UK pressured Mauritius into giving up Chagos Islands, court told

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Officials from Mauritius have told United Nations judges that the UK pressured its leaders into giving up the Chagos Islands as a condition of independence.

The claim by the Indian Ocean island nation about its former colonial power could have an impact on a strategically important US military base.

Judges at the International Court of Justice began hearing arguments for an advisory opinion the UN General Assembly requested on the legality of British sovereignty over the Chagos Islands.

The largest island, Diego Garcia, has housed the US base since the 1970s.

Protesters hold a placard and banners outside the World Court in The Hague
Mauritius claims the UK illegally maintains sovereignty over the Chagos Islands (AP Photo/Mike Corder)

Mauritius argues that the Chagos archipelago was part of its territory since at least the 18th century and was taken unlawfully by the UK in 1965, three years before the island gained independence. Britain insists it has sovereignty over the archipelago, which it calls the British Indian Ocean Territory.

Mr Jugnauth said that during independence negotiations, then-British prime minister Harold Wilson told Mauritius’s leader at the time, Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, that “he and his colleagues could return to Mauritius either with independence or without it and that the best solution for all might be independence and detachment (of the Chagos Islands) by agreement.”

Mr Ramgoolam understood Mr Wilson’s words “to be in the nature of a threat”, Mr Jugnauth said.

British Solicitor General Robert Buckland described the case as essentially a bilateral dispute about sovereignty and urged the court not to issue an advisory opinion.

Mr Buckland also disputed Mauritius’s claim about coercion, citing Ramgoolam as saying after the deal that the detachment of the Chagos islands was a “matter that was negotiated”.

The UK sealed a deal with the US in 1966 to use the territory for defence purposes. The United States maintains a base there for aircraft and ships and has backed Britain in the legal dispute with Mauritius.

However, Mr Jugnauth said the base should not be affected by his country’s claim against Britain.

“Mauritius has been clear that a request for an advisory opinion is not intended to bring into question the presence of the base on Diego Garcia,” he told the UN judges.

“Mauritius recognises its existence and has repeatedly made it clear to the United States and the administering power that it accepts the future of the base.”

Representatives from about 20 nations, including the US, and from the African Union are due to speak in the case this week.

Judges are expected to take months to issue their advisory opinions on two questions: Was the process of decolonisation of Mauritius lawfully completed in 1968 and what are the consequences under international law of the UK’s continued administration, including with respect to the inability to resettle Chagos residents on the islands?

Britain evicted about 2,000 people from the Chagos archipelago in the 1960s and 1970s so the US military could build an air base on Diego Garcia. The islanders were sent to the Seychelles and Mauritius, and many eventually resettled in the UK.

The Chagossians have fought in British courts for years to return to the islands. A small group of Chagossians protested outside the court on Monday holding banners including one that read: “Chagossian sacrifice to protect the world but our reward is slow death.”

Another Chagossian, Marie Liseby Elyse, recorded a video that was shown to judges. In it, she recalled being taken by boat from her home island.

“We were like animals and slaves in that ship,” she said. “People were dying of sadness.”

Mr Buckland expressed the UK’s deep regret at the way the Chagossians were removed.

The UK “fully accepts the manner in which the Chagossians were removed from the Chagos Archipelago and the way they were treated thereafter was shameful and more,” he said.

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