Mauritius has taken the United Kingdom to court over Chagos Islands, an archipelago that forms the British Indian Ocean Territory.
Mauritius was under pressure to cede the island back in 1966 in exchange for independence, the hearing committee at the international court of justice (ICJ) was told on Monday.
The African island took the case to the ICJ to seek an advisory opinion on the sovereignty over the island in connection to the 1960 UN resolution 1514, which banned the breakup of colonies before independence. This followed a request to the United Nations by Mauritius in 2017.
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The Chagos Archipelago was part of British Colony, which included Mauritius, since 1814 when France ceded it to Britain after the fall of Napoleon. In November 1965, the UK purchased the entire archipelago from the then self-governing colony of Mauritius for £3 million and created the British Indian Ocean Territory.
Following Britain’s acquisition of the Archipelago, it leased the largest island, Diego Garcia, to America in 1966. In 1968, it evicted more than 2000 people off the island to allow for the construction of an American air base. The lease lasts until 2036, after renewal in 2016, and many people evicted from the island would never return, according to a ruling by Britain in 2016.
The ICJ Committee was able to watch a statement by an exiled Chagossian, who described the eviction in a video presented by Mauritius.
“We were like animals and slaves in that ship. People were dying of sadness,” said Marie Liseby Elysé, who was forcibly evicted from the islands in 1973.
At the hearing, Mauritius’s defence minister, Sir Anerood Jugnauth, stated:
I am the only one still alive among those who participated in the Mauritius constitutional conference at Lancaster House [in London] in 1965, where talks on the ultimate status of Mauritius were held.” [Those talks resulted in] the unlawful detachment of an integral part of our territory on the eve of our independence.
These secret meetings were not, at that time, made known to the other Mauritian representatives, myself included, although we were later told of the immense pressure that was imposed on the small group.
These claims were denied by the U.K. represented by the solicitor general, Robert Buckland, who asked the ICJ to drop the hearing as it constitutes a determination of the sovereignty of the island.
He also added that the U.K. acknowledged and regrets the terrible treatment of Chagossians and said that in 1983 both countries had signed a treaty about Mauritius’s claim on the island, which has since been recognised by the European court of human rights.
Although ICJ advisory opinion would not be binding it will set a precedent under international law.