The British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) is a British overseas territory of the United Kingdom situated in the Indian Ocean halfway between Tanzania and Indonesia. Mauritius wants control over what the Indian Ocean Island Nation call “illegal” territory.
The British territory comprises the seven atolls of the Chagos Archipelago with over 1,000 individual islands – many very small – amounting to a total land area of 60 square kilometers (23 sq mi). The largest and most southerly island is Diego Garcia and is hosting a joint military facility of the United Kingdom and the United States.
Judges at the International Court of Justice began hearing arguments for an advisory opinion the U.N. General Assembly requested on the legality of British sovereignty over the Chagos Islands. The largest island, Diego Garcia, has housed the U.S. base since the 1970s.
Officials from the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius told United Nations judges that former colonial power Britain strong-armed its leaders half a century ago into giving up territory as a condition of independence, a claim that could have an impact on a strategically important U.S. military base.
“The process of decolonization of Mauritius remains incomplete as a result of the unlawful detachment of an integral part of our territory on the eve of our independence,” Mauritius Defense Minister Anerood Jugnauth told judges.
Mauritius argues that the Chagos archipelago was part of its territory since at least the 18th century and taken unlawfully by the U.K. in 1965, three years before the island gained independence. Britain insists it has sovereignty over the archipelago, which it calls British Indian Ocean Territory.
Jugnauth testified that during independence negotiations, then-British Prime Minister Harold Wilson told Mauritius’ leader at the time, Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, that “he and his colleagues could return to Mauritius either with independence or without it and that the best solution for all might be independence and detachment (of the Chagos Islands) by agreement.”
Ramgoolam understood Wilson’s words “to be in the nature of a threat,” Jugnauth said.
British Solicitor General Robert Buckland described the case as essentially a bilateral dispute about sovereignty and urged the court not to issue an advisory opinion.
Buckland also disputed Mauritius’ claim about coercion, citing Ramgoolam as saying after the deal that the detachment of the Chagos islands was a “matter that was negotiated.”
The U.K. sealed a deal with the U.S. in 1966 to use the territory for defense purposes. The United States maintains a base there for aircraft and ships and has backed Britain in the legal dispute with Mauritius.
However, Jugnauth said the base shouldn’t be affected by his country’s claim against Britain.
“Mauritius has been clear that a request for an advisory opinion is not intended to bring into question the presence of the base on Diego Garcia,” he told the U.N. judges. “Mauritius recognizes its existence and has repeatedly made it clear to the United States and the administering power that it accepts the future of the base.”
Representatives from about 20 nations, including the U.S., and from the African Union are due to speak in the case.
Judges are expected to take months to issue their advisory opinions on two questions: Was the process of decolonization of Mauritius lawfully completed in 1968 and what are the consequences under international law of the U.K.’s continued administration, including with respect to the inability to resettle Chagos residents on the islands?
Britain evicted about 2,000 people from the Chagos archipelago in the 1960s and 1970s so the U.S. military could build an air base on Diego Garcia. The islanders were sent to the Seychelles and Mauritius, and many eventually resettled in the U.K.
The Chagossians have fought in British courts for years to return to the islands. A small group of Chagossians protested outside the court Monday holding banners including one that read: “Chagossian sacrifice to protect the world but our reward is slow death.”
Another Chagossian, Marie Liseby Elyse, recorded a video that was shown to judges. In it, she recalled being taken by boat from her home island.
“We were like animals and slaves in that ship,” she said. “People were dying of sadness.”
Buckland expressed Britain’s deep regret at the way the Chagossians were removed.
Britain, “fully accepts the manner in which the Chagossians were removed from the Chagos Archipelago and the way they were treated thereafter was shameful and more,” he said.
In another article published on mainland Africa on this landmark case it is being reported as follows-
Sir Anerood Jugnauth GCSK, KCMG, QC Minister Mentor, Minister of Defence, Minister for Rodrigues, opened the oral hearings before the International Court of Justice yesterday in The Hague, Netherlands on the request for an Advisory Opinion on the legal consequences of the separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965.
Maldivian mariners knew the Chagos Islands well. In Maldivian lore, they are known as Fōlhavahi or Hollhavai (the latter name in the closer Southern Maldives). According to Southern Maldivian oral tradition, traders and fishermen were occasionally lost at sea and got stranded on one of the islands of the Chagos. Eventually, they were rescued and brought back home. However, these islands were judged to be too far away from the seat of the Maldivian crown to be settled permanently by them. Thus, for many centuries the Chagos were ignored by their northern neighbors.
The islands of Chagos Archipelago were charted by Vasco da Gama in the early sixteenth century, then claimed in the eighteenth century by France as a possession of Mauritius. They were first settled in the 18th century by African slaves and Indian contractors brought by Franco-Mauritians to found coconut plantations. In 1810, Mauritius was captured by the United Kingdom, and France ceded the territory in the Treaty of Paris.
In 1965, the United Kingdom split the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius and the islands of Aldabra, Farquhar and Desroches (Des Roches) from the Seychelles to form the British Indian Ocean Territory. The purpose was to allow the construction of military facilities for the mutual benefit of the United Kingdom and the United States. The islands were formally established as an overseas territory of the United Kingdom on 8 November 1965. On 23 June 1976, Aldabra, Farquhar and Desroches were returned to Seychelles as a result of its attaining independence. Subsequently, BIOT has consisted only of the six main island groups comprising the Chagos Archipelago.
In 1990, the first BIOT flag was unfurled. This flag, which also contains the Union Jack, has depictions of the Indian Ocean, where the islands are located, in the form of white and blue wavy lines and also a palm tree rising above the British crown.