Time for UK to Leave Chagos Archipelago

By Milan Meetarbhan

Mauritius is a beautiful island nation in the middle of the Indian Ocean, 540 miles east of Madagascar and a thousand miles south of India. But it is much more than that. It also includes seven atolls consisting of more than 60 tropical islands known as the Chagos Archipelago.

Chagos has been part of Mauritius since the 18th century when the French first settled the islands. All of the islands forming part of the French colonial territory of Isle France (as Mauritius was then known) were ceded to the British in1810 under the Act of Capitulation signed between the two powers.

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But when Mauritius became independent in 1968 the United Kingdom excised the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius and leased Diego Garcia, the main island of the archipelago, to the U.S. After initially denying that the islands were inhabited, British officials forcibly expelled approximately 2,000 Mauritians living in Chagos to mainland Mauritius to make way for American military installations.

The detachment of the Chagos was a clear violation of international law. United Nations' resolutions banned the dismemberment of colonial territories before independence.

The UK sought to establish the so-called British Indian Ocean Territory over the Chagos Archipelago.

Americans might know something about the BIOT, because Britain has since 1966 "allowed" the U.S. to use Diego Garcia as a military base under a 50-year lease.

Now it's time for all Americans to hear about Diego Garcia and the unlawful claim of sovereignty by Britain over the Chagos chain. Negotiations should soon begin between Britain and the U.S. about the arrangement that permits the Americans to use Diego Garcia: the current lease expires in 2016 and comes up for renewal in 2014.

The time is now for Britain - and the U.S. - to recognize that Chagos is part of Mauritius.

Mauritius, which has a population of nearly 1.3 million, has repeatedly asserted that the British claim that the Chagos Archipelago is one of its territories is a violation of law and of UN resolutions.

The UK has stated that it has no doubt about its sovereignty over the Chagos but has also said that the Chagos will be returned to Mauritius once the islands are no longer required for defense purposes.

On and off throughout the years, the UK and Mauritius have informally discussed the Chagos situation.

Mauritius announced that it would leave the Commonwealth if necessary so that it could take the Chagos issue before the International Court of Justice. But the UK immediately amended its declaration relating to the jurisdiction of the Court so that the Court would not have mandatory jurisdiction if a case was brought against it by Mauritius.

In 2010, Britain claimed that it declared a Marine Protected Area around the so-called BIOT. Mauritius has opposed that declaration and has initiated proceedings against the UK under Annex 7 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Given the absence of any progress with the UK, Mauritius has decided to "internationalize" the dispute and will take up the matter at all appropriate legal and political forums. The African Union and the Non-Aligned Movement have expressed unanimous support for Mauritius on the Chagos issue.

The 2014 timeline for renewal of the lease is an opportunity to do what is right and legal.

All parties concerned now have a window to put an end to the controversy and accept a friendly settlement that would enable Mauritius to assert its sovereignty over the islands and other parties to maintain their strategic interests.

It's time for Britain, with the backing of the United States, to sit down and negotiate seriously with the government of Mauritius. Washington has no interest in having protracted challenges lodged against the legality of the territory on which it maintains a vital military facility. By accepting Mauritian sovereignty over the Chagos, the UK will not prejudice its position with respect to other colonial territories, as the Chagos is a standalone case. This will also be without prejudice to the "defense purposes" for which Britain claims that it holds on to the islands.

Mauritius wants to talk about the future and doesn't wish to look back. Hopefully, the U.S. will do the right thing and help to bring this matter to a close before 2014.

Milan Meetarbhan is the ambassador of the Republic of Mauritius to the United Nations.

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