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British power on trial? Mauritius’ takes UK to court over Chagos Islands

British power on trial? Mauritius’ takes UK to court over Chagos Islands
The UK claim over an archipelago in the Indian Ocean is being challenged by Mauritius in the International Court of Justice. The largest island hosts a US airbase, the construction of which saw mass deportations of the islanders.

Despite the UK’s attempts to go through official channels in the UN to block Mauritius’ claim to the Chagos Islands, the case is set to be heard in The Hague.

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Judges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) will take four days hearing testimonies from the representatives of 22 countries arguing over colonialism and the rights of the deported Chagos Islanders to return. The ICJ’s judgement will be only advisory and have no legal binding.

Of the 22 states, only the representatives of the US, Israel and Australia are expected to support Britain’s claim to sovereignty to the Islands, which they name the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) and are some 5,799 miles from London.

The US support in part stems from the strategic value of their airbase, commonly referred to as Camp Justice, which is situated on the largest of the Chagos Islands, Diego Garcia. The airbase has played a crucial role in US operations in the Middle East, including during the Iranian Revolution and both Iraq Wars.

Last year Britain suffered a heavy defeat at the UN General Assembly, when 94 nations supported a Mauritian-backed resolution to take the matter before the ICJ. Only 15 countries supported the UK’s claim.

The ICJ is set to consider both whether the decolonisation of Mauritius from the British was completed lawfully, and secondly the ability of Mauritius to resettle deported Chagossians back onto the islands.

The UK decided to separate the Chago Islands from the remainder of its Indian Ocean colony three years before Mauritius gained independence in 1968. Mauritius is claiming that Britain was in breach of a UN resolution that banned the breakup of colonies before independence.

Britain deported some 1,500 islanders in order to lease the largest island, Diego Garcia, to the US which set up an airbase there in 1971. Chagossians have never been allowed to return.

Mauritius has been promised the return of the Islands by London but only when they are no longer needed for defense purposes. No date has been set for when that is.

The hearing’s outcome is expected to be a signal of the UK’s power, or lack thereof, in the international sphere. Last November, London failed to secure the re-election of Sir Christopher Greenwood to the ICJ. Britain will now be without a judge in the court for the first time since its inception.

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A Foreign Office spokeswoman, quoted in the Guardian, said: “We are disappointed that Mauritius have taken this bilateral dispute to the international court of justice.

“This is an inappropriate use of the ICJ advisory opinion mechanism and sets a dangerous precedent for other bilateral disputes. We will robustly defend our position.

“While we do not recognise the Republic of Mauritius’s claim to sovereignty of the archipelago, we have repeatedly undertaken to cede it to Mauritius when no longer required for defence purposes, and we maintain that commitment.”

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