Britain ‘regrets’ Chagos eviction as UN top court hears islands row

Protesters outside the World Court in The Hague, Netherlands, as judges listen to arguments in a case focused on whether Britain illegally maintains sovereignty over the Chagos Islands. (AP Photo)
Updated 03 September 2018
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Britain ‘regrets’ Chagos eviction as UN top court hears islands row

  • Britain in 1965 detached the Chagos Islands from its colony of Mauritius, which became independent three years later
  • The United States has leased the Chagos Islands’ biggest island, Diego Garcia, since 1966 and has built an air base there

THE HAGUE: Britain apologized Monday for the “shameful way” it evicted residents of the disputed Chagos islands in the Indian Ocean but insisted Mauritius was wrong to bring the increasingly bitter dispute to the UN’s top court.
Hearings opened Monday before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, where judges are listening to arguments over the future status of the remote archipelago — home to a strategic US military base leased from Britain on territory claimed by Mauritius.
Britain in the early 1970s evicted almost 2,000 residents to Mauritius and the Seychelles to make way for the key base. For years Chagossians have dreamt of returning.
London “fully accepts the manner in which Chagossians were removed from the Chagos Archipelago,” British MP and Solicitor General Robert Buckland said.
“The way they were treated thereafter was shameful and wrong and (Britain) deeply regrets that fact,” he told ICJ judges.
But London did not believe the world court — which was asked by the United Nations General Assembly to give a legal opinion — was the right body to resolve the matter.
“This is a purely bilateral dispute,” between London and Port Louis, Buckland said, adding the ICJ’s judges should “decline the request for an advisory opinion.”
Earlier Monday, Mauritius’ lawyers said the British-ruled Islands were “integral” to its territory and that the Indian Ocean island chain was handed to London “under duress.”
“More than 50 years after independence... the process of decolonization of Mauritius remains incomplete,” former Mauritian president Anerood Jugnauth said.
This was “as a result of the unlawful detachment of an integral part of our territory on the eve of our independence,” he told the judges.

Mauritius tried to persuade judges at the World Court to find that it was illegally stripped by Britain of the Chagos Islands.
The case at the International Court of Justice in the Hague is a test of whether colonial-era deals struck by great powers and small states that later gained independence are legitimate, given the power imbalance.
Britain in 1965 detached the Chagos Islands from its colony of Mauritius, which became independent three years later while the sparsely populated Chagos remained overseas British territory.
The United States has leased the Chagos Islands’ biggest island, Diego Garcia, since 1966 and has built an air base there, while the entire population of around 1,500 people was forced to leave.
In 2017, Mauritius petitioned the United Nations to seek an ICJ advisory opinion on the legality of Britain’s colonial-era move.
Despite opposition from Britain and the United States, which views the Diego Garcia base as a vital military asset, the UN General Assembly referred the matter to the ICJ, commonly known as the World Court, in 2017 for an advisory opinion.
Although ICJ opinions are not binding, they carry weight under international law.
The case was argued by elder statesman Anerood Jugnauth, 88, who served for nearly 30 years during four stints as prime minister or president of Mauritius from 1982-2017, and now holds the post of “minister mentor” in a cabinet led by his son.
“The choice we were faced with was no choice at all: it was independence with detachment (of the Chagos archipelago) or no independence with detachment anyway,” Jugnauth told the 14-judge panel.
UK solicitor general Robert Buckland told the court it should decline to issue any opinion on the matter, which he argued was better suited to bilateral negotiations.
The people displaced from the Chagos Islands have lobbied for years to be able to return. In 2016, Britain’s Foreign Ministry extended Diego Garcia’s lease until 2036, and declared the expelled islanders would not be allowed to go back. Outside the court in The Hague, a small group of Chagossians gathered to protest. They unfurled banners denouncing “modern slavery” and called for Chagossians to be allowed self-determination. “I want the world to see that we are still suffering,” Isabelle Charlot, whose father was born on Chagos, told Reuters.
Buckland accepted that the removal of the Chagossians and their treatment thereafter “was shameful and wrong,” but said it had already been resolved in a 1982 agreement on compensation.
More than 20 interested parties, including the African Union, have asked to take part in the hearings. No date has been set for a decision.


UN: Nearly 71 million now displaced by war, violence at home

Updated 19 June 2019
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UN: Nearly 71 million now displaced by war, violence at home

  • The figures are bound to add fuel to a debate at the intersection of international law, human rights and domestic politics
  • UNHCR said 70.8 million people were forcibly displaced at the end of last year, up from about 68.5 million in 2017

GENEVA: A record 71 million people have been displaced worldwide from war, persecution and other violence, the UN refugee agency said Wednesday, an increase of more than 2 million from last year and an overall total that would amount to the world’s 20th most populous country.
The annual “Global Trends” report released by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees counts the number of the world’s refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people at the end of 2018, in some cases following decades of living away from home.
The figures, coming on the eve of World Refugee Day on Thursday, are bound to add fuel to a debate at the intersection of international law, human rights and domestic politics, especially the movement in some countries, including the US, against immigrants and refugees.
Launching the report, the high commissioner, Filippo Grandi, had a message for US President Donald Trump and other world leaders, calling it “damaging” to depict migrants and refugees as threats to jobs and security in host countries. Often, they are fleeing insecurity and danger themselves, he said.
The report also puts a statistical skeleton onto often-poignant individual stories of people struggling to survive by crossing rivers, deserts, seas, fences and other barriers, natural and man-made, to escape government oppression, gang killings, sexual abuse, militia murders and other such violence at home.
UNHCR said 70.8 million people were forcibly displaced at the end of last year, up from about 68.5 million in 2017 — and nearly a 65 percent increase from a decade ago. Among them, nearly three in five people — or more than 41 million people — have been displaced within their home countries.
“The global trends, once again unfortunately, go in what I would say is the wrong direction,” Grandi told reporters in Geneva. “There are new conflicts, new situations, producing refugees, adding themselves to the old ones. The old ones never get resolved.”
The phenomenon is both growing in size and duration. Some four-fifths of the “displacement situations” have lasted more than five years. After eight years of war in Syria, for instance, its people continue to make up the largest population of forcibly displaced people, at some 13 million.
Amid runaway inflation and political turmoil at home, Venezuelans for the first time accounted for the largest number of new asylum-seekers in 2018, with more than 340,000 — or more than one in five worldwide last year. Asylum-seekers receive international protection as they await acceptance or rejection of their requests for refugee status.
UNHCR said that its figures are “conservative” and that Venezuela masks a potentially longer-term trend.
Some 4 million people are known to have left the South American country in recent years. Many of those have traveled freely to Peru, Colombia and Brazil, but only about one-eighth have sought formal international protection, and the outflow continues, suggesting the strains on the welcoming countries could worsen.
Grandi predicted a continued “exodus” from Venezuela and appealed for donors to provide more development assistance to the region.
“Otherwise these countries will not bear the pressure anymore and then they have to resort to measures that will damage refugees,” he said. “We are in a very dangerous situation.”
The United States, meanwhile, remains the “largest supporter of refugees” in the world, Grandi said in an interview. The US is the biggest single donor to UNHCR. He also credited local communities and advocacy groups in the United States for helping refugees and asylum-seekers in the country.
But the refugee agency chief noted long-term administrative shortcomings that have given the United States the world’s biggest backlog of asylum claims, at nearly 719,000. More than a quarter-million claims were added last year.
He also decried recent rhetoric that has been hostile to migrants and refugees.
“In America, just like in Europe actually and in other parts of the world, what we are witnessing is an identification of refugees — but not just refugees, migrants as well — with people that come take away jobs that threaten our security, our values,” Grandi said. “And I want to say to the US administration — to the president — but also to the leaders around the world: This is damaging.”
He said many people leaving Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador through Mexico have faced violence by gangs and suffered from “the inability of these governments to protect their own citizens.”
The UNHCR report noted that by far, the most refugees are taken in in the developing world, not wealthy countries.
The figures marked the seventh consecutive year in which the numbers of forcibly displaced rose.
“Yet another year, another dreadful record has been beaten,” said Jon Cerezo of British charity Oxfam. “Behind these figures, people like you and me are making dangerous trips that they never wanted to make, because of threats to their safety and most basic rights.”