U.K. seeks Indian help in resolving Chagos Archipelago dispute

The British Foreign Secretary has sought Indian assistance in resolving current tensions between the U.K., the U.S. and Mauritius over the future of the U.S. military base Diego Garcia, and the Indian Ocean Chagos Archipelago, amid a warning from Mauritius last year that it would push to take the matter to the International Court of Justice.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson raised the issue with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during their meeting on Wednesday evening in New Delhi, though no assurances were given by the Indian side, London-based sources told The Hindu.

In India’s interest

The British — acting on the request of the U.S. — are hopeful that India may be able to exercise its influence with the Mauritian government to help the three sides come to some agreement, to prevent the situation from escalating. The British believe that ensuring the future of Diego Garcia would be in India’s security interest in the region too.

The Chagos Islands — referred to by the British as the British Indian Ocean Territory, but which is not recognised as such by Mauritius — is home to the U.S. military base Diego Garcia. In the 1960s and 1970s, inhabitants were removed from the islands. Tensions remain, with Mauritius maintaining that the archipelago remains its integral part.

In March 2015, a tribunal brought against the U.K. under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea found that the Marine Protected Area brought in by the U.K. around the Archipelago in 2010 (but not including Diego Garcia) was not compatible with Britain’s obligations under the convention.

“Mauritius holds legally binding rights to fish in the waters surrounding the Chagos Archipelago, to the eventual return of the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritius when no longer needed for defence purposes, and to the preservation of the benefit of any minerals or oil discovered in or near the Chagos Archipelago pending its eventual return,” the ruling on March 19, 2015 in The Hague stated.

However, in November last year, the U.K. government announced in Parliament that it had ruled out the resettlement of the islanders on the grounds of “feasibility, defence and security interests… and the cost to the British taxpayer”. It also renewed the lease for Diego Garcia, up until 2036.

In his speech in New Delhi on Wednesday, Mr. Johnson referred to Diego Garcia, describing it as “vital for our operations in the region”.

The Mauritius government reacted furiously following the November announcement. “Mauritius considers that the U.K. has acted in blatant breach of the letter and spirit of the award delivered on 18 March 2015,” it said. It added that it had “full justification” to seek UN General Assembly approval to take the matter to the International Court of Justice — a move that the U.K. government is keen to avoid.

A positive move

“This is a matter that should be discussed with the Chagossian people, not with India or any other country” said Stefan Donnelly, vice chair of the U.K. Chagos Support Association on Thursday.

While India has maintained that the matter of whether or not to proceed with the UN General Assembly move is a decision for the Mauritian government to make, the approach by the U.K. is seen by the Indian side as a positive move, signalling Britain’s eagerness to partner with India on security matters in the region. It is not the first time that Britain has raised the issue with India. Sources said that it had also been raised by former Prime Minister David Cameron.

A response from the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office was not available at the time of going to print.

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Printable version | Nov 22, 2020 3:49:27 PM |

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