US urges top UN court to stay out of Chagos islands row

The United States told the United Nations’s top court on Wednesday it had “a duty” not to take a position on a bitter dispute over the British-ruled Chagos islands, home to a strategic joint US military base.

Judges at the International Court of Justice in The Hague are listening to arguments from various countries in a case brought by the United Nations over the future of the Indian Ocean archipelago, which is claimed by Mauritius.

London split off the remote islands from Mauritius in 1965, three years before Port Louis gained independence. Their status has since been at the centre of a bitter dispute spanning five decades.

US representative Jennifer Newstead said even though the UN request was for a “non-binding advisory opinion” on the row, the ICJ’s 15 judges were in fact being asked to rule in a bilateral territorial dispute.

“This places the court in an untenable position,” said Newstead, a state department legal adviser, because it has been asked to rule in a sovereignty dispute when it was only meant to give a legal opinion.

Therefore “the court has a duty to decline to provide the opinion,” Newstead said.

In a diplomatic blow to Britain, the UN General Assembly last year adopted a resolution presented by Mauritius and backed by African countries asking the ICJ to offer legal advice on the island chain’s fate.

The judges are tasked to give an opinion whether the “process of decolonisation of Mauritius was lawfully completed” after Chagos was split off.

They are also to give their view on the consequences of Britain’s continued administration of the islands — including the inability of thousands of Chagossians who were evicted in the 1970s, to return to their homes.

On Wednesday India’s representative however told the ICJ that historically Chagos was “clearly part of Mauritian territory.”

“It is our understanding that the legal aspects (of the case) should root themselves in these historical facts,” said India’s representative Venu Rajamony. 

Military base

The African Union and 22 countries — which also includes the US, Germany and several Asian and Latin American nations — are making statements during the four-day hearing.

After the hearings, the ICJ is expected to hand down a non-binding advisory opinion, but the judges’ ruling may take several months or even years.

However, an opinion still carries weight and a finding in favour of Mauritius may strengthen its hand in future negotiations. It could also lay the foundation for an eventual formal claim before the ICJ — set up after World War II in 1946 to rule in disputes between countries.

Mauritius, which declared independence in 1968, argues that it was illegal for London to break up its territory while still under colonial rule.

Afterwards as the Cold War heated up, London established a combined military base with the US on Diego Garcia, the largest of the islands.

Britain said it would give back the islands to Mauritius “when no longer required for defence purposes”.

Port Louis did acknowledge that Mauritius “recognises the existence of the base and accepts its continued and future functioning in accordance with international law.”

The Diego Garcia base remains important for US strategic military operations, including serving as a staging ground for bombing campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq and the fight against rampant piracy in the Indian Ocean.

The base “continues to play a critical role in the peace and security of the Indian Ocean region and beyond,” US representative Newstead said.

Jan Hennop
Jan Hennop
AFP correspondent -- The Netherlands
Advertisting

Strike-off case pulls in judge

Judge Mushtak Parker is implicated in an application to strike off his former partners. He is also involved in the fight between the Western Cape high court’s judge president and his deputy

One strike and you’re out – registrar tells unions

A municipal workers’ union is the first to be sanctioned for not following the new rule when deciding whether to go on strike
Advertising

Press Releases

Dr Mathew Moyo’s journey to academic victory

The NWU's chief director for library and information services was appointed as a board member of the National Council for Library and Information Services.

UKZN pays tribute to Joseph Shabalala, Doctor of Music (honoris causa)

The university joins the global community in mourning the passing of legendary musician and founding member of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Dr Bhekizizwe Joseph Shabalala.

South Africa to be almost R 14-billion wealthier when SAB Zenzele BB-BBEE scheme winds down in April 2020

It’s the biggest BB-BEE FMCG payout in South Africa’s history, with a new scheme to be launched

UKZN vice-chancellor calls for perspective and creative engagement on the way forward

In addition to overcoming the deadlock between UKZN and students, a way must be found to reconcile the university's financial obligations and students' long-term needs.

Survey shows South Africans’ approval of president but not of political parties

According to the survey, 62% of South Africans think Cyril Ramaphosa is doing his job well, while 39% say no political party represents their views.

Andrew Makenete joins Africa Agri Tech as an event ambassador

Makenete has a wealth of experience in the agricultural sector

Is your company prepared for the coronavirus?

Companies should consider the direct and indirect impacts of the pandemic when evaluating whether they are prepared for the coronavirus, says ContinuitySA.

Explaining the distribution of pension funds

Section 37C of the Pension Funds Act puts the ultimate decision-making responsibility in trustees' hands, says Fedgroup.