Diego Garcia Current Affairs - 2019

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UNGA resolution demands UK withdrawal from Chagos Archipelago

The United Nation General Assembly (UNGA) passed a non-binding resolution asking United Kingdom (UK) to return Chagos Archipelago in Indian Ocean to Mauritius.

Key Highlights

  • Background: On February 2019 International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued an advisory opinion on the legal consequences of separation of Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965 when latter was a British colony. It also ruled the UK’s decolonisation of the Indian Ocean islands was unlawful. This advisory opinion was endorsed by UNGA.
  • About: The UNGA condemned the Britain’s occupation of Mauritius’s remote Chagos Islands in Indian Ocean and passed a resolution demanding Britain to withdraw its administration of the Chagos Islands. The 193-member world body passed resolution with 116-6 in favour (with 56 abstentions). The vote supported a motion which set a six-month deadline for Britain to withdraw from Chagos island chain and for islands to be reunified with neighbouring Mauritius.
  • Issue:
  • Chagos Archipelago, a group of seven atolls comprises of more than 60 islands in Indian Ocean. It is located about 500 km south of Maldives. Since 18th century when the French first settled in islands, it had been part of Mauritius only. In 1801, all of the islands of French colonial territory in region were ceded to British.
  • As per ICJ, in 1965 Britain unlawfully carved up Mauritius (when it was a British colony) which Chagos Archipelago was a part of. Thus even after Mauritius gained its independence from Britain in 1968 UK retained its sovereignty over islands to form British Indian Ocean Territory. UK then forcibly removed entire population of Chagos islands from territory between 1967 and 1973, and also prevented them from returning.
  • Since then islands have been known by Foreign Office as British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), and being used for defence purposes by UK and United States. The US also established a military base on island of Diego Garcia which is largest of all islands.
  • Thus, Mauritius claims its sovereignty over islands and argues that British claim is in violation of law and of UN resolutions that bans dismemberment of colonial territories before independence.
  • ICJ verdict: In February 2019 International Court of Justice (ICJ), which is the principal judicial body of UN and highest international legal authority, upheld that UK Government is under an obligation to end its administration over Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible. ICJ also advised that all its member states are under an obligation to cooperate with UN in order to complete decolonisation of Mauritius.
  • UNGA Resolution: It reaffirmed advisory opinion of ICJ and held that Chagos Archipelago forms an integral part of territory of Mauritius. It demanded UK to withdraw its colonial administration from Chagos Archipelago unconditionally within a period of six months and to also support Mauritius in its quest for restoration of sovereignty over island chain.
  • Significance: Although the resolution is not legally-binding, but it still carries significant political weight as the ruling came from UN’s highest court and assembly votes also reflected world opinion.

India’s Stand

  • India was among 116 nations who voted in favour of resolution.
  • India supported draft resolution, submitted by Senegal on behalf of members of Group of African States and voted in favour of it, as Mauritius is a fellow developing nation from Africa, with which India shares age-old people-to-people bonds.
  • India for long has been supporter of all peoples striving for decolonization and has consistently supported Mauritius since beginning its quest for restoration of its sovereignty over Chagos Archipelago.
  • India urged all concerned nations to reach a mutually agreeable understanding as soon as possible.

ICJ advises Britain to return Diego Garcia to Mauritius

International Court of Justice (ICJ) has advised the UK to return the Diego Garcia (Chagos Islands) to Mauritius as rapidly as possible. The ICJ has said that Britain must give Mauritius control of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean. The advisory has been issued by the ICJ on the request of the resolution passed by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to look into the issue.

Observations made by ICJ

  • In a majority opinion the court noted that the decolonisation of Mauritius was not lawfully complete when it attained independence because Britain carved away the Chagos Archipelago from it and retained control over it.
  • Britain is under an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible.

Why the Chagos Islands had become the bone of contention?

  • Mauritius was the colony of erstwhile of British Empire. With the calls of decolonisation grew stronger, the British granted independence to the Island nation Mauritius.
  • But the British cut off the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965 before granting it independence in 1968.
  • Also, the residents of the Chagos Archipelago were forcibly removed and the Chagos Archipelago was handed over to the US.
  • The US established its strategic Indian Ocean military base at the Chagos Archipelago.

Both the UK and the US had vehemently opposed the UN resolution which referred the matter to ICJ saying it was a bilateral matter with Mauritius. UK is not represented in the ICJ Bench and the sole dissent judgement was by the American Judge. Hence it is unlikely that the UK would accept the advisory. The possibility of any challenge to the US Diego Garcia base from Mauritius is also unlikely. Hence by and large status quo would be maintained.