By Arushi Sharma
As the January 30 deadline approaches, India has yet to take a side on the Chagos archipelago issue by submitting a written statement before the International Court of Justice (ICJ).
The Chagos archipelago is a disputed territory between the United Kingdom and Mauritius, comprising seven atolls of more than 60 islands in the Indian Ocean. On 22 June 2017, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) had adopted a resolution seeking the ICJís advisory opinion on the legality of UKís possession of the island group.
The long-standing dispute
The Chagos archipelago was detached from Mauritius by the UK in 1965 three years ahead of the Mauritian independence. Thereafter, the UK continued to retain control over the archipelago, which is also referred to as British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). This was followed by forced evacuation of approximately 2,000 Chagossians in order to lease the atoll of Diego Garcia to the United States for defence purposes.
Over the years, due to the absence of any progress with the UK, Mauritius has taken steps to internationalise the matter of Chagosís decolonisation by approaching various legal and political forums. In 2015, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration criticised Britain for violating the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea by exercising control over the Chagos island group. In June 2017, Britain was defeated in the UN vote on the issue with 94 nations favouring Mauritius. The resolution sought the legal opinion of the ICJ, which then gave some time to the interested UN members to furnish relevant information by January 30, 2018.
The UK, the US, and Mauritius are slated to submit their written statements to the ICJ before the said deadline along with any other parties, who are willing to make their position known. As reported by The Wire, Mauritius is pushing India to make a written submission as well. Notably, India had sided with Mauritius during the UNGA vote in 2017.
India: A key Mauritian ally
The Indian Ocean nation of Mauritius imports all of its fuel requirements from India. India and Mauritius have also become close diplomatic allies over the years, a recent instance being the active role played by the latter in re-electing Indian judge Dalveer Bhandari to the ICJ.
With regards to the Chagos dispute, India has so far remained on the supporting side of Mauritius. Indiaís permanent representative to the UN, Syed Akbaruddin, had reinstated this position at the UNGA, calling for a complete eradication of colonialism. ďThe process of decolonisation, that began with our own independence, still†remains unfinished†seven decades later,Ē he had emphasised.
Mauritiusís case rests on the legality of the agreement between Britain and Mauritius as it was made prior to Mauritian independence. Since Mauritius did not have legal competence as a state to consent to the Chagossian separation, it canít qualify as a bilateral agreement. Moreover, the depopulated Chagossians, who were made to resettle in Mauritius and Seychelles, wish to return.
If India decides to submit its written stance before the ICJ, its favourable policy position toward Mauritius will consolidate further. However, it has to consider the British and American standpoints as well.
Fear of disappointing the US
In 2016, the UK renewed the American lease over Diego Garcia for 20 more years. The US has previously used the military base site as a launch pad for air combat operations to Afghanistan and as an interrogation centre during the war on terror. Interestingly, at the time of the 2017 UN vote, Britain agreed to cede the territory when no longer needed for defence purposes; however, it did not provide a timeline for the same. The US chose to side with Britain despite Mauritiusís assurance on the lease renewal.
By submitting a written statement in favour of Mauritius, India might run the risk of disappointing Washington. A decreased American visibility could pave the way for increased Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean Territory. Therefore, India will have to take a final decision on the basis of two competing concerns: Its principles and respect for the sovereignty of nations versus collaborating with the US and Britain on matters of security.
After receiving written submissions by the upcoming deadline, the ICJ will consider the resolution on the basis of legality and Mauritiusís ability to rehabilitate the displaced islanders in Chagos. The world courtís opinions are non-binding on the parties but carry a great degree of legal influence and moral authority.
Featured Image Source: Visual Hunt
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