Chagos Islands: UK refusal to hand back archipelago disregards international law and echoes era of colonialism
A nation’s military and geo-strategic interests cannot, under international law, prevail over the sovereign rights of other states. State sovereignty, self-determination, and decolonization are fundamental legal principles the UK should honor as it refuses, despite widespread international condemnation, to hand back control of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean.
Indeed, Britain’s expressed policy that it will protect its interests at any cost, even at the expense of international law and fundamental human rights, has unwelcome echoes of colonialism and discrimination that should have no place in the 21st century.
On May 22, a UN General Assembly resolution calling for the complete decolonization of Mauritius by ending the UK’s administration over the islands was voted for by 116 nations. Only six – the US, Hungary, Israel, Australia, the Maldives, and the UK – voted against it, with 56 abstaining.
The UK has exercised control and authority over the Chagos islands – which include Diego Garcia, now the site of a key US/UK military base – since 1965 when it separated them from Mauritius, named them British Indian Ocean Territory, and evicted their 1,500 inhabitants. The UN resolution is a clear indication that the international community believes this controversial takeover should now be undone. And yet the UK’s permanent representative to the UN, Karen Pierce, maintained after the vote that “the United Kingdom does not doubt our sovereignty over British Indian Ocean Territory.”
The strategic military significance of the Chagos Archipelago arose out of the Cold War when the US sought, through an agreement with the UK government in 1966, to establish a presence in the Indian Ocean. Today, it is often used for counter-terrorist operations, which have caused controversy.
There are several legal points that must be raised in response to the UK’s selective application of international law, including the principle of self-determination of peoples and the prohibition of forcible displacement, which is today punished as a crime against humanity. First, the UK maintains that:
In this important part of the world, the joint United Kingdom and United States defense facility on the British Indian Ocean Territory plays a vital role in our efforts to keep our allies and friends, including Mauritius, in the region, and beyond, safe and secure.
What the UK overlooks, however, is that it has received no authorization or mandate under international law to act as the world’s guardian of peace and security. Rather, such primary responsibility is entrusted to the UN Security Council through Article 24 of the United Nations Charter, which the UK was the main architect of.
Significantly, the principle of state equality, which dictates that all states are equal and no state is more equal than another, also prevents any state from acting like an “international policeman.” While there is no doubt that states, individually and collectively, must respond effectively to the serious threat of international terrorism, this must be done by international law.
Second, the UK insists that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) exceeded its jurisdiction when it ruled in February 2019 that the General Assembly should provide an advisory opinion on the issue. The UK argued that by doing so, the court breached the principle of state consent, as the dispute between Mauritius and the UK over the Chagos Islands is a bilateral one.
But the ICJ overwhelmingly concluded that this did not circumvent the UK’s consent, as the issue brought before it was not confined to a bilateral territorial dispute. Instead, it found that the issue fell within the General Assembly’s power under the UN Charter to oversee the fulfillment of self-determination in the colonial context.