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.