Chagos islands, at International Court of Justice and on to UK campaign trail

The new print edition of the American Journal of International Law includes my essay on last February’s International Court of Justice decision respecting the Chagos islands. This post describes that publication and takes note of developments since it went to press.

My essay, “International Decisions: Legal Consequences of the Separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965,” 113 AJIL 784 (2019), may be accessed at this SSRN link or at the AJIL website.

The essay outlines the ICJ advisory opinion, which is available here. It explains that the Chagos Archipelago, a group of islands located in the Indian Ocean, was considered part of Mauritius when both formed a British colony. But after Mauritius won independence in the mid-1960s, the United Kingdom kept the archipelago, naming it the British Indian Ocean Territory, then forcibly removed its inhabitants and leased it for a US military base, CNIC Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia, that is still there today. The legality and effects of these actions lay at the heart of the ICJ’s advisory proceedings, instituted following a request by the United Nations General Assembly.

The abstract elaborates:

“Decolonization and its quite valid discontents lay at the center of the recent International Court of Justice advisory opinion regarding the territory and populations of the Chagos Archipelago, located in the Indian Ocean. Answering questions posed by the UN General Assembly, the concluded that because these islands were detached from Mauritius as a condition of independence, the decolonization of Mauritius had not been completed in accordance with international law. The Court further ruled unlawful the United Kingdom’s continued administration of the Chagos Archipelago and called upon all UN member states to aid completion of the decolonization process. As detailed in this essay, the advisory opinion contained significant pronouncements on decolonization, on the right of all peoples to self-determination, and on the formation of customary rules respecting both.”

Notably, all on the ICJ bench agreed with the result except for the U.S. judge, Joan E. Donoghue, who maintained that the court ought not to have exercised its discretion to consider the issue on the merits.

Since 2017, for the 1st time in the court’s history, there has been no ICJ judge from the United Kingdom. As my essay indicates, UK officials spoke out against the court’s advisory opinion, framing it as a bilateral dispute over sovereignty, and stating that Britain would not “cede sovereignty to Mauritius” until Britain determined the archipelago “is no longer required for defence purposes.”

After the essay went to press, the United Kingdom reiterated that position in a 30 September 2019 letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, requesting that it be circulated to the General Assembly.

Two weeks earlier, Pope Francis had weighed in, on behalf of the Chagossians. In his words:

“Not all things that are right for humanity are right for our pocket, but international institutions must be obeyed.”

Maintaining the current British policy is the Tory government led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Its policy stands in contrast with that of Labour, the Tories’ principal rival; as the Guardian reported on Friday:

“Jeremy Corbyn has pledged to renounce British sovereignty of the remote Chagos Islands and respect a UN vote calling for the archipelago to be handed back to Mauritius.”

In short, the immediate fate of the islands may depend – not unlike Brexit – on the Britain’s next general election, set for 12 December.

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