The overwhelming global support for the United Nation’s 2019 Chagos International Court of Justice (I.C.J.)Opinion and General Assembly Resolution was a remarkable success for modern-day decolonization. However, real-world implementation of the decisions will be incredibly complicated, perhaps even to the extent that full decolonization of Chagos becomes impracticable and/or illegal. Resolving the U.K./Mauritius legal sovereignty dispute over the Chagos archipelago was only the tip of the iceberg.
Implementation of decolonization will require at least five critical steps. First, the Chagossians still require legal and practical support to resettle the islands. Second, Mauritius needs to come to an agreement with the U.S. regarding the future of the Diego Garcia military base. Third, that agreement and Mauritian state responsibility for the base will need to address ongoing violations of numerous anti-nuclear, anti-arms, and human rights treaties. Fourth, Mauritius will need to ensure a military presence adequate to maintain a deterrent effect against nearby aggressors, which may require keeping some weapons on-site, and in which case Mauritius will need to seek amendments to or withdrawals from some of its current treaties. Finally, and perhaps most critically, Mauritius needs to address global climate change impacts, because if it does not, in a matter of decades the islands will be uninhabitable or even fully submerged, leaving the previous four points irrelevant.
The Chagos islands are an African archipelago that cover 1,950 square kilometers, with Diego Garcia as its largest island. Colonial occupation of Chagos by the U.K. started in 1814 when it was administered as a dependency of Mauritius (another British colony).
Sixty years ago, the United Nations passed the Declaration on Decolonization, committing to the swift end of colonization and declaring that all people have the right to self-determination. In 1946, Mauritius was listed as a non-self-governing territory under Article 73(e) of the Charter of the United Nations.
The General Assembly(G.A.) passed Resolution2066 (XX) in 1965 calling for the U.K. to immediately and fully decolonize Mauritius. In September 1965, the U.K. and Mauritian governments entered into an agreement allowing for the detachment of Chagos before the remainder of Mauritius gained independence. Mauritius was forced into the agreement despite its protests, with U.K. Prime Minister Harold Wilson threatening the Mauritian Prime Minister: “[I]f you don’t agree to what I am proposing [about Chagos] then forget about [your] independence.”Following the coerced agreement, the U.K. created the British Indian Ocean Territory (B.I.O.T.),which included Chagos and preserved it as a British colony.
In 1966, the U.S. and the U.K. concluded an international agreement allowing the U.S.to use Diego Garcia as a military base. Per the U.S.’ request, the agreement provided for the “resettling [of] any inhabitants,” who were the Chagossians, thousands of descendants of people forcibly transported from Mozambique and Madagascar in the early 1800s and enslaved to work on the islands’ coconut plantations. The U.K. forcibly removedthe population, though the displaced Chagossians continue to protest, and the U.K. later apologized for the “shameful and wrong[ful] forcible removal.”
In 1967, the G.A. passed Resolution 2357 (XXII) expressing “[deep] concern[s]” about “disruption of the territorial integrity” and the “creation … of military bases” on several of the non-self-governing territories, including Mauritius (and its dependency, Chagos). The resolution reiterated that these actions are incompatible with the purposes and principles of decolonization.
In June 2017,theG.A.requested an Advisory Opinion from the I.C.J. regarding the sovereignty of Chagos. The request asked two questions. First, was the decolonization of Mauritius completed when it gained independence in 1968, after the excision of the Chagos archipelago? And second, if not, what legal consequences flow from the U.K.’s continued administration of the archipelago?
The I.C.J. judges relied almost exclusively on customary international law in their opinion and their opinion was the first time the Court recognized the rights to self-determination and territorial integrity under customary international law. The I.C.J. found that state practice and opinio juris requirements were met in 1960, and thus the new customary international law crystallized that year making the dismemberment of Chagos from Mauritius a violation of international law. The court reiterated the same concerns noted in the G.A.’s 1967 resolution.
Then, in May2019, the G.A. adopted Resolution 73/295 which incorporated the Chagos Advisory Opinion and took steps to effectuate it. Only six states voted against it. The resolution requests that the U.N. and other international organizations support the decolonization of Mauritius and prohibit aiding any claim of sovereignty by the U.K. over the B.I.O.T.
Next, Mauritius took a separate maritime dispute about overlapping economic zones to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). Mauritius’ neighbor, the Maldives, refused to negotiate with Mauritius about the dispute, citing an “ongoing” sovereignty dispute with the U.K. even after the U.N. opinion and resolution.
In January 2021, ITLOS, under the authority of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), issued a preliminary decision on the economic zone dispute, that the case could proceed because the I.C.J. Opinion had “legal effect and clear implications for the legal status of the Chagos Archipelago,” and was “authoritative.” The tribunal found Opinions do have legal effect in situations like that of the Chagos sovereignty dispute.
Next, Mauritius is lobbying the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (I.O.T.C.). Following the Chagos Opinion, Mauritius requested to expel the U.K. from the I.O.T.C., as membership is only for states with coastlines along the Indian Ocean Region (I.O.R.). The ITLOS decision strengthened the Mauritian case with the I.O.T.C. because tribunal was established under the same convention as the commission, and the U.K. is also a member state to that convention. One would think the I.O.T.C would approve Mauritius’ request, however because diplomatic relations with a global superpower are at stake, it is challenging to predict how the Commission will proceed.
Obstacles to Effective Implementation
The U.K. Needs to Accept the Legal Decisions.
The U.K. and U.S. responses were standard for any imperial powers: they rejected the nearly unanimous U.N. resolution, committed to maintain the status quo of exploitation and imperialism, made threats against those who questioned their authority, and boasted their superior military power as the determining factor in territorial possession. The U.K. historically said it will hand Chagos over to Mauritius when it is “no longer needed for defense purposes, ”but it has become clear the U.K. does not see that situation occurring anytime soon.
Regardless, the global community nearly unanimously agreed that the U.K. is well overdue to decolonize Chagos. This is now reflected in binding international law. However, the U.K.’s stubbornness is merely one of several problems that Mauritius faces in the decolonization of Chagos.
Chagossians Resettlement and Reparations.
Once the U.K. finally concedes, the real-world implementation of decolonization will be extremely complicated. First, there is the question of the fate of the Chagossians. The Chagossians have expressed concerns that recent developments will not actually allow for resettlement. The Chagos Opinion and Resolution said nothing of specific resettlement plans. The Chagossians who went to the I.C.J. to view the proceedings were even denied entry to the Court. Further, Mauritius’ claim to the Chagos archipelago was based on its own interests, not the Chagossians. Mauritius’ legal achievement increased the size of the state dramatically, including new ownership of the largest undamaged coral reef in the world as well as a sea-floor rich in minerals. The Chagossian people do seem to be an afterthought in these conversations, with the primary interest in the U.K./Mauritius dispute being the land and economic zone.
The Fate of Diego Garcia and its Nuclear Weapons.
In 2020, Mauritius offered the U.S. a 99-year lease of Diego Garcia with resettled Chagossians kept at least 100 miles away from the base. However, the U.S. declined. In 2016, the 50-year period covered by the U.K. and U.S. in the 1966 Agreement came to an end but was extended for a period of an additional twenty years until 2036.
If the circumstances of the proposed Mauritian/U.S. lease sound oddly familiar, it should, as the U.S. has leased the 45 square mile Guantánamo Bay military base since 1898, with Cuba retaining ultimate sovereignty. Cubans are not allowed on the base, and the Castro government declared the U.S. presence an “illegal occupation” of its territory. The U.S.’ experience with Guantánamo Bay has been very problematic and may dissuade the U.S. from attempting to replicate the situation in Africa, especially considering the billions of dollars the U.S. has already invested in Diego Garcia.
Following the U.N. decisions, Mauritius is now in the position to decide whether to allow the continued use of Diego Garcia as a military base, and if so, to charge the U.S. for use. Hosting the base would allow Mauritius to increase its military strength, limit its dependence on India, and avoid the complexity of trying to evict the U.S. – all of which likely factored into Mauritius’ decision to allow the U.S. to remain.
Even if the U.S. agrees to sign a new lease with Mauritius, Mauritius will be faced with additional legal complexities regarding illegal arms and violations of human rights. The U.S. stores weapons in their ships anchored in the huge 125 square kilometer lagoon, including: anti-personnel landmines, cluster bombs, nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, and a large quantity of nuclear materials, vehicles, and weapons. The U.S. and U.K. claimed that storing the weapons on U.S. ships gives the weapons “state immunity,” a unilateral interpretation contested by the International Committee for the Red Cross. This leaves Diego Garcia a “prime arms control loophole,” with its legitimacy only supported by the muscle of the superpowers who currently occupy it, not the law.
Continuing to lease Diego Garcia to the U.S. under current conditions would violate Mauritius’ obligations under the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (“Pelindaba”) Treaty. Under the treaty’s terms, Mauritius cannot allow the stationing of any nuclear weapons in its territory. It would also conflict with the General Assembly’s 1971Resolution2832 (XXVI), stating that the I.O.R. should be a “zone of peace” with no military bases or weapons.
Further, Mauritius may face human rights charges if the U.S. continues to use Diego Garcia asa “black site” for interrogations, detentions, and torture. The B.I.O.T. is referred to as a “human rights black hole” as the U.K. government refused to extend numerous human rights agreements to the territory. Human rights investigators and journalists have been barred from visiting the island despite the C.I.A.’s denial of torture allegations.
Security Risks in the Indian Ocean Region
During U.N. debate, U.K. fiercely argued only it can ensure security in the I.O.R. Mauritius’ attorney on Chagos summarized the U.K. argument in saying, “much of the General Assembly listened [to the U.K.’s arguments] in rapt embarrassment, unwilling to buy arguments of a kind you might find in a 1930s textbook on colonialism and diplomatic practice.”However, it is not that simple. While the U.K. might not be the only power able to ensure the security of the I.O.R., security risks to the area do need to be addressed and monitored. Freedom of navigation in the I.O.R. is at risk with any de-stabilization of the area. Other states with Indian Ocean coasts are supportive of the continuing presence of the U.S. base, desiring to keep Chinese naval power at bay. Despite the U.S.’ presence on Diego Garcia conjuring up images of a nuclearized Rambo sequel, it does apparently serve important values in the current political landscape.
The U.S. said a primary objective for Diego Garcia is to maintain the power balance in the I.O.R., enforced by the presence of naval units which “preserve necessary deterrence.”Indeed, it’s been often said, “whoever controls the Indian Ocean controls Asia. The ocean is the key to the seven seas.”The I.O.R. also faces numerous ongoing maritime security threats, including piracy, armed robbery, human smuggling, drug smuggling, illegal fishing, and terrorism.
China also has nuclear weapons, as one of the five states allowed to maintain them under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. However, the threats from China are even more complex, with their “String of Pearls” militarization of the I.O.R., concerning use of nuclear submarines and drones in the I.O.R., and aggressive actions in the nearby China Seas.
This leaves Mauritius in a difficult position. If Mauritius tries to expel the U.S. completely from Diego Garcia, it could wreak havoc on the stability and security of the I.O.R., impacting nearby countries’ maritime rights. However, if Mauritius allows the U.S. to continue administering the military base, Mauritius will need to make some tough decisions regarding the U.S.’ nuclear weapons and materials stored in the harbor. One option is to persuade the U.S. to remove the nukes voluntarily. A second option is to lobby the African states to amend the Pelindaba treaty. The final option is that Mauritius can withdraw from the Pelindaba treaty. If Mauritius does persuade the U.S. to remove all nuclear materials from the Indian Ocean, the majority of the assumed deterrence power of the base is gone. That new gap may allow for China, India, and other power-hungry states to expand their footholds and encroach further into the I.O.R. Mauritius would need to prepare for this as a possibility.
The removal of cluster-bombs and anti-personnel landmines from Diego Garcia would not create as significant of an impact to security in the region, however it would still require Mauritius to persuade the U.S. to do so. We all know that telling the U.S. to do something it does not want to do rarely goes well. Further, the same diplomacy obstacle will be faced in ensuring Diego Garcia is not used for future torture and other human rights violations.
Mauritius Needs a Plan to adapt to Global Climate Change.
All of this will be for nothing though, if Mauritius does not create a plan and secure resourcing to protect Chagos from the effects of global climate change. Scientists expect Chagos, along with other low-altitude islands in the Indian Ocean, to experience the most severe sea level rise.
The entirety of Diego Garcia is at risk from the devastating effects of global climate change. In 2007, a U.S. blue ribbon military advisory panel found Diego Garcia at risk of submersion due to low land elevation at only 1.3 meters and rising seas. The U.S. may need to close the base, perhaps in a matter of decades.
Two outer atolls were studied for resettlement in 2002, with 35 islands averaging two meters elevation. Climate change is expected to at least cause an increase in cyclones, flooding, and coastal erosion, coral bleaching, and freshwater salinity on the islands. Scientists found short-term resettlement feasible, though long-term maintenance prohibitively expensive.
Whatever Mauritius decides regarding the other issues, it will also need to incorporate climate change adaptation plans. Instead, it could also start with a more robust climate change study to assess whether all the above trouble is actually needed or if the islands are destined to soon be underwater and should be treated as such.
Following the overwhelming support of the 2019 U.N. decisions, it appears there is no longer a significant, global pro-colonial force. There is no longer reverence for old world superpowers refusing to acknowledge they are now in a new world. The Chagos decision is hopefully a sign of more decolonization to come.
However, the actual implementation of the decision will be long and arduous. There are many complex decisions to make, which will require continued partnerships and support from the global community. Further, some of the major risks provoke questions as to whether resettlement should actually even be attempted.
Self-determination does not necessarily mean returning to the status quo – it is the power to decide what to do next. The symbolism of that is already evident by Chagos’ impact to the global consciousness and conscience over the last few years.