UN court rules Britain's occupation of Chagos Islands illegal
27 February 2019
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has backed Mauritius in a colonial-era dispute over the Chagos Islands and ruled that Britain illegally split the islands from Mauritius in 1965 and later forcibly displaced its entire population for building a US military base.
In a non-binding advisory opinion, the World Court at Hague on Monday said Britain’s handling of decolonisation and the displacement of islanders from the Indian Ocean archipelago had been unlawful.
Britain, which gained control of the islands in the early 1970s, evicted almost 2,000 residents and resettled them in Mauritius and the Seychelles to make way for the US military base on the island of Diego Garcia.
The ICJ, which has been set up to resolve disputes between states, said Britain’s 1968 decolonisation of the islands said Britain should relinquish control over the territory “as soon as possible”.
Reading a summary of a the 14-member tribunal’s decision, presiding judge Abdulqawi Yusuf said Britain was “under obligation to bring to an end the administration of Chagos Islands as rapidly as possible”.
The UN General Assembly asked the court in February 2017 to weigh the legality of the decolonisation process of the Chagos islands, which was part of Mauritius before its colonisation.
Mauritius had told the court that it had been forced to give up the remote archipelago as Britain had made it a condition for decolonisation. Britain maintained that Mauritius had given up the islands willingly.
The court found the agreement between Britain and Mauritius at the time had not been “based on the free and genuine expression of the will of the people concerned” and thus did not comply with standards for self-determination.
Welcoming the ruling, the Mauritian government said it was a “historic moment in efforts to bring colonialism to an end, and to promote human rights, self-determination and the international rule of law”.
“This is a historic moment for Mauritius and all its people, including the Chagossians who were unconscionably removed from their homeland and prevented from returning for the last half century. Our territorial integrity will now be made complete, and when that occurs, the Chagossians and their descendants will finally be able to return home,” Mauritius’s Prime Minister Pravind Kumar Jugnauth said.
Namira Negm, legal counsel of the African Union, which played an important role in the proceedings, said: “It is unthinkable that today, in the 21st century, there is a part of Africa that still remains subject to European colonial rule.
“The full decolonisation of Mauritius, and of Africa, is long overdue. The ICJ has made it clear that this must be accomplished today and not tomorrow. Only then the Africans can be free and the continent can aspire to live free of colonialism.”
Prof Philippe Sands QC, who represented Mauritius at The Hague, said: “The court has given a crystal-clear verdict, which upholds the rule of law. This is a historic and landmark judgment. It will be for Mauritius and the UK to sit down and implement this advisory opinion.
“It will be for Mauritius now to decide on the resettlement of the islanders. There’s no veto at the UN general assembly. It will decide how to go forward with the matter. There’s no question of the UK coming up with new arguments: their arguments were put forcibly and well.
“It’s difficult to imagine the UK as it moves forward into this Brexit world, ignoring what the international court of justice and the UN general assembly have said. The UK is a country which prides itself on respect for the rule of law. Our hope and expectation is that the UK will honour the ICJ’s findings and give effect to it as rapidly as possible.”
David Snoxell, coordinator of the all-party parliamentary group in the Chagos Islands, said: “This is a searing indictment of the UK detachment of the Chagos archipelago from Mauritius in 1965 and its subsequent defence of that action. The UN general assembly must now decide what to do about this post-colonial legacy, including the human rights of the Chagos Islanders.
“Opinion in the UN and the Commonwealth is highly critical of our policy towards Chagos. The UK’s reputation and human rights record suffer. Litigation costs to the taxpayer multiply. HMG [Her Majesty’s government] should seize the opportunity to engage in serious discussions with Mauritius for an overall settlement. There is no defence, security, political or legal reason to delay it any longer.”