37,000 square miles between them. 

After the U.N.’s highest court found in 2019 that the United Kingdom was illegally occupying the contested Chagos Islands, Mauritius, which claims the archipelago as part of its territory, asked the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to delineate a new maritime boundary with the neighboring Maldives. 

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. 

During hearings last year before the Hamburg-based court, Mauritius argued the court should consider several semi-submerged reefs as the starting point, while the Maldives claimed that would violated the convention. 

At stake is a fish-rich expanse of the Indian Ocean which both countries see as economically valuable. 

On Friday, the tribunal split the disputed area nearly down the middle, with the Maldives getting a slighter larger share.

“The ratio of the areas allocated to the parties is 1:0.960 in favour of the Maldives,” the nine-judge panel wrote.

The conflict, however, is less a fight between the two neighboring island nations and more of a dispute between Mauritius and its former colonial master, the U.K.

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. 

The territory - which became the British Indian Ocean Territory - was the last colony created by the U.K. and is its only remaining holding in Africa. 

In a 2019 advisory opinion, the U.N.'s top court, the International Court of Justice, 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. 

Friday’s ruling further reinforces the conclusion that the Chago Islands is part of Mauritius as the court considered parts of the archipelago when measuring the border of Mauritius. 

Late last year, London announced it would begin talks with Mauritius about the return of the archipelago. In February, Human Rights Watch called for full reparations to be paid to the Chagossians and to immediately allow them to return home. 

“It is only a matter of time before Mauritius can practically exercise sovereignty over Chagos," said Constantinos Yiallourides, an assistant professor in international law at the Macquarie School of Law in Australia, who specializes in maritime boundary disputes. 

Beyond the continuous issues of decolonization, the decision could have important ramifications for settling maritime boundary disagreements as sea levels rise as a result of climate change. The ruling “makes it clear that even smaller low-tide elevation features cannot be ignored” when determining maritime boundaries, Yiallourides said.

The dispute between Mauritius and the Maldives was the first time an international court had been asked to determine a maritime boundary between two archipelagic states, or ones comprised of a group of islands.  

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Categories:Environment, Government, International, Politics

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