CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — The fate of a strategic, and secretive, U.S. military base in the Indian Ocean, and the small population forced off the Chagos archipelago to make way for that military base, is in the hands of a United Nations court in The Hague.
The Chagos archipelago, a group of more than 60 islands about 310 miles south of the Maldives, was home to about 1,500 people, most of whom were descended from people brought to the islands to work on plantations, most often as slaves. Its largest island, and the only one inhabited since 1971, and only by military personnel, is Diego Garcia. The United Kingdom and United States evicted all the inhabitants on the Chagos islands beginning in 1967, to build a joint military base on Diego Garcia. That base has served as a launching pad for military strikes in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
It allegedly has also served more sinister purposes, according to numerous news reports. It was allegedly used as a detention center and refueling site for the CIA’s rendition and torture program. The base is run jointly by Britain and the United States. In 2016, Britain renewed the U.S. base’s lease for 20 years.
This week the International Court of Justice is hearing arguments over the legal status of the Chagos archipelago, which Britain kept for itself during negotiations that led to the independence of Mauritius, an Indian Ocean island republic, in 1968. An archipelago is a chain of islands.
The 15-member court is being asked to provide an advisory opinion to the United Nations General Assembly on whether the Chagos archipelago was unlawfully retained by Britain.
Although not legally binding, an advisory opinion would provide the UN with a legal framework to deal with the long-running question.
Mauritius has said it will allow the base to continue functioning, but in written arguments, the United States says it prefers the islands remain British.
“While the relationship between the United States and Mauritius is cordial, it cannot replicate the special relationship between the United States and United Kingdom,” the U.S. said.
U.S. attorneys said the military base on Diego Garcia “plays a critical role in the maintenance of peace and security, both in the Indian Ocean littoral region and beyond, and is a cornerstone of the close U.S.–U.K. defense cooperation.”
In court Monday, Mauritius and Britain presented their cases. Twenty other nations are scheduled to present arguments this week.
Britain and the United States are among the few nations arguing that the Chagos islands were lawfully obtained by Britain.
Britain’s lawyers argued that Mauritius agreed to let go of the Chagos islands in 1965. They characterized the Chagos archipelago as geographically separated from Mauritius, lying as it does more than 1,240 miles away.
But Mauritius argues that Britain coerced it into abandoning the Chagos islands by threatening to block independence unless it agreed to give up the islands.
On Monday, Anerood Jugnauth, the Mauritian minister of defense and a former prime minister, told the court he was the last remaining member of a delegation of Mauritians who attended talks in London in 1965 over independence.
Unbeknownst to him and others in the Mauritian delegation, he said, secret talks took place in which Britain forced Mauritius’ top leaders to accept the loss of the Chagos islands. He said this was revealed in British colonial documents opened up years later.
In court, Jugnauth cited a 1965 briefing paper to British Prime Minister Harold Wilson before a meeting with Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, the Mauritius independence leader. The paper outlined a strategy against Ramgoolam “to frighten him with hope.”
“Hope that he might get independence,” the document said. “Fright lest he might not unless he is sensible about the detachment of the Chagos Archipelago.”
Jugnauth said: “The choice we were faced with was no choice at all.”
So more than a half century later, “the process of decolonization remains incomplete,” Jugnauth told the court.
The case pivots on whether Mauritius, in its quest for independence, was able to fully enact self-determination, the attorneys for Mauritius argued.
“There can be no doubt that self-determination is one of the most fundamental principles of international law, and it also lies at the heart of the modern law of human rights,” said Alison Macdonald, an attorney for Mauritius.
Macdonald argued that this principle was well established in international law by the time Mauritius sought its independence.
Robert Buckland, Britain’s solicitor general, asked the court to decline to issue an advisory opinion. Britain calls the case a bilateral territorial dispute on which the court should not rule.
Buckland said Mauritius has failed to show that the negotiations over its independence were done under duress.
“We feel compelled to set the record straight,” he said.
He said Mauritius did not challenge the detachment of the Chagos islands until the 1980s. “Mauritius presents a contradictory picture.”
Buckland said Britain regretted the removal of people from the Chagos islands, but said it has made amends.
“It was shameful and wrong and it deeply regrets that fact,” Buckland said. “Over the years, the United Kingdom has sought to make amends for their treatment.”
In the 1970s, Britain paid about $830,000 in compensation, and another $5 million in 1982.
Buckland said a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that found legal claims by Chagossians had been settled.
He also cited Britain’s offer in 2016 to provide about $51 million to improve the lives of Chagossians. Britain announced that compensation after renewing the military base lease with the United States, a decision that stopped Chagossians from returning.
After removal, the people living on the Chagos islands were scattered to Mauritius, Britain, the Seychelles and elsewhere. There are about 6,000 Chagossians today, according to the UK Chagos Support Association.
“The shameful eviction caused and continues to cause immense suffering to part of the Mauritian population,” Jugnauth said. “No amount of monetary compensation can remedy the flagrant and ongoing breaches of fundamental human rights.”
In a video shown to the court, one of those removed from the Chagos islands gave emotional testimony.
“They expelled us by force,” said Marie Liseby Elysé, a 65-year-old woman. She talked of the Chagos islands as a paradise where generations of her family had lived well.
“My heart is suffering and my heart still belongs to the island where I was born,” she said. She said she wants to be buried where her grandparents were buried.
Philippe Sands, a lawyer for Mauritius, asked the court to bring to an end “a last vestige of British colonialism in Africa.”
Sands blasted the British government for proposing to allow Chagossians to return to the islands for brief “heritage visits.”
“We are not in Africa in the middle of the 19th century, or early 20th century,” Sands said. “This is the third of September, 2018.”