Chagos Archipelago Sovereignty Dispute in News

IAS Prelims 2023

Sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago is disputed between Mauritius and the United Kingdom. Mauritius has repeatedly asserted that the Chagos Archipelago is part of its territory and that the United Kingdom (UK) claim is a violation of United Nations resolutions banning the dismemberment of colonial territories before independence.

The UK has stated that it has no doubt about its sovereignty over the Chagos, and has also said that the Chagos will be returned to Mauritius once the islands are no longer required for defence purposes.

Given the absence of any progress with the UK, Mauritius has decided to “internationalise” the dispute and take up the matter at all appropriate legal and political forums.

The African Union and the Non-Aligned Movement have expressed unanimous support for Mauritius on the Chagos issue.

The Chagos Islands — referred to by the British as the British Indian Ocean Territory, but which is not recognised as such by Mauritius — is home to the U.S. military base Diego Garcia.

In the 1960s and 1970s, inhabitants were removed from the islands. Tensions remain, with Mauritius maintaining that the archipelago remains its integral part.

In March 2015, a tribunal brought against the U.K. under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea found that the Marine Protected Area brought in by the U.K. around the Archipelago in 2010 (but not including Diego Garcia) was not compatible with Britain’s obligations under the convention.

“Mauritius holds legally binding rights to fish in the waters surrounding the Chagos Archipelago, to the eventual return of the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritius when no longer needed for defence purposes, and to the preservation of the benefit of any minerals or oil discovered in or near the Chagos Archipelago pending its eventual return,” the ruling on March 19, 2015 in The Hague stated.

However, in November 2016, the U.K. government announced in Parliament that it had ruled out the resettlement of the islanders on the grounds of “feasibility, defence and security interests and the cost to the British taxpayer”. It also renewed the lease for Diego Garcia, up until 2036.

The Mauritius government reacted furiously following the November announcement. “Mauritius considers that the U.K. has acted in blatant breach of the letter and spirit of the award delivered on 18 March 2015,” it said. It added that it had “full justification” to seek UN General Assembly approval to take the matter to the International Court of Justice — a move that the U.K. government is keen to avoid.

Latest Developments and Indian Angle:

The British Foreign Secretary has sought Indian assistance in resolving current tensions between the U.K., the U.S. and Mauritius over the future of the U.S. military base Diego Garcia, and the Indian Ocean Chagos Archipelago, amid a warning from Mauritius last year that it would push to take the matter to the International Court of Justice.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson raised the issue with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their meeting in New Delhi, though no assurances were given by the Indian side.

The British — acting on the request of the U.S. — are hopeful that India may be able to exercise its influence with the Mauritian government to help the three sides come to some agreement, to prevent the situation from escalating. The British believe that ensuring the future of Diego Garcia would be in India’s security interest in the region too.

India’s Stand on the issue:

While India has maintained that the matter of whether or not to proceed with the UN General Assembly move is a decision for the Mauritian government to make, the approach by the U.K. is seen by the Indian side as a positive move, signalling Britain’s eagerness to partner with India on security matters in the region.

It is not the first time that Britain has raised the issue with India. It had also been raised by former Prime Minister David Cameron.