Mauritius wants Chagos Islands, hosting US air base, back from UK

03 September 2018 - 14:59 By Reuters
Diego Garcia, the largest island in the Chagos archipelago and site of a major United States military base in the middle of the Indian Ocean leased from Britain in 1966. (File photo)
Diego Garcia, the largest island in the Chagos archipelago and site of a major United States military base in the middle of the Indian Ocean leased from Britain in 1966. (File photo)
Image: Reuters

The legality of Britain's claim to the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, which house a major US military base, will be considered by the International Court of Justice on Monday when it starts a week of hearings.

Britain has overseen the islands since 1814 and in 1965 detached the Chagos Islands from Mauritius, then a British colony, which became independent three years later.

Britain went on to lease the Chagos Islands’ biggest island, Diego Garcia, to the United States in 1966, paving the way for construction of an air base that required the forced removal of around 1,500 people.

Mauritius has said it was unfairly pressured to cede control of the islands during the negotiations, and had agreed only to their temporary use for military purposes.

Mauritius petitioned the United Nations for an International Court of Justice opinion on the legality of Britain's possession of the islands just south of the Maldives.

Britain and the United States opposed the demand, but were voted down by the UN general assembly. Britain is expected to argue that Mauritius is trying to improperly use the International Court of Justice or "World Court" to settle a bilateral dispute.

More than 20 interested parties, including the United States and the African Union, have asked to take part in the hearings.

“These things come together now in a combination of historical accident and intense political and popular interest in questions of colonial legacy," international law expert Geoff Gordon of the Asser Institute in The Hague said.

A combination of historical accident and intense political and popular interest in questions of colonial legacy
International law expert Geoff Gordon

The World Court will ultimately issue only an "advisory opinion" on the case, but opinions by the United Nations' highest court can carry significant weight in international law.

The people displaced from the Chagos Island have already lobbied to be able to return. But in 2016, Britain's foreign ministry extended Diego Garcia's lease until 2036 and declared the expelled islanders would not be allowed to return.

The people from Chagos were originally moved to nearby Mauritius and the Seychelles and effectively barred from returning. Many eventually settled in southern England.

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