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  • Archita Prawasi and Mansi Meena

Geo-politics over the Chagos Archipelago and India's position

This article has been co-authored by Archita Prawasi and Mansi Meena, second year students of NALSAR School of Law, Hyderabad.

The entire Chagos archipelago dispute between the important allies of India has been very exacting for the nation. The support forwarded by India to Mauritius is a risky stance but one that India ethically upholds. The process of decolonisation has been emphasised [1] by India since 1947. So, when India was approached by the US [2] and Mauritius to permute India’s standpoint, India took a palpable position of supporting Mauritius[3]. However, this in turn might affect the relations shared by India and the US and UK.

The Chagos Archipelago consists of a group of 7 atolls with more than 60 individual islands which form a part of Mauritius. It was first colonised by the Dutch and then by the French. In 1810, France surrendered[4] “Ile de France” to the British. They ruled over it for more than a century. In 1964, there were bilateral talks[5] between the UK and the US pertaining to the viability of Chagos as a defence base while there was an urge to decolonise worldwide. Although the UK was allied with[6] the US in opposition to the Soviet Union and other communist nations, its influence in terms of power and politics was becoming weak[7]. At this juncture, the relationship between the UK and the US impacted the lives of the Chagossians[8] in the strongest way possible. In 1965, three years prior to Mauritius’ independence, Britain detached the Chagos archipelago[9] from Mauritius to form a separate British Indian Ocean Territory[10], breaching UNGA resolution 1514 (XV)[11] of 1960, which condemned the cessation of territories before independence and urged quick independence of the colonies. Britain leased the land to the US for setting up a defence base in Diego Garcia for 50 years, forcefully expelling[12] approximately 2000 Chagossians.

Post-independence, Mauritius claimed its sovereignty[13] over the archipelago, reinforcing its claim by the resolution but the British maintained a firm grip on it. Besides, as a part of the Lancaster House Undertakings Mauritius received 3 million pounds as compensation and a promise that Chagos would be returned once UK declared that it was no longer needed for defence purposes. In 2010, UK proclaimed the area around Chagos as ‘marine protected area’[14]. This finally stimulated Mauritius to initiate legal proceedings. The Permanent Court of Arbitration declared this to be an illegal move[15] under United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The last straw gave away when the UK extended the lease[16] for another 20 years in 2016 and prohibited the resettlement of residents on grounds of defence and security. Consequently, Mauritius referred[17] the issue to the International Court of Justice.

Article 96[18] of the UN Charter provides the General Assembly with the right to request the International Court of Justice (“ICJ”) for an advisory opinion on “any legal question”. Nevertheless, UK argued[19] that the crux of this particular issue deals with a bilateral dispute between states and thus, it is not pertinent to exercise the ICJ advisory opinion mechanism in order to adjudicate when the two states have not consented[20] to the ICJ jurisdiction over the altercation. However, when the British Indian Ocean Territory was carved out, Mauritius did not have sovereignty to consent to the schism. Therefore, the contention of it being a bilateral issue seems frail[21].

The UN has passed a resolution in which 95 countries[22], including India and the African Union, have voted in favour of Mauritius while 15 countries, including Afghanistan, the US and Japan, have voted against it. India’s position on this dispute plays a very crucial role in the geopolitics across the globe. The voting ratio reflects the decrease in influence[23] of the UK post-Brexit as most of the European Union countries joined the minority and decided to cast their vote against the resolution. Diego Garcia has been the location for interrogation[24] of detainees during the ‘War Against Terror’ and the launching pad as well for long-haul air combat operations to Afghanistan. The fact that Afghanistan is politically not independent from the US constitutes a plausible reason as to why it voted against the resolution.

India and Mauritius enjoy a close diplomatic alliance. The reason for the same seems obvious. Mauritius imports most of its fuel requirements[25] from India and the former also played an active role in re-election of the Indian judge, Dalveer Bhandari[26] to the ICJ. Mauritius persuaded India to give a written statement[27] supporting it in the ICJ after it voted in favour of the resolution. It was also confirmed by Indian officials that the US had approached India[28] to support UK on the issue and influence Mauritius to withdraw from the ICJ.

India’s vote for the resolution would have disappointed the US and affected the growing defence collaboration with it, which might pave way for increased Chinese presence[29] in the Indian Ocean Territory as well as piracy threats to navigation in the Indian Ocean. While the Indian government would have wanted to avoid this step, it would have stood against the very principle of decolonisation that India supports strongly. The same was accredited by the Indian representative who asserted that this was a matter of principle to uphold the process of decolonisation[30] and the respect for sovereignty of nations. However, to secure its relations with the US, it also convinced Mauritius to extend the lease[31] for Deigo Garcia, if sovereignty is restored. It is pertinent to note that while Mauritius had put this forward before the resolution was put to vote, UK did not acknowledge the proposition.

This event, though seemingly small compared to several other international disputes, makes it clear that India is emerging as a cogent sovereign nation among the South-Asian countries, and is well on its way to enjoying considerable say in the geopolitical scenario.
































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