The Prime minister of Mauritius described February 25th, 2019, as a historic day for Chagossians and Mauritians.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ), the United Nation's highest court – after five months of hearings - concluded, on February 25th, that "the process of decolonisation of Mauritius was not lawfully completed when Mauritius acceded to independence in 1968.”
The Court also concluded that “the United Kingdom has an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible."
It added that all Member States – including the United Kingdom and the United States - must co-operate with the United Nations to complete the decolonisation of Mauritius.
Right of self-determination
At the heart of the judges' assessment is the right of all people to self-determination as a basic human right which the UK violated when it separated the Chagos archipelago from Mauritius in 1965, three years before its independence in 1968.
The seperation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius was, the court said, in breach of UN resolution 1514 which bans the breakup of colonies before independence.
According to the Court, there was a blatant imbalance of power during the negotiations for the independence of Mauritius:
“The Court observes that when the Council of Ministers agreed in principle to the detachment from Mauritius of the Chagos Archipelago, Mauritius was, as a colony, under the authority of the United Kingdom.
“In the Court’s view, it is not possible to talk of an international agreement when one of the parties to it - Mauritius - which is said to have ceded the territory to the United Kingdom was under the authority of the latter… the Court considers that this detachment was not based on the free and genuine expression of the will of the people concerned."
The United Kingdom did not respect the territorial integrity of Mauritius and its dependencies and, instead, divided the colony before granting independence.
Furthermore, when the Mauritian Premier and his team agreed to the detachment of the Chagos archipelago from Mauritius in the 1965 negotiations, they did so “on condition that the archipelago could not be ceded to any third party and would be returned to Mauritius at a later date."
Diego Garcia military base
However, in February 1964, the United Kingdom and the United States were already engaged in formal discussions during which “the latter expressed an interest in establishing a military communication facility on Diego Garcia.”
Mauritius said that there were enormous pressures during the negotiations at Lancaster House in 1965 for its independence.
There were even more recent ones from the UK and the US when Mauritius chose to take the matter to the UN.
The former prime minister, Sir Anerood Jugnauth, who was part of the Mauritian team in 1965 took the matter to the United Nations in October 2015, seeking support of the member states.
“Despite the threats from Britain and America, I chose to lead this battle by going to the United Nations. Some told me that I wouldn’t even get 10 votes at the United Nations.The English bullied us," he said.
“Some said we sold out. But Britain ruled us and we were a colony. We had even fewer rights than a tenant. Can you imagine a tenant selling a property to a landlord which he already owned?
“So, I was right to believe that the British illegally occupied Chagos. I always knew we were going to win such a case,” Jugnauth said.
The current Mauritian prime minister has repeatedly said that the US base in Diego Garcia would not be threatened by the ICJ outcome and “made it clear to the United States and the administering power that it accepts the future of the base."
The UK’s Foreign Office promptly reacted to the ICJ recommendations saying that “it is an advisory opinion, not a judgment.”
Alan Duncan, the foreign office minister, told parliament on Tuesday February 26th, that “this is a bilateral dispute and for the General Assembly to seek an advisory opinion by the ICJ was therefore a misuse of powers which sets a dangerous precedent for other bilateral disputes. ”
If some in Mauritius fear that the UK might choose to ignore the recommendations of the ICJ, Jugdish Koonjul, the Permanent Representative of Mauritius to the UN, doubts that the UK will want to choose that option.
“We would expect that the United Kingdom which has been a country always so respectful of the international rule of law, respectful of the institutions, to respect the opinion of a court where the UK has had a judge for many years," he said.
"It would look very strange if the country decides that it will not consider this to be an opinion that they have to respect."
Decades of Chagossian struggle
Olivier Bancoult was only four-years-old when he was removed from Peros Banhos island in the Chagos. Now 51, he has been fighting for the rights of the Chagossian people for over 35 years through his organisation, the Chagos Refugees Group.
“The fight for Chagos is the fight of the women of Chagos!” he exclaimed. “I was very emotional while listening to the judge and kept thinking about my mum who passed away two years ago.”
“I am so proud! It is a historic day where justice has finally been done after the UK has continuously flouted the rights of the Chagossian people and that of the Republic of Mauritius.”
Bancoult, like many Chagossians, hopes to start a new life on Chagos.
The ICJ made it clear that the resettlement of the Chagossians is a human rights issue which should be addressed by the UN General Assembly.
The matter now goes back to the UN where Mauritius hopes it will gather the support it received in February 2017 when 94 member states voted in favour of its resolution.
Follow Zeenat Hansrod on Twitter @zxnt