11:00, February 25 116 0 theguardian.com

2019-02-25 11:00:07
UN court rejects UK's claim of sovereignty over Chagos Islands

The UK’s claim of sovereignty over the remote Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean has been ruled illegal by the United Nation’s highest court.

Although the majority decision by the international court of justice in The Hague is only advisory, the judges’ announcement is a further blow to Britain’s prestige on the world stage.

The case was referred to the court, which hears rival legal submissions over international boundaries, after an overwhelming vote in 2017 in the United Nations assembly in the face of fierce opposition from a largely isolated UK.

Delivering the lengthy judgment, the president of the ICJ, Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, said the detachment of the Chagos archipelago in 1965 from Mauritius had not been based on a “free and genuine expression of the people concerned”.

He added: “The UK has an obligation to bring to an end its administration of Chagos archipelago as rapidly as possible.”

The UK retained possession of the Chagos archipelago, which includes the strategic US airbase of Diego Garcia, after Mauritius gained its independence in 1968. The government refers to it as British Indian Ocean Territory or BIOT. About 1,500 native islanders were deported so that the largest island could be leased to the US for the airbase in 1971. They have never been allowed to return home.

In its submission to the ICJ last year, Mauritius argued that it was coerced into giving up a large swath of its territory, the Chagos Islands. That separation was in breach of UN resolution 1514, passed in 1960, which specifically banned the breakup of colonies before independence, lawyers for Mauritius said.

The UK government had told the court that it did not have jurisdiction to hear the case. The ruling is expected to be referred back to the UN general assembly, where it will be debated.

The assembly vote in 2017, following the Brexit referendum, showed that the UK’s international influence was on the wane, with many EU countries failing to support a fellow member state and even traditional allies such as Canada abstaining.

Judge Yusuf, who is a Somali, said the process of separating the Chagos Islands from Mauritius during decolonisation in the 1960s constituted an “unlawful detachment” and was a “wrongful act”.

The UN general assembly is now expected to deal with the question of the resettlement of the Chagos Islanders who have been expelled.

The judgment represents a defeat for the UK on virtually every point it contested in the hearing last September. The court’s recommendations are expressed in remarkably forthright terms and represent a fresh threat to the UK’s standing in the United Nations.

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”.

By a majority of 13 to 1, the court found that the decolonisation of Mauritius had not been lawfully completed and that it must be completed “as rapidly as possible”.

Mauritius’ prime minister, Pravind Kumar Jugnauth, said: “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.”

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.”

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