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The dispute between Britain and Mauritius over Chagos islands

Topics Covered:

  1. Effect of policies and politics of developed and developing countries on India’s interests, Indian diaspora.


The dispute between Britain and Mauritius over Chagos islands


What to study?

For prelims: location of chagos islands, countries involved in the dispute.

For mains: what is the controversy all about, ICJ observations and the need of hour.


Context: Mauritius called the UK an “illegal colonial occupier”, after it ignored a UN mandated deadline to return the Chagos Islands, a small archipelago in the Indian Ocean, to Mauritius.



The United Nations had given UK six months to process the transfer, a move the UK and the US have bitterly resisted.


What’s the issue?

Britain detached the Chagos Islands from Mauritius in 1965, three years before Mauritian independence.

  1. From 1967 to 1973, some 1,500 Chagos islanders were gradually forced to leave their homes so that the largest island, Diego Garcia, could be leased to the US for a strategic airbase. Today, Diego Garcia hosts a major US military base.
  2. In 2016, after several judicial challenges, Britain extended Diego Garcia’s lease until 2036 and declared that the expelled islanders would not be allowed to go back.
  3. In 2017, Mauritius successfully petitioned the United Nations to seek an ICJ advisory opinion on the legality of the separation.
  4. Mauritius claims it was forced to give up the islands – now a British overseas territory – in 1965 in exchange for independence, which it gained in 1968.


What the ICJ said?

The UK should end its control of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean as rapidly as possible. The islands are not lawfully separated from the former colony of Mauritius.

Arguments by Mauritius:

Britain has illegally occupied this region and only Mauritius has sovereignty over the archipelago.


Against the right of self-determination:

The separation of the islands from Mauritius was in clear breach of UN resolution 1514, also known as the Colonial Declaration. Passed in 1960, it enshrined the right of self-determination for colonial peoples and specifically banned the breakup of colonies prior to independence. This was intended to keep borders stable, and to prevent colonial powers from simply absorbing colonial territory into their overseas territory so as to retain their sovereignty.

Yet in spite of this resolution, a number of states (including France and the UK) kept possession of parts of their former colonies following the decolonisation process.


What happens now after UK missed the UN deadline to return Chagos Islands?

The UK is slowly finding itself more diplomatically isolated after its failures at the UN General Assembly concerning Chagos Islands. The shambles that is Brexit has also alienated the UK to a certain degree in terms of its relations with other EU members.

For now, the UK might possibly be searching for reassurance in the fact that the ICJ ruling is not binding and no immediate sanctions or adverse actions will be taken against it.

The next step at the UN General Assembly in 2020 would be the question of resettlement of and potential compensation for the displaced Chagos Islanders who faced homelessness, poverty and associated hardships after being forcefully removed from their homeland by the UK and the US.


Sources: the Hindu.