Published daily by the Lowy Institute


Australia’s silence on Chagos dispute doesn’t help

US personnel boarding a landing craft for a tip-to-tip bike ride around Diego Garcia (US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)
US personnel boarding a landing craft for a tip-to-tip bike ride around Diego Garcia (US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)
Published 25 Feb 2021 05:00   0 Comments

Australia’s defence of the rules-based international order is based on enlightened self-interest. As the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper made plain: “We will act on the principle that Australia will be safer and more prosperous in a global order based on agreed rules rather than one based on the exercise of power alone.”

Yet in the case of decolonisation of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean – a UK-administered territory also home to a major US military base at Diego Garcia – Australia seems to have disregarded its own interest in defending the rules and laws governing the globe.

Mauritius has long claimed sovereignty over the islands. Yet Australia stood with only five other countries in voting against a May 2019 UN General Assembly resolution calling for decolonisation, which followed an International Court of Justice (ICJ) advisory opinion that “the United Kingdom is under an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible”. Canberra has also remained conspicuously quiet in the wake of last month’s judgement by a Special Chamber of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) supporting the ICJ’s advisory opinion.

Canberra should lead a concerted effort through official channels to persuade London that complying with international opinion and law is in UK and allied interests.

As David Brewster, Bec Strating and others have previously argued in The Interpreter, Canberra’s position undermines its own efforts to defend international law and implies a troubling moral equivalence. Australia seems to implicitly endorse its friends ignoring international law, while at the same time calling on other capitals to respect it.

But as well as being a moral failing, Australia’s position is a strategic own goal. It provides yet another opportunity for China to paint Australia as an insincere and hypocritical defender of the rules-based international order.

Beijing’s efforts to realise the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” are not just playing out in the technological, economic and military domains. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also seeks “discourse power”. As analyst Elsa Kania describes it:

China is aiming to elevate its national capability to influence global values, governance, and even day-to-day discussions on the world stage, which Beijing believes should be commensurate with its economic and military might.

Although this push for “discourse power” has typically been focussed on advancing a narrative that paints the CCP and China in a positive light, the embrace of a belligerent form of so-called “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy points to a now-widespread view in Beijing that the best defence is a good offence. Beijing is not content simply to trumpet its strengths and achievements – it is seeking to delegitimise the actions of those states that stand in the way of its “core interests” regarding regime security, internal stability, economic growth, territorial and maritime claims, and much besides.

Consistent with this playbook, Beijing’s efforts to highlight alleged Australian war crimes in Afghanistan are plausibly viewed as a direct counteroffensive against Canberra’s longstanding public concerns over human rights violations in China. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian did exactly that in the wake of the release of the report last year into allegations against Australian special forces:

Australia and some other Western countries always portray themselves as human rights defenders and wantonly criticise other countries’ human rights conditions. The facts revealed by this report fully exposed the hypocrisy of the “human rights” and “freedom” these Western countries are always chanting.

Whether mocking former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s celebration of dastardly CIA deeds or lambasting NSA mass surveillance, Beijing exhibits a growing propensity to attack its rivals and opponents by highlighting perceived transgressions and double standards.

Which brings us back to the issue of decolonisation of the Chagos Archipelago. Australia is leaving itself wide open to China levelling just such “whataboutist” responses the next time Canberra calls on Beijing to respect any element of international law, whether in the South China Sea or Xinjiang.

A US Air Force B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber at Diego Garcia, September 2020 (US Indo Pacific Command/Flickr) 

So, what should Canberra do? There is a risk that publicly calling for decolonisation without London’s acquiescence would sour political ties with the UK. Such an Australian response is also unlikely to shift the UK position without political pressure from the United States.

Canberra should nevertheless lead a concerted effort through official channels to persuade London that complying with international opinion and law is in UK and allied interests. As well as pursuing this argument bilaterally with the UK, the Five Eyes Defence Ministers’ Meeting provides Canberra with a powerful mechanism to elevate the issue.

Given the critical role of the Chagos Archipelago’s Diego Garcia for joint air power projection in the Indian Ocean region, such an agenda item could be easily justified on the grounds of prudent military contingency planning.

By elevating decolonisation to the Five Eyes Defence Ministers’ Meeting, Canberra could also push Washington to seriously engage with this critical moral and strategic question.

To persuade a reluctant UK, Australia could also seek to coordinate a reassurance that the grouping will use its collective diplomatic and economic resources to further encourage Mauritius to provide continuity for the current military presence arrangements at Diego Garcia, which Mauritius has already offered to continue.

Having embraced universally applicable laws and rules as the standard by which Australia judges the conduct of other countries, Canberra cannot morally justify carving out exceptions for its friends. And embracing such a double standard undermines Australia’s efforts to hold China and other countries to these same standards.


The power of example: America’s presence in Diego Garcia

US Navy diver on duty in Diego Garcia, November 2016 (US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)
US Navy diver on duty in Diego Garcia, November 2016 (US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)
Published 15 Feb 2021 06:00   0 Comments

In remarks delivered at the US State Department in early February, President Joe Biden championed the rule of law as part of “America’s abiding advantage” and spelled out his vision for a nation leading “not just by the example of our power but by the power of our example”. In its swing toward competition with Beijing, the US has made every effort to draw attention to China’s disregard for international law, while conveniently ignoring that law’s application to the US military presence on Diego Garcia and the US presentation of itself as a champion of the rules-based order.

Diego Garcia is the largest of 55 islands split off by the United Kingdom from its Seychelles and Mauritius colonies to create the British Indian Ocean Territory in 1965. Devised exclusively for military use, the BIOT has been the key US strategic outpost in the Indian Ocean since 1966. Shuttering civilian industry and removing Diego Garcia’s original inhabitants paved the way for initial construction of British-US military facilities in 1967. These facilities were used to great effect in tracking the Soviet navy throughout the Cold War, although it was India’s request for American support against China in the 1962 Sino-Indian War that drove Amercia’s initial request for access to the archipelago. The Chagossian population was given the option to resettle in Mauritius or Seychelles. Some were able to relocate to the UK. This unceremonious exile went largely unremarked at the time – to most, it was a small subplot in the high drama of the Cold War. But not to Mauritius, nor to the Chagossians.

Diego Garcia became a critical node of American expeditionary warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq. It remains an invaluable operating location in a region with few permanent American bases. But rules and values are now at the centre of intensifying competition between Washington and Beijing. While the US claims the Chinese Communist Party is seeking to overturn the rules-based order, it has done so in the face of Mauritius’ calls for restoration of its territory and near-universal rejection of British claims upon the archipelago.

Attempts to justify a continuation of British control of the Chagos Islands look like destroying the rules-based order in order to save it, and reinforce China’s vision of world in which the weak suffer what they must.

Mauritius has the law on its side. A prolonged campaign by Mauritius to confront the UK over the status of the Chagos Islands was finally addressed by the International Court of Justice in 2019. In a stunning rebuke, the court handed down an advisory opinion which stated that Britain’s claim to the archipelago was illegitimate and that its retention of the archipelago constituted a failure to fully decolonise. A subsequent non-binding UN General Assembly resolution, passed by an overwhelming majority, demanded that the UK withdraw its “colonial administration” from the islands by the end of 2019. In 2021, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) added its own confirmation of Mauritius’ sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago, and criticised the UK’s failure to comply with the 2019 UN resolution.

The US is not inclined to abandon its strategic foothold in the Indian Ocean, nor is the UK’s Conservative government prepared to relinquish its claims to this colonial holdover. Both fear the potential consequences of ceding control, being subject to the whims of a state that might evict them from their unsinkable aircraft carrier. Admittedly, returning the islands creates risk – sovereignty trumps lease rights. A future Mauritian government might be less welcoming of the US and could revoke the lease. The US would also likely be forced to negotiate for benefits that it currently enjoys.

But the Mauritian government has sought to assuage those fears by offering, twice, to lease the land to the US for up to 99 years, if it is returned to their control. Mauritius’ UN ambassador made clear that it favoured a continued US presence at Diego Garcia, as well as its stabilising influence in the Indian Ocean region. Mauritius’ prime minister offered his own assurances following the ITLOS judgement, stating that “The end of UK administration has no implications for the US military base at Diego Garcia, which Mauritius is committed to maintaining”. Mauritius has offered both the US and UK a way to underline their commitment to the rules rather than flout them, while maintaining critical military access well into the next century.

US naval base at Diego Garcia in the 1970s
(US Navy Seabee Museum/Flickr)

Thus, the Biden administration has an opportunity to remove tension between its hard strategic interests and its declared support for a rules-based order. In consultation with London, Washington should move quickly, announcing support for the transfer of the Chagos Archipelago to Port Louis’ control, accept the offered 99-year lease and sign a defence agreement with a democratic partner as an equal under the law. The fact that the British political opposition has already telegraphed its intent to comply with the UN directive at the earliest opportunity is further reason for haste. With international opinion increasingly opposed to continued British control of the islands, the case for their return is not only ethically correct but strategically sound.

To continue in the current arrangement leaves the UK and UK open to criticism for hypocrisy in their approach to international law. London’s refusal to comply with the ITLOS ruling can be likened to Beijing’s rejection of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 award on the South China Sea, as both legal bodies are convened under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It is only with a shocking lack of self-awareness that either country could accuse Beijing of undermining the rules-based order while defying the UN over Mauritian sovereignty. Better to seize this opportunity to demonstrate commitment to the rule of law than to remain defiant and isolated on a question of human rights.

By demanding China conform to the rules-based order, the US and the UK have set a narrow rhetorical gate through which they themselves must walk. Attempts to justify a continuation of British control of the Chagos Islands look like destroying the rules-based order in order to save it, and reinforce China’s vision of world in which the weak suffer what they must.

Decisive action on behalf of the Biden administration to facilitate the return of Diego Garcia is not only ethically correct, but one that reinforces American commitment to international law and human rights. By committing itself to this course, Washington can avoid negative impact upon American strategic interests, while simultaneously bolstering the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.


Chagos: A boundary dispute tips over a sovereignty ruling

The courtroom of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, in Hamburg, Germany (Christian Charisius/DPA/AFP via Getty Images)
The courtroom of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, in Hamburg, Germany (Christian Charisius/DPA/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 8 Feb 2021 10:00   0 Comments

The decision last month of a Special Chamber of the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea on a maritime boundary dispute between Mauritius and the Maldives reflects two dimensions to the engagement by international courts in resolving disputes among Indian Ocean states. First, it represents the latest judicial victory for Mauritius in its efforts to reclaim the Chagos Archipelago. More broadly, it reflects an emerging trend in the judicial resolution of international maritime boundary disputes in the Indian Ocean.

Mauritius brought proceedings against the Maldives in 2019 to delimit the maritime boundary between the Chagos Archipelago and the southernmost atoll of the Maldives. The case again brought the issue of sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago into the spotlight because the maritime claims of the Maldives and Mauritius can only overlap if the Chagos Archipelago belongs to Mauritius.

Britain detached the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius at the time of its independence with the promise that it would be returned to Mauritius when it no longer required it. Diego Garcia, the largest island within the Chagos Archipelago, was then leased to the United States for use as a military base.

In 2019, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued an advisory opinion in which it determined that the decolonisation of Mauritius was not lawfully completed with the separation of the Chagos Archipelago and that the United Kingdom was obliged to end its administration of the islands as rapidly as possible. But London still maintains that it has sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago despite the ICJ opinion.

Diego Garcia, Chagos Archipelago, home to a US military base on a leasing arrangement with the United Kingdom (NASA Johnson/Flickr)

Mauritius brought proceedings against the Maldives to determine their maritime boundaries under the compulsory dispute settlement process in the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This allows parties to the treaty to turn to arbitration or adjudication to resolve disputes concerning its interpretation or application.

However, the Maldives argued that the Special Chamber had no power to hear the dispute because it didn’t have authority to resolve disputes over sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago. The Special Chamber confirmed that UNCLOS proceedings cannot resolve territorial sovereignty disputes. Questions must only concern the maritime matters addressed in UNCLOS, and UNCLOS does not deal with territorial sovereignty.

Mauritius instead argued that there wasn’t a territorial dispute before the Special Chamber, as the ICJ’s advisory opinion had already determined that the Chagos Archipelago was an integral part of Mauritius. For Mauritius, the issue has been resolved in its favour and it is proceeding accordingly in its interactions with its neighbours. Mauritius argued that although the ICJ opinion is not legally binding, its determinations were “not devoid of legal effects”.

The Special Chamber agreed that “the decolonisation and sovereignty of Mauritius, including the Chagos Archipelago, are inseparably related”. Whereas the ICJ had previously carefully sought to deny that it was deciding any territorial sovereignty dispute between the United Kingdom and Mauritius, the Special Chamber more readily acknowledged the “unmistakeable” and “considerable implications” for the United Kingdom’s sovereignty arising from that opinion. As the Special Chamber accepted that Mauritius, and not the United Kingdom, was entitled to assert rights over Chagos Archipelago, the Maldives objections on this question were rejected.

It is notable that Indian Ocean coastal states are often willing to compel the use of adjudication or arbitration when those discussions do not produce results.

In taking this approach, the Special Chamber has effectively transformed a non-binding opinion into a legally binding decision, albeit only binding between Mauritius and the Maldives and not on the United Kingdom. The litigation strategy pursued by Mauritius has borne fruit in ensuring an advisory opinion that was not supposed to resolve a bilateral territorial sovereignty has truly had that legal effect.

The case will now proceed to the determination of the maritime boundary between the Maldives and Mauritius, although a decision may not eventuate for another two years.

Mauritius-Maldives is not the only maritime boundary dispute in the Indian Ocean pending before an international court. Somalia instituted a case against Kenya in 2014 based on each state’s acceptance in advance of the Court’s jurisdiction rather than under UNCLOS. The public hearings on the boundary delimitation will be held next month.

This current engagement of international courts with maritime boundary delimitations in the Indian Ocean is not new. Bangladesh instituted proceedings under UNCLOS in 2010 to resolve its maritime boundary disputes with India and Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal and led to two awards delimiting respective maritime zones.

While maritime boundaries are most commonly bilaterally negotiated by states, it is notable that Indian Ocean coastal states are often willing to compel the use of adjudication or arbitration when those discussions do not produce results. Resort to an international court will only be possible if states are parties to UNCLOS or, alternatively, consent to the ICJ’s jurisdiction. All but four Indian Ocean states are parties to UNCLOS so there remains considerable potential for the judicial resolution of the many outstanding maritime boundary disputes in the region.

However, even if a state is party to UNCLOS, there is an option to exclude the resolution of maritime boundary disputes from compulsory arbitration or adjudication. Australia has taken this path. When a state does so, compulsory conciliation may instead be undertaken, as happened when Timor-Leste pursued conciliation against Australia in 2016 and resulted in the Maritime Boundary Treaty.

While states are not always keen to refer their disputes to third parties for a legally binding decision, experience has shown not only how peaceful resolution of differences in the region can be achieved, but also the potential utility of international litigation to further other political agendas – in this case, the further affirmation of Mauritius’ sovereignty over the Chagos.
 

This article is part of a two-year project being undertaken by the ANU National Security College on the Indian Ocean, with the support of the Australian Department of Defence.


The Diego Garcia dispute hits cyberspace

The uncertain status of the .io domain could create yet another impasse in the Chagos Islands dispute (Jordan Harrison/Unsplash)
The uncertain status of the .io domain could create yet another impasse in the Chagos Islands dispute (Jordan Harrison/Unsplash)
Published 21 Jan 2021 10:00   0 Comments

The dispute over the ownership of Diego Garcia and the rest of the Chagos Archipelago involves a complex array of legal, human rights, security and geopolitical issues. The United Kingdom wants to retain the islands it calls the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). Mauritius wants to see the islands ceded to it. The United States wants to keep its military base. And many of the Chagossian diaspora who were forcibly removed decades ago want to return.

This multi-sided dispute has now been further complicated by arguments over ownership of the territory’s internet domain – “.io”. It seems that digital players may be increasingly caught up in geopolitics.

In the early days of the internet, countries and dependent territories were assigned a two-letter code to form part of the domain extension in a web address – .au for Australia, .uk for the United Kingdom, .nz for New Zealand, and so on. What might have initially seemed just an administrative designation has now become big business.

Responsibility for administration of these codes was granted by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) to so-called “responsible agents”. The identity of these agents varied widely between different nations. For example, the .au domain is regulated by the Australian government, but the .uk domain is left to the private sector.

BIOT received the domain designation .io, and the UK government left it entirely to the private sector to manage and profit from. As a result, the domain is “owned” by Internet Computer Bureau Ltd (ICB), a private company formed specifically to take advantage of niche domains. ICB in turn is now owned by US registry services giant Afilias.

The .io domain has turned out to be a big money spinner. As an abbreviation of Input/Output (an established programming maxim), .io is seen as a popular alternative for tech start-ups and cryptocurrency websites. Many legitimate businesses have included .io in their brand names, such as Branch.io and Apiary.io. Even 2016 US presidential hopeful Marco Rubio used rub.io as a shortened URL for his campaign website.

Location isn’t always teethered to a physical space online (Ian Sane/Flickr)

Despite it being a country code, Google treats .io as a generic domain (just like .com). This means that companies looking for global exposure get better search results on “myproduct.io” than they would on, say, “myproduct.com.au”. As a result, .io addresses are popular and lucrative for all concerned. But with that business comes an inherent stake in the Chagos dispute.

For one thing, businesses that rely on .io are invested in the continuation of the domain name – and therefore in the continuation of BIOT itself. If Mauritius gains sovereignty over the Archipelago, BIOT will cease to exist as a dependent territory, meaning that the domain may be scrapped. As domains are based on the International Organisation for Standardisation’s ISO 3166-1 alpha-2 codes, the removal of the BIOT from the standard would likely precipitate the end of the .io domain. Historical country code domain retirements include Zaire’s .zr domain, which was replaced by .cd for the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Further, the Soviet Union’s .su was replaced with domains including .ru (Russian Federation), .by (Belarus), and .ua (Ukraine). Lastly, Czechoslovakia’s demise and subsequent retirement of .cs created .cz (Czech Republic) and .sk (Slovakia).

The .io domain issue pales in comparison to the geostrategic stakes of the Chagos dispute for Indian Ocean security, but governments should be alert to these new actors and complications.

The retirement of .io would have severe financial implications for its administrators as well as for the many companies that use the domain. The loss of traffic caused by a domain change could be substantial in the case of many of .io’s most visited websites.

On the other hand, many Chagossians and their supporters are wondering where all the money generated by domain sales is going – and how they might get their fair share. Domains can be big business for small countries. The Pacific island country of Tuvalu generates almost 10% of its annual revenue from the sale of domain rights for .tv. Montenegro benefits from the .me domain. In contrast, the tiny Pacific island Niue unsuccessfully fought a Swedish company for control and some $US150 million in lost profits associated with the .nu domain, claiming it is a national asset. Control of the .io domain was reportedly sold in 2017 for $US70 million, and its value will have only grown in the years since.

Already, the “The Dark Side of .IO” website – established by two .io users –  successfully encourages .io start-ups to donate the equivalent domain renewal fee to the UK Chagos Support Association.

The same association added the .io domain to their proposed list of income-generation mechanisms, should they be allowed to return to the Chagos. But as the British government does not administer the .io domain, this could create yet another impasse in the overall dispute.

There are also potential liabilities at stake. The .io domain is implicated in its fair share of criminal activity, including high-profile scams such as OneCoin and USI Tech, and many .io websites are implicated in child exploitation. Some European courts are considering whether to hold registrars culpable for illegal activity perpetrated on their domains. Any party that takes control over .io could be signing up for more than they bargained for.

Of course, the .io domain issue pales in comparison to the geostrategic stakes of the Chagos dispute for Indian Ocean security, but governments should be alert to these new actors and complications. Any future negotiated solution to the Chagos territorial dispute will probably need to take this issue into account – potentially even including the perpetuation of an “Indian Ocean” (or “IO”) territory – to preserve this profitable digital asset.
 

This article is part of a two-year project being undertaken by the ANU National Security College on the Indian Ocean, with the support of the Australian Department of Defence.


Diego Garcia: The US has a clear choice

The International Court of Justice delivers its Advisory Opinion on the 1965 Separation of Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius, The Hague, 25 February 2019 (Wendy van Bree/UN Photo)
The International Court of Justice delivers its Advisory Opinion on the 1965 Separation of Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius, The Hague, 25 February 2019 (Wendy van Bree/UN Photo)
Published 14 Aug 2020 16:00   0 Comments

Mauritius is the legitimate sovereign over the Chagos Archipelago, including the island of Diego Garcia, which hosts an important US military base in the Indo-Pacific region. The government of Mauritius has publicly announced its willingness to enter into an agreement that would preserve the base, including with British involvement if desired, and keep the United States engaged in the region. What Mauritius is proposing is in the interests of the US and the British, as well as Mauritius and the countries in that part of the world.

In the mid-1960s, the British government of the day excised the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius during the process of decolonisation and concluded an agreement with the US which allowed the latter to set up a naval base in Diego Garcia, the largest island of the archipelago.

That unilateral dismemberment of Mauritian territory has now been clearly established as illegitimate through the 2019 Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice and by Resolution 73/295 of the United Nations General Assembly. All UN member states as well as UN Agencies and specialised bodies are now required to support the completion of the decolonisation of Mauritius and to refrain from any act that would give recognition to the unlawful British administration of the islands. Mauritius has long sought their return to its legitimate and sovereign control. International law is unequivocally on the side of Mauritius, and the British now have an opportunity to withdraw in good grace, before their position becomes untenable.

The plight of the former inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago, people of colour whom the British forcibly displaced from their homes, is not likely to be forgotten. Nor is the systematic refusal of the UK government to allow their return.

Mauritius recognises the security risks in the Indo-Pacific region, and it is conscious of the great value in having the US engaged in the region, including through the base on Diego Garcia. We fully understand the key role the base has played in ensuring stability in the region. There is a clear need to address multiple security challenges, including curbing trafficking of humans and drugs, preventing terrorism and keeping trade routes safe. For all these reasons, we have publicly stated our willingness to have an arrangement with the US so that it could continue to use the base. Indeed, we are willing to make a long-term arrangement – for 99 years, if so desired – that would last well into the next century, and there is a consensus among the major political parties in Mauritius to allow such US presence. The agreement which Mauritius offers is far better for the US than the current British deal, which expires in 2036 and the renewal of which would, again, be unlawful under international law.

As comfortable as the US may feel with the UK under their current agreement, the writing is on the wall: the UK’s stand in rejecting the ICJ Advisory Opinion and the accompanying UN General Assembly resolution is not sustainable. The British Labour Party has officially committed itself to comply with the ICJ ruling when it comes to power. Even now, the Prime Minister is under pressure from parliamentarians to comply with the ICJ ruling to avoid humiliation, isolation and loss of credibility on the international stage. The UK has already failed to get its candidate re-elected to the ICJ because of its ongoing violation of Mauritius’ sovereignty – the first time a Permanent Member of the Security Council lost a seat on the Court.

Former Chagos Archipelago inhabitants evicted by the UK raise their hands for demanding repatriation to their home islands, 1 March 2015 in Port Louis, Mauritius (The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

Following Brexit, the UK’s efforts to establish itself as a global power will inevitably be further hampered by its own refusal to abide by the rule of law – a principle that has traditionally been upheld with great pride by the British people. Sooner rather than later, the UK will realise that its own interests require it to get on the right side of history, support full decolonisation, and move with the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement. The plight of the former inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago, people of colour whom the British forcibly displaced from their homes, is not likely to be forgotten. Nor is the systematic refusal of the UK government to allow their return. Pressure will continue on the UK by the membership of the UN, the African Union and not least its own citizens.

Already UN maps clearly identify the Chagos Archipelago as part of Mauritius, in conformity with the ICJ’s ruling and the General Assembly resolution. The UK’s membership in organisations where it claims to represent the Chagos Archipelago will continue to be challenged. In short, its defiance of international law cannot continue much longer in the face of the opposition of the overwhelming majority of states.

It is therefore in the interest of the US to seize this opportunity to engage with Mauritius in concrete discussions for a long-term agreement. This trajectory can lead to an outcome that will be beneficial to all concerned.

The author (left) as part of the Mauritian delegation during the meeting of the UN General Assembly on adopting a resolution seeking ICJ opinion on the separation of Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius, 22 June 2017 (Manuel Elias/UN Photo)

While the exact terms of any agreement would have to be negotiated, the Government of Mauritius has made it clear that it has no desire to impose itself in the running of the base. We wish to have our rightful sovereignty recognised as a matter of principle and national fulfillment. We are aware that continuation of the base will require accommodation on our part, and we are willing to talk. For example, any resettlement could be restricted to other islands which lie at least 100 miles away from Diego Garcia, in order to ensure that the operation of the base is not disrupted by such resettlement. But we would expect that Mauritians, especially those of Chagossian origin, would be employed on the base as civilian workers.

Some have questioned whether Mauritius could be a reliable partner for the US. There is no basis for any doubts about our reliability. As a stable democracy with strong ties to the UK, US, Australia and especially India, Mauritius can offer the necessary guarantees that the US requires to ensure its long and unimpeded use of Diego Garcia. The growing security partnership between India and the US offers even greater assurance to the US, since Mauritius will not do anything that could adversely affect India’s security interests.

We are also very aware of our obligations under the Pelindaba Treaty, which restricts the use and stockpiling of nuclear weapons in the African region. This is a sensitive topic, no doubt, but we are certain that constructive negotiations will lead us to a solution that will satisfy both Mauritius’ obligations under the treaty and US national security interests.

The US now faces a choice. Washington can stay in alignment with London’s illegal position until that is no longer tenable or a Labour government returns the Chagos Archipelago to the effective control of Mauritius. Or it can work constructively with Mauritius and the UK to reach a new arrangement for the base, one that respects Mauritian sovereignty, fully protects US interests and reinforces the US position as a supporter of international law. Such a course will send a clear signal to others in the region and beyond that the US and UK are defenders of the international rule of law, respect the sovereignty of others and support decolonisation. And above all, it would create a more stable and secure position for the US on Diego Garcia, and allow it to play a key role in Indo-Pacific security well into the next century.


This article is published as part of a two-year project being undertaken by the ANU National Security College on the Indian Ocean.


Decolonise Diego Garcia: Why America should not fear Mauritius

The Pentagon’s long-term access to Diego Garcia should be based upon consent rather than colonialism (US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)
The Pentagon’s long-term access to Diego Garcia should be based upon consent rather than colonialism (US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)
Published 15 Jul 2020 10:00   0 Comments

The United States military base on Diego Garcia has a problem: it is housed inside an unlawful jurisdiction, the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). According to the African Union, UN General Assembly and a recent advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice, BIOT is a colonial holdover that violates the territorial integrity of Mauritius. Britain refuses to dismantle BIOT out of deference to its ally, the US. This is a mistake. Full decolonisation is in the interest of all sides.

America’s support for British sovereignty over Diego Garcia is based on the assumption that London is a preferable “landlord” to Port Louis. If this was ever true in the past, it is not true today. British control over Diego Garcia and the rest of the Chagos Archipelago is illegal, unpopular, unnecessary, and at odds with the idea of a “rules-based” order in the Indo-Pacific. By contrast, Mauritius holds the keys to a long-term agreement over Diego Garcia that would be consistent with international law and beneficial to America’s broader strategic objectives in the region.

Port Louis has made no secret of its desire keep open the base on Diego Garcia. It is safe to treat this as a credible commitment. With no formal military of its own, Mauritius depends upon others for its external defence. And although India has provided a de facto guarantee of Mauritian security for the past 50 years, it is obviously risky for a small state to rely so much on the patronage of a single great power. A closer relationship with the US would provide Port Louis not just with more security, but also a degree of autonomy from New Delhi.

It helps that the US and India are becoming closer strategic partners in the Indo-Pacific because of their shared concerns about the rise of China. Both powers have an interest in the US military maintaining a secure naval presence at the heart of the Indian Ocean. But New Delhi supports the decolonisation of the Chagos Archipelago. To maintain its standing, Washington must follow suit.

One common objection to Mauritian sovereignty over Diego Garcia is that Port Louis would look to charge an exorbitant amount of rent for the continued use of its territory (the UK does not charge rent for the base). Of course, it is impossible to know exactly how much compensation Mauritius would ask of the US before negotiations have taken place. But even an amount that approximated the $70 million paid annually by Washington to Djibouti would be a sound strategic investment. It would also be affordable, comprising less than 2% of the $3.6 billion in additional funding that congressional leaders are considering allocating (at minimum) for US defence initiatives in the Indo-Pacific.

US military bases coexist with civilian communities from Guam to Guantanamo Bay. The small-scale and partial resettlement of Chagos would be entirely manageable, and nothing out of the ordinary.

Indeed, having to pay rent to Mauritius should properly be considered a good problem to have. It is the only way the US can place its access to Diego Garcia on a sound legal footing. Under the current arrangement, London could always determine that its legal responsibility to pursue decolonisation is a higher obligation under international law than its agreement with the United States. Only a bilateral agreement with Mauritius can put America’s basing rights beyond question.

Some have argued that Mauritius would restrict the storage of nuclear weapons on Diego Garcia. However, there is every possibility of finding creative solutions to Mauritius’ obligations under the anti-nuclear Pelindaba Treaty. In any case, such uncertainties only underscore the importance of engaging Port Louis now, in good faith, with a view to reaching a lasting agreement that will be acceptable to both sides.

Perhaps the biggest driver of US opposition to Mauritian sovereignty has been the fear that Port Louis would allow the resettlement of Diego Garcia or the smaller Chagos Islands by the indigenous Chagossians, whom Britain illegally expelled from the archipelago between 1965 and 1973. This is a reasonable expectation. Yet US military bases coexist with civilian communities from Guam to Guantanamo Bay. The small-scale and partial resettlement of Chagos would be entirely manageable, and nothing out of the ordinary.

In short, Mauritian sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago would require the base on Diego Garcia to become a more “normal” military installation, in the sense that it would no longer exist inside a jurisdiction that exists solely for its convenience. But the base would not be rendered anything close to inoperable. On the contrary, Diego Garcia would remain one of the most important US staging posts in the world.

From the US perspective, overseas bases are most secure when they are at the invitation of host nations – that is, when they are underpinned by soft power (attractiveness) rather than coercion. In the case of Diego Garcia, the US should have confidence in what it can offer Port Louis in terms of friendship and long-term security. However, it should go without saying that Mauritius would be more attracted to such a partnership if US officials would support the decolonisation the Chagos Archipelago sooner rather than later.

The bottom line is that America’s access to Diego Garcia need not depend on Britain’s willingness to administer an illegal colonial jurisdiction in the face of stiff international condemnation. The best way forward is for the US to back the transfer of authority from London to Port Louis as soon as possible, while taking measures to ensure that Mauritius continues to have self-interested reasons to remain committed to a bilateral security partnership. This would ensure that the Pentagon’s long-term access to Diego Garcia is based upon consent rather than colonialism – the only sustainable solution.

 

This article is part of a two-year project being undertaken by the National Security College on the Indian Ocean, with the support of the Department of Defence.


Finding compromise in the Chagos Islands saga

A 90-year-old woman who was exiled from the Peros Banhos Atoll of the Chagos Archipelago stands by the sea in March 2015 in Port Louis, Mauritius (The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
A 90-year-old woman who was exiled from the Peros Banhos Atoll of the Chagos Archipelago stands by the sea in March 2015 in Port Louis, Mauritius (The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)
Published 26 Jun 2020 09:00   0 Comments

The Chagos Archipelago of 54 islands, formerly administered as a dependency of the British Colony of Mauritius, was excised from Mauritius by the UK in 1965, three years before independence. It was renamed the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), and its inhabitants (about 1500 people) were deported to Mauritius and Seychelles between 1968 and 1973 to make way for a US military base on the largest island, Diego Garcia. Depopulation enabled the British government to avoid having to administer the islands and to report annually to the UN via the Special Committee on Decolonisation, or C-24.

For the last five decades, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has prevented the Chagossians from returning to their homeland and denied them the right of abode in Chagos. It has resisted both political and legal attempts at promoting a resolution of the issues. On the international stage, UK sovereignty over Chagos has been challenged since at least 1980 by Mauritius.

Forty years of British parliamentary debates and questions, discussions and resolutions in UN bodies, the European Parliament, the African Union, the Commonwealth and 22 years of ongoing litigation in the English courts would suggest that it is time to resolve the Chagos dispute. The 2019 International Court of Justice (ICJ) Advisory Opinion and UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution endorsing it are the latest landmarks in these challenges to UK sovereignty and to denial of the Chagossian right of abode and resettlement.

For as long as the UK clings on to Chagos, it has an international legal responsibility to restore the right of return and abode to the Chagossians.

The ICJ decided that the decolonisation of Mauritius is incomplete, that the UK is under an obligation to bring an end as rapidly as possible to its administration of Chagos, and that the right to self-determination was a peremptory norm of customary international law before 1965.

The Court of Appeal in London heard a case in May against the UK Government’s decision in 2016 not to allow resettlement. However it is decided, Chagos could go to the UK Supreme Court for the third time and quite possibly to the European Court of Human Rights, where it would be the second time this court has considered the plight of the Chagossians.

For the past 18 years, the UK has at different times deployed a catalogue of unproven reasons against resettlement and an overall settlement, including defence, security, cost, feasibility, environment, conservation, rising sea levels and fighting terrorism, organised crime, piracy and drug trafficking. In contrast, Mauritius does not see any insuperable problems to resettlement, for which it earmarked funding in its budget last year.

The latest argument, though not so far deployed by the UK Government, is the supposed China “threat”.  However, Mauritius is not in any way beholden to China, and is a close ally of India. Furthermore, it has been made abundantly clear that it wants the US base to remain and is happy to negotiate a long-term agreement with the US and UK. It must be in the interests of all four countries to have an agreement which guarantees the future of Diego Garcia and maintains stability in the Indian Ocean. That is also in Australia’s interest as a significant regional player. It is also very much in the US strategic interest to develop a close relationship with Mauritius, almost 2000 kilometres south of Diego Garcia. Mauritius would welcome that.

The Chagos All-Party Parliamentary Group, which has 53 members from the seven political parties in British Parliament, has long argued for resettlement and a negotiated settlement with Mauritius. A compromise solution is a staged transfer of the Outer Islands, more than 160 kilometres from Diego Garcia, to Mauritius leaving Diego Garcia for future discussions. There is precedent for this, the UK having returned three BIOT islands to Seychelles in 1976 at independence. Diego Garcia’s sovereignty status could be reviewed at any time and at latest by 2036, when the 1966 UK/US Agreement (there is no lease or rent) making the territory available for the defence purposes of both nations comes to an end, only 16 years away.

Such a solution would go a long way to addressing the ICJ Advisory Opinion of 25 February 2019 and UNGA resolution 73/295 of 22 May 2019. With the hindsight of 18 years, it is painfully obvious that much distress, huge litigation costs, damage to the UK’s reputation in failing to uphold human rights and international law, and the UK’s isolation in the UNGA could have been avoided.

For as long as the UK clings on to Chagos, it has an international legal responsibility to restore the right of return and abode to the Chagossians. The Outer Islands have never been and will never be required for defence purposes. The US does not in principle object to resettlement. The UK needs to redeem its reputation in the international community for the promotion of human rights and international law. Recently, the official UN world map was revised and shows Chagos as belonging not to the UK but to Mauritius.

The writing is on the wall map.


Diego Garcia: India’s conundrum

Diego Garcia, sunset at the Old Pier (Art/Flickr)
Diego Garcia, sunset at the Old Pier (Art/Flickr)
Published 16 Jun 2020 14:30   0 Comments

The tug-of-war between the United Kingdom and Mauritius over Chagos archipelago – and the US military base on Diego Garcia – is hotting up. In 2019, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution which endorsed a non binding decision from the International Court of Justice that supported Mauritius’s claim to the Chagos. London has so far stoutly resisted calls to hand over the islands.

Given its regional proximity, what role should India play in resolving the dispute consistent with its own interests?

Both Britain and the United States expect help from India on Chagos. At the UN General Assembly in May 2019, Washington and London had hoped New Delhi would modify and even dilute the provisions of the draft resolution. Instead India voted in favour of Mauritius, with the Indian representation stating unequivocal support for “all peoples striving for decolonisation”. But Indian officials have since refrained from commenting on the issue.

Some British commentators have explained India’s move as an attempt to position itself as a leader among post-colonial states. New Delhi, they contend, remains enamored of South-South cooperation, prioritising partnerships with Southern states over cooperation with Euro-Atlantic partners. They argue that supporting Mauritius was a “symbolic” rather than substantive win, with New Delhi overlooking its long-term interests in countering China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean. With its own ambitions to develop a base in the Mauritian island of Agalega stalled, New Delhi’s move at the UN backfired.

Indian observers have been more understanding of their country’s imperatives. As they see it, Diego Garcia presents New Delhi with a predicament with no easy answers. On one hand, Indian policymakers must demonstrate solidarity with Mauritius, a close Indian Ocean partner. On the other, they must consider their country’s burgeoning ties with the United States and Britain. If New Delhi now seems reticent on the matter, it is because it finds itself in a debilitating dilemma.

But India’s conundrum may seem more severe than it really is. For all the talk about India not wanting China to fill an Indian Ocean strategic vacuum created by any departure of US forces, supporting Mauritius has always been a fairly straightforward choice for New Delhi. Diego Garcia’s controversial history has meant that room for manoeuvre on the issue has been limited. As much as they value political ties with London and Washington, Indian policymakers cannot be seen to favour a US military presence over indigenous people’s rights.

A second reason that New Delhi has not supported the US over Diego Garcia is the constrained nature of India-US military cooperation in the Western Indian Ocean, a space where Indian and US strategic objectives do not properly align. In particular, New Delhi does not support US naval operations in the Persian Gulf intended at coercing Iran. With growing maritime interests in the Middle East, India is keen to improve naval ties with all regional capitals, including Tehran. New Delhi can’t get itself to deploy naval assets to a US facility used to facilitate anti-Iran naval operations.

Lastly, Indian realists are concerned about strategic reciprocity. If Indian warships and surveillance aircraft publicly use Diego Garcia, Washington would expect access to India’s bases in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. New Delhi has a mutual logistics agreement with the United States but has been slow to operationalise the pact for fear of opening up its island bases to the US navy. While maritime “access” in South and Southeast Asia has never really been an issue for Washington, the regular presence of US warships in the Andaman Sea, Indian analysts reckon, could more credibly threaten China’s use of the regional sea lines of communication, potentially creating discord in the region.

Some say that China’s well-known salami slicing strategy is increasingly at play in South Asia.

Notwithstanding closing bilateral military relations between India and the US – including a tri-services exercise and joint anti-submarine patrols – a strategic quid pro quo involving Diego Garcia could also force the Indian navy into a framework of closer strategic engagement with the US navy in South Asia. This could impinge on New Delhi’s strategic autonomy, rendering India a de facto alliance partner of the United States – a proposition wholly unacceptable to Indian policymakers.

Further, many in India’s strategic establishment are convinced that Beijing’s expanding maritime footprint in the Indian Ocean isn’t merely the result of greater PLAN deployments. Belt and Road infrastructure projects have played an equally significant part, enmeshing regional states in a Chinese-led initiative. This isn’t the type of presence that India-US joint naval operations seem capable of effectively pushing back.

And yet events are moving fast, and in ways unanticipated by India. Since the beginning of this year, there have been reports of an expansion of the PLA base in Djibouti, greater Chinese naval operations in the Western Indian Ocean, growing Chinese intelligence and survey ships in the Andaman Seas and, perhaps, the beginnings of a Chinese military presence in the Pakistani port of Gwadar. Some say that China’s well-known salami slicing strategy is increasingly at play in South Asia.

India’s Ladakh standoff with China confirms that belief. So far New Delhi has treated its land skirmishes with the PLA as a localised matter. Yet the need for a maritime hedge and greater strategic alignment with the US in the Indian Ocean is clearer than ever.

Indian officials know that brokering a settlement on Diego Garcia could form part of the expected give-and-take. New Delhi could, for example, facilitate an agreement giving Port Louis sovereignty, whilst tempering Mauritian expectations that it could impose restrictions on the positioning of US nuclear assets.

India might realise that a failure to make common cause with Washington in the Western Indian Ocean, including Diego Garcia, might adversely implicate New Delhi’s attempts to dominate littoral-South Asia.
 

This piece is part of a two-year project being undertaken by the National Security College on the Indian Ocean, with the support of the Department of Defence.


Mauritius, Diego Garcia and the small matter of nukes

Sunset on Diego Garcia (Jeff Laitila/Flickr)
Sunset on Diego Garcia (Jeff Laitila/Flickr)
Published 26 May 2020 06:00   0 Comments

Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia is a key part of the US global military network. The dispute over sovereignty of Diego Garcia is heating up, with the UK coming under increasing pressure to cede it to Mauritius. Mauritius has indicated that if it regained control over Diego Garcia, it would allow the US base to continue. But would Mauritius’ obligations under the African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (Pelindaba) Treaty, which would prohibit nuclear weapons on the territory, be a deal-breaker to a transfer of the islands?

In 2019, Mauritius’ long-standing claims over the Chagos Archipelago, which includes Diego Garcia, were recognised by the International Court of Justice and the UN General Assembly. Britain has defied calls to hand the islands back to Mauritius. Mauritius will no doubt continue to prosecute its claims in international forums, but a negotiated transfer of sovereignty could deliver a better and more certain result. Mauritius has publicly indicated that it is willing to do a deal, but that would necessarily involve addressing British and American concerns over the continuation of the base, including the presence of nuclear weapons.

Support for nuclear-capable military platforms is a key function of Diego Garcia. The remote base regularly hosts US nuclear-powered cruise missile submarines (SSGNs) and submarine tender ships. Elements of America’s airborne leg of its nuclear triad also frequent the Indian Ocean atoll – including B-2 nuclear-capable heavy bombers. Under agreements between the UK and US for access to Diego Garcia, transferring nuclear-tipped missiles to and from the island is considered normal. The extent to which nuclear weapons are stored and stockpiled on Diego Garcia is unclear. However, it is clear that Diego Garcia’s strategic value to the US would be much diminished if nuclear material were prohibited in the Chagos Archipelago.

Could Mauritius exempt the Chagos by selectively applying international law to part of its territory? Could it wither the repercussions of violating the Treaty for long-awaited sovereignty?

The presence of nuclear weapons on Diego Garcia probably already breaches the 1996 Pelindaba Treaty, which prohibits signatories from conducting research on, developing, manufacturing, stockpiling, acquiring, possessing or having control over any nuclear explosive device by any means anywhere in the area covered by the Treaty – expressly including Diego Garcia. But the Treaty includes a footnote stating that Diego Garcia “appears without prejudice to the question of sovereignty”.

The UK and Mauritius are both parties to the Pelindaba Treaty. But the UK interprets that footnote as making the Chagos exempt from the Treaty (partly also because the UK is ineligible to sign the protocol of the Treaty that extends it to territories of the signatories). While the US agrees with Britain, this interpretation is disputed by the African Union. Would the Treaty effectively prevent Mauritius from doing a deal which allowed the US base to continue unhindered, including by nuclear-capable platforms?

Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth noted at the UN General Assembly in 2019 that his government is “prepared to enter into a long-term arrangement” which “would permit the unhindered operation of the defence facility, in accordance with international law”. What “unhindered” and “international law” mean here is important, as the US is unlikely to agree to anything that prohibits its possession of nuclear weapons. While Mauritian leaders may think the nuclear issue is a matter of detail, no solutions are ideal.

What are Mauritius’ options? Amendment of the Treaty is unlikely. One suggestion is that Mauritius could possibly enter a bilateral agreement which could establish a special “exclusive jurisdiction” for Diego Garcia, which would leave the nuclear issue to the occupant. Could Mauritius exempt the Chagos by selectively applying international law to part of its territory? Could it wither the repercussions of violating the Treaty for long-awaited sovereignty? Would Mauritius be prepared to do a deal that effectively prevented any rights of Mauritius to inspect the base, while the US simply keeps quiet on the nuclear issue?

Yet another alternative could be to treat the US as only visitors. While Article 4 of the Treaty prohibits the “stationing” of nuclear explosive devices on the territory of signatories, it does allow “visits by foreign ships and aircraft”. Australia takes advantage of similarly ill-defined wording in the Treaty of Rarotonga, which established the 1985 South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone (SPNFZ), to host nuclear-capable US platforms. By not specifying the duration of a “port visit,” Australia is able to manage alliance obligations while complying with a treaty similar in scope and design to the Pelindaba Treaty. Could Mauritius exploit this “visit” provision, provided the US agrees not to “station” nuclear explosive devices on Diego Garcia?

Perhaps this line of thinking is premature. As it stands, the UK has “no doubt“ regarding its sovereignty over the Chagos, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserted that the “United States unequivocally supports UK sovereignty” claims. There are no indications that either is willing to commence negotiations with Mauritius. But it may be up to Mauritius to find a solution that works for everyone in order to move the ball forward.

The ongoing dispute does nobody any favours. Mauritius, the UK and US notwithstanding, it is a distraction for other Indian Ocean players, such as Australia, working to support the rules-based order in the region, while trying to maintain positive relations with all relevant states. Having to choose between Mauritius and the US/UK is counterproductive. The real game is upholding the order in the Indian Ocean against a resurgent Russia and an assertive China. In this wider context, the sooner sovereignty over the Chagos is settled the better – as long as the US military base can stay where it is.

This piece is part of a two-year project being undertaken by the National Security College on the Indian Ocean, with the support of the Department of Defence.   


Diego Garcia: An American perspective

US Navy cargo loading exercise on Diego Garcia, November 2019 (US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)
US Navy cargo loading exercise on Diego Garcia, November 2019 (US Pacific Fleet/Flickr)
Published 19 May 2020 06:00   0 Comments

Diego Garcia is the United States’ major geostrategic and logistics support base in the Indian Ocean. Sovereignty over the island is increasingly being challenged by Mauritius, but it seems unlikely that Washington would be interested in a deal that would facilitate its transfer.

The base has its origins in the 1960s, as decolonisation swept over the region and Soviet influence grew in many of the newly independent countries. But it was China, not the Soviet Union, that spurred Washington to focus on acquiring a base. The policy trigger was the 1962 Sino-Indian war, when Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had pressed Washington for military assistance to India. President John F. Kennedy dispatched the US aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk to provide air support if China drove south to Calcutta – but a ceasefire was reached before it arrived.

By 1964, a regional survey judged that Diego Garcia, an atoll in the Chagos Archipelago that was an administrative dependency of the distant British colony of Mauritius, some 1160 nautical miles (nm) of open ocean away, was best suited. It had a lagoon and land that could support an airfield and other infrastructure, and its remoteness satisfied Washington’s desire to make itself immune from the nationalist pressures of the day.

It was China’s actions in 1962 that led to the base, and it is now China’s Indian Ocean military footprint that increases its value beyond its role in supporting US military operations in the Persian Gulf region.

To insulate Diego Garcia from passing into the hands on of a non-aligned government, London detached Chagos from Mauritius’ colonial administration and created a new entity known as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). In 1966, London agreed to make Diego Garcia available to the US for defence purposes for 50 years.

As they say in the real estate business, the three most important considerations when valuing property are location, location, and location. Diego Garcia more than satisfies the criteria. It is situated near the center of the Indian Ocean, within striking distance of virtually all maritime choke points, vital sea lines of communication, and potential Chinese naval bases in the region: Djibouti and the Bab al Mandeb (2170 nm), Strait of Hormuz (2240 nm), Gwadar, Pakistan (2030 nm), the Eight Degree Channel between India and the Maldives (895 nm), Hambantota, Sri Lanka (1550 nm), Kyaukphyu, Myanmar (2030 nm), Strait of Malacca (1770 nm), and Lombok Strait (2625 nm).

It is a perfect base for US Navy maritime patrol aircraft and especially US Air Force heavy bombers. All the locations mentioned above are within unrefueled combat range of B-1B and B-52H bombers. (B-2s, with an advertised combat range of 6000 nm, are generally deployed from the US, but have been deployed to Diego Garcia in the past.) USAF bombers and tankers have conducted combat missions in support of US combat operations throughout Southwest Asia since the 1991.

A US Air Force B-1B Lancer bomber takes off from Diego Garcia on a strike mission against al Qaeda terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, 7 October 2001 (US Dept of Defense/Wikimedia Commons)

Since the mid-1980s, the base has boasted a wharf and facilities suitable for an aircraft carrier, and the lagoon provides anchorages for other warships and ships loaded with prepositioned equipment. The US Navy often stations a submarine tender and a repair and logistics ship to support deployed attack submarines.

It was China’s actions in 1962 that led to the base, and it is now China’s Indian Ocean military footprint that increases its value beyond its role in supporting US military operations in the Persian Gulf region. The PLA Navy has maintained a modest presence in the western Indian Ocean for more than 10 years, and China’s recently established base in Djibouti is judged by the US Department of Defense to be only the first of several. China’s most important sea lines of communication traverse the Indian Ocean and play a key role Beijing’s prime strategic and economic program, the Belt and Road Initiative.

But while in the 1960s Diego Garcia seemed a tidy solution to Washington’s desire for a base isolated from the uncertainties of potentially fickle newly independent states, it appears less so now.

Mauritius has long chaffed at what it considers the illegal detachment of the Chagos Archipelago. In 2019, after decades of legal manoeuvring, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) concluded that that Britain should return Chagos to Mauritius. The UN General Assembly echoed this finding, concluding that the UK’s decolonisation of Mauritius was “incomplete”, a seemingly contrived finding, and adopted a non-binding resolution that demanded the UK unconditionally withdraw its “colonial” administration with six months.

London responded that it had “no doubt as to our sovereignty over BIOT, which has been under continuous British sovereignty since 1814. Mauritius has never held sovereignty over the BIOT, and the UK does not recognize the claim”.

The Mauritius government has been relatively self-effacing in its public comments, suggesting it has no intention to demand the dismantling of the base. Officials have said that Mauritius accepts the future of the base and would be willing to enter into a long-term agreement. The fact that the US pays US$63 million annually for rights to a more modest facility in Djibouti has undoubtedly not been lost on officials in Port Louis.

A deal with Mauritius seems possible, but would Washington be interested in such an outcome? Probably not – putting sovereignty into the hands of a landlord who could order Washington overnight to vacate introduces too much uncertainty. Mauritius would have all the leverage, and could turn to at least two other possible tenants, India or China, if the US were to leave or be evicted. Washington has been silent since the UN vote in May 2019. But its silence makes the US position clear. A March 2018 statement to the ICJ contains a revealing footnote: “In 2016, there were discussions between the United Kingdom and the United States concerning the continuing importance of the joint base. Neither party gave notice to terminate (the lease agreement) and the Agreement remains in force until 2036.”


 

This piece is part of a two-year project being undertaken by the National Security College on the Indian Ocean, with the support of the Department of Defence.   


Diego Garcia: Unnerving neighbours and raising ghosts

Chagos Atoll: Outlook cloudy (Photo: Getty Images)
Chagos Atoll: Outlook cloudy (Photo: Getty Images)
Published 18 Dec 2019 09:00   0 Comments

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued a non-binding decision in February 2019 supporting Mauritius’s claim to the UK-administered Chagos Archipelago, which includes Diego Garcia. Subsequently the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) passed a resolution in May 2019 endorsing the ICJ decision. But the ICJ ruling and the UNGA resolution mask complex regional views on the issue. They also raises some old issues affecting Australian interests that go beyond the benefits of a US base in the islands.

The Mauritian claim is grounded in a sequence of UK chopping and dicing of its Indian Ocean island possessions, from the 1903 separation of Seychelles from Mauritius until Seychelles’ independence in 1976. UK alteration of Indian Ocean boundaries accelerated after 1945. An early alteration was the transfer of Heard Island to Australia in 1947. South Africa benefited the same year with the transfer of the Prince Edward Islands to Pretoria.

India has no particular interest in weakening the West’s strategic investment in the Indian Ocean when New Delhi faces growing Chinese activity and unresolved longer-standing competition from players such as Pakistan and Iran.

Christmas Island was separated from Singapore and given to Australia in 1958. Although Singapore colony was financially compensated, no vote on the matter was held either there or among the island’s population. Similarly, Cocos-Keeling was transferred from Singapore to Australia in 1955. Unlike Christmas Island, however, Cocos-Keeling passed through a formal UN-overseen decolonisation process, with the (non-indigenous) islanders voting for Australian citizenship and incorporation into Australia in 1984.

No regional state has questioned openly the UK transfer of these islands to Australia in the manner of Mauritius’s late-developing recidivist claims to Chagos. But then Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew casually raised retroceding Christmas Island with Australian Prime Minister Whitlam in the early 1970s. Whitlam batted the idea away by raising the likely objections of Indonesia to a Singaporean base south of Java. Nonetheless, any reopening of the legal basis of UK Indian Ocean decolonisation cartography has ramifications for Australia.

Mauritius’s Indian Ocean island neighbours proved cautious in UNGA on the Mauritian claim. France, for whom the island of Reunion is a French department, abstained on the vote. Maldives was one of only six states – including Australia – voting against. Seychelles went along with the African Union (AU) bloc supporting Mauritius, but seemingly without enthusiasm.

 

Seychelles and Maldives derive considerable security benefits from the US and allied maritime activities based out of Diego Garcia. Both are conscious of Western naval support against Somali piracy, the north Indian Ocean maritime narcotics smuggling plague, and as a counterweight to growing Chinese activity. But Seychelles, in particular, generally finds itself mortgaged to often overbearing AU diplomatic “solidarity”, is cautious of Mauritian sensibilities and struggles to articulate a strategic stance on issues such as Diego Garcia that align to its heavily maritime interests.

Seychelles has difficulty also in asserting its own take on Chagos and the broader British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), of which Chagos forms the major part. Chagos is closer to Seychelles than it is to Mauritius. Parts of Seychelles (the Farquhar and Aldabra Islands) were briefly part of BIOT at its first creation in the 1970s. And Seychelles has long been home to part of the displaced Chagossian population, who continue to follow developments regarding the archipelago. In common with Chagossians elsewhere, those in Seychelles do not see Mauritian activity as disinterested or altruistic.

A spokesman for the “Chagossians Group in Seychelles”, Pierre Prosper, said after the UNGA vote that Seychelles Chagossians were “very wary of the sincerity of the Mauritian Government’s claims to meet the Chagossian aspirations. The Mauritian Government had never promoted or supported the welfare of the Chagossians, especially those in Mauritius.”

Big neighbour India has found itself wedged by the Mauritian demarche. New Delhi supported Mauritius in UNGA. But India’s problem is that it is torn between its current obligations and longer-term interests. India has been investing heavily for years in building strategic, economic, and diaspora influence in Mauritius. It would be difficult to distance itself from such a high-profile Mauritian diplomatic venture as the Chagos case. But India has no particular interest in weakening the West’s strategic investment in the Indian Ocean when New Delhi faces growing Chinese activity and unresolved longer-standing competition from players such as Pakistan and Iran.

The renewed international interest in Mauritius’s claim to Chagos has other implications for Australia. Australia’s place on the heavily losing side at UNGA highlights our poor diplomatic presence – based around the tiny High Commission in Port Louis – in this more contested region. Its unlikely any sovereignty challenge to Australian ownership of Christmas Island or Cocos-Keeling will emerge. Uninhabited Heard Island isn’t subject to sovereignty claims either. But how Australia could rally international support should a third country choose to establish itself on the island – sliced like Chagos out of the same old oceanic Empire – might draw some lessons from the UK’s problems maintaining sovereignty over Chagos, further north in the Indian Ocean


Australia’s stance on Diego Garcia dispute is increasingly untenable

The edge of Diego Garcia flying out (Photo: Jeff Laitila/Flickr)
The edge of Diego Garcia flying out (Photo: Jeff Laitila/Flickr)
Published 11 Dec 2019 13:00   0 Comments

The US base on the island of Diego Garcia, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, is among the most important US military facilities in the world, and is the foundation stone of the US presence in the Indian Ocean region. It’s been a vital element in Australia’s strategic position in the region for almost 50 years. But the dispute over ownership of the island is now creating serious uncertainties over the continued long-term US military presence. Australia’s position on the controversy is becoming increasingly untenable and now needs to be reviewed.

Diego Garcia is just one of some 60 tropical islands in the Chagos archipelago. In 1965, the administration of the archipelago was transferred from Mauritius, in somewhat dubious circumstances, shortly before Mauritius gained independence. In 1973, the last of the workers who serviced the coconut plantations were removed from the island and Diego Garcia was leased to the United States for military purposes. Britain retains notional administration over the now otherwise uninhabited archipelago, as the British Indian Ocean Territory.

Virtually since independence, Mauritius has claimed sovereignty over the islands, but its campaign to regain them from Britain is now gathering steam. In 2017, the dispute was referred to the International Court of Justice, which delivered an advisory opinion in firmly favour of Mauritius. In May this year the United Nations General Assembly, by an extraordinary margin of 116 for to 6 against, voted on a deadline for Britain to return of the territory to Mauritius. Australia was one of only a handful of countries that supported Britain. The UN deadline predictably passed on 22 November without any action or even formal response from London.

Mauritius will continue to campaign for the return of the Chagos. The loss of support for Britain (and the United States) by traditional alliance partners in the UN is startling and will further embolden those campaigning for return of the islands. Mauritius has previously relied on polite diplomacy to pressure Britain, but that may now change.

We are likely to see Mauritius ramping up its tactics to embarrass Britain and the United States over the issue. This includes plans to send a ship with displaced islanders and their descendants to land on the disputed islands, which will inevitably be interdicted. This and other tactics could get ugly, creating real moral questions over British and US claims to support for the so-called “rules-based order”.

A demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London, over the Chagos Islands, July 2018 (Photo: David Holt/Flickr)

For decades, Australia has given unquestioning support for Britain’s position on sovereignty, therefore to the legitimacy of the US base on Diego Garcia. But perhaps we should ask how long we can afford to ignore Mauritius’ claims. Indeed, there is a danger that the longer the dispute goes unresolved the more entrenched Mauritian claims may become. But there may be a window to reach a negotiated solution that gives Mauritius most of what it seeks while also allowing the US base to continue for the foreseeable future.

The Chagos dispute involves several separate but related issues: questions of formal sovereignty; the right to exploit the islands and their economic exclusion zones (EEZs) for tourism and marine resources; the right of Chagos islanders and their descendants to return to the islands for visits or permanently; and lastly, of course, the continued operation of the US base on Diego Garcia.

But London refuses to enter into negotiations with Mauritius on any of these issues. Washington takes the convenient position that it’s Britain’s problem.

For its part, Mauritius has long focussed on trying to persuade London about the question of sovereignty. But it has not substantively engaged with the United States, which is the real party in interest. One wonders how long Britain would hang on to the Chagos if the United States didn’t need the base.

HMAS Newcastle approaches the wharf at Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory, in 2015 (Photo: Department of Defence)

None of this is helpful in resolving the controversy. Indeed, these problems are resolvable.

The United States and its allies want continued military use of Diego Garcia, unimpeded by political restrictions or security concerns from local inhabitants or economic activities.

But the Mauritian government (in contrast to its previous stance) has now made clear that it does not seek to evict the US from Diego Garcia. Mauritian officials acknowledge that Mauritius could give watertight guarantees on security of tenure of the base for a “very long” time. Some senior figures even privately concede that Mauritius could consider regaining sovereignty over the archipelago minus Diego Garcia and perhaps even some nearby islands.

Given the flexibility apparently expressed in Port Louis, it seems hard to believe that acceptable new arrangements could not be reached that deals with sovereignty, economic rights and the Chagos islanders.

India has a key role in resolving the issue, and its political influence in Mauritius cannot be overstated. Delhi long supported Mauritius’ sovereignty claims and opposed the US military presence. But it now recognises the value of the US base, and indeed is said to quietly use the base itself. It is therefore in India’s interests to reach an acceptable resolution.

Undoubtedly, future arrangements may not be as perfect for the US and its allies as having unimpeded use of an uninhabited archipelago notionally administered by Britain. But that colonial era may soon end. It may now be time to put in place a new set of arrangements.

For Australia, the US military presence in the Indian Ocean, anchored by Diego Garcia, is vitally important. That creates an imperative to use our relationships with all the parties to facilitate a mutually acceptable outcome. Ignoring the problem is no longer an option.
 

This article is part of a two-year project being undertaken by the National Security College on the Indian Ocean, with the support of the Department of Defence. The author recently travelled to Mauritius.


Diego Garcia: The costs of defending an Indian Ocean outpost

Diego Garcia, an island in the Chagos Archipelago claimed by Mauritius, is critical in enabling US power projection into the Indian Ocean (Photo: US Navy/Flickr)
Diego Garcia, an island in the Chagos Archipelago claimed by Mauritius, is critical in enabling US power projection into the Indian Ocean (Photo: US Navy/Flickr)
Published 5 Dec 2019 10:30   0 Comments

On 22 November, the United Kingdom failed to comply with UN Resolution 73/295 passed in May, which demanded the UK “withdraw its colonial administration from the Chagos Archipelago unconditionally within a period of no more than six months”. Australia was one of only six states to vote against the resolution (in addition to the United States, UK, Hungary, Israel, and the Maldives). In missing the November 22 deadline, the UK has been branded an illegal colonial occupier by Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, who claims the Archipelago as Mauritian.

The UK has drawn considerable international criticism over its disregard for the sovereignty claims of Mauritius. Australian support for Britain’s contentious sovereignty claim risks delegitimising its South China Sea policy, where Australia calls for the resolution of differences through negotiation based on international law.

Why is Australia willing to endure considerable international backlash to support the UK’s sovereignty claims over the remote Chagos Archipelago?

One of the Chagos Archipelagos atolls, situated in the centre of the vast Indian Ocean, hosts US Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia. Diego Garcia is critical in enabling US power projection into the Indian Ocean, Africa, and Middle East regions. Diego Garcia’s infrastructure supports military activities, including but not limited to heavy bomber aircraft resupply, nuclear attack submarine tending, military supply pre-positioning and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. While nominally a US base, Diego Garcia is used by allied militaries, including Australia.

For Australia, Diego Garcia is a strategic asset available for military operations in the Indian Ocean and beyond. In addition to the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, Diego Garcia anchors Australia’s presence in the Indian Ocean and provides a friendly port in the vastness of the region. As a US ally, Australia benefits from the myriad capabilities stationed on Diego Garcia, and has used the base for naval and air operations in support of Australia’s interests. Australia has used Diego Garcia for military operations for many years, including use of F/A-18 Hornets and C130 Hercules Transport Aircraft.

While making it unpopular internationally, Australia’s support of UK sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago demonstrates the perceived strategic significance of Diego Garcia today.

As China expands military deployments into the Indian Ocean, retention of Diego Garcia for US military use is increasingly pertinent. China’s “String of Pearls” in the Indian Ocean – which includes ports developments in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan – demonstrates the growing importance of the Indian Ocean for China’s national interest. As the Indian Ocean becomes a region of increased major power competition, Diego Garcia will remain a valuable asset for US and allied militaries.

Whether the base on Diego Garcia could continue to operate at its current capacity under Mauritian sovereignty is uncertain. While Jugnauth stated at the UN General Assembly that Mauritius “is prepared to enter into a long-term arrangement … that would permit unhindered operation of the defence facility [on Diego Garcia],” UK and US inaction since UN Resolution 73/295 passed indicates this solution is unacceptable.

According to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Diego Garcia’s “status as a UK territory is essential to the value of the joint US–UK base.” Further, Britain’s Minister of State for Europe and the Americas Sir Alan Duncan outlined in a written statement that many of the functions Diego Garcia performs “are only possible under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom”.

Whether or not Mauritian sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago would adversely affect base security and the scope of military activities, the US and UK have demonstrated their unwillingness to engage in negotiation with Mauritius. Any deviation from the status quo will require US and UK compromises.

While making it unpopular internationally, Australia’s support of UK sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago demonstrates the perceived strategic significance of Diego Garcia today. By dismissing Mauritius’ sovereignty claims and the Chagossian community’s fight for the right of return, Australia in this instance has prioritised security and defence interests over international rules, norms, and values. UN Resolution 73/295 forced Australia to publicly “show its hand” and support one of two opposing futures for the Indian Ocean. While generally Australia attempts to shape rules, norms, and values to suits its own security, in this case, the two are mutually exclusive.

The strategic significance of Diego Garcia and the anxiety over the military implications of possible Mauritian sovereignty make this issue intractable. A negotiated solution would require compromises from Mauritius, the UK, and the US, which are currently entrenched in their respective positions. Meanwhile, Australia as a middle power is required to balance alliance obligations and security interests against support for international rules, norms, and values.
 

This piece was produced as part of a two-year project being undertaken by the National Security College on the Indian Ocean, with the support of the Department of Defence.


A US view on Australia’s role in the Indian Ocean

Washington needs Australia to be a leader in strategic thinking about the Indo-Pacific region (Photo: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff/Flickr)
Washington needs Australia to be a leader in strategic thinking about the Indo-Pacific region (Photo: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff/Flickr)
Published 27 Sep 2019 10:00   0 Comments

Australia plays a critical role in maintaining strategic stability in the Indian Ocean and remains one of the United States’ closest allies on economic, diplomatic, defence, and intelligence matters. Canberra has been a thought leader in formulating the “Indo-Pacific” concept. Yet, even with the shift in US policy focus from the Asia-Pacific to the Indo-Pacific, US regional priorities will remain firmly entrenched in the Western Pacific. As a result, Washington needs Australia to be a leader in strategic thinking on how to approach the management of the Indian Ocean region.

US conception of the Indo-Pacific

Within the first year of the Trump administration, the “Indo-Pacific” phrase entered US policy documents through the December 2017 National Security Strategy, which discussed the importance for US interests of keeping this region “free and open.” The “Indo-Pacific” was subsequently referenced in the January 2018 Summary of the US National Defense Strategy. In May 2018, US Pacific Command was renamed Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM).

US priorities remain mostly the same in the Indian Ocean, despite a broader regional focus. The geographic responsibilities for INDOPACOM, for example, have not changed, and its area of responsibility still excludes the western half of the Indian Ocean. This aligns with the conception of the Indo-Pacific in the National Security Strategy, defines the region as stretching “from the west coast of India to the western shores of the United States.” Consequently, the Indian Ocean remains segmented in US diplomatic and defence bureaucracy and secondary to US priorities in the Western Pacific and the Middle East.

US and Australian troops participate in joint training drills in Hawaii (Photo: US Navy/Flickr)

However, this unchanged state of administrative planning does not mean that Washington will withdraw from the Indian Ocean, as feared by some regional observers recalling the United Kingdom’s actions 50 years ago. Multiple factors make clear that no “East of Suez” departure looms for US presence in the Indian Ocean anytime soon.

Despite former president Barack Obama’s “rebalance” to Asia and the return to great-power competition under the Trump administration, Washington continues to devote significant foreign policy attention to the Middle East and must manage threats to freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz. Bahrain provides a key base for naval operations in the Western Indian Ocean. The base at Diego Garcia is central to US logistical support in the Indian Ocean. The United States’ affirmation of UK sovereignty of the Chagos Islands, despite the growing success of Mauritius’ legal and diplomatic campaign, illustrates continued US determination to maintain a presence in the Indian Ocean.

Australia’s contributions to US goals in the Indian Ocean

The Australian continent is situated between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, which gives the country a direct stake in both regions. As a result, Canberra’s diplomatic, legal, and military approaches to management of the Indian Ocean part of the Indo-Pacific region will continue to be vital for US interests. There are three clear examples.

One is Australia’s support for US interpretations of international law. In particular: Australia’s rejection of the May 2019 UN General Assembly resolution endorsing the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion on the need for the UK to leave the Chagos Islands. Many US allies, such as France and Germany, abstained on this resolution, and the vote at the UN was overwhelmingly against the UK: 116 in favour, while only six were opposed. Australia’s vote against the resolution was welcomed by US policymakers seeking to maintain the United States’ presence in this vital location in the Indian Ocean.

Second, Australia’s military operations in the Indian Ocean advance US goals to ensure regional stability. In the western Indian Ocean, Australia is a member of Combined Maritime Forces, having both participated in and commanded the counterpiracy and counterterrorism task forces. Canberra lent crucial support to Washington by agreeing to contribute to a new mission to ensure safe passage of merchant vessels in the Strait of Hormuz ­– one of the few US allies that publicly declared its willingness to back this operation.

Finally, Australia has used its prominent roles to advance regional institutions such as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) – chairing the renamed organization in 2013–14 and drawing attention to illegal fishing in the Perth Communiqué – and the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), chairing it in 2014–15 and finalising the IONS Charter. The US understands the limits of its standing in each of these institutions (being only a dialogue partner in IORA, and not having even observer status in IONS). Consequently, Australia’s role in participating in regional architecture is critical for promoting the US vision of a free and open region.

The years ahead

The US will continue to rely on its treaty alliance with Australia for assistance in maintaining regional stability. Beyond Australia’s role in sharing the US interpretation of international law in the South China Sea and support for military operations in the Middle East, its diplomatic and military activities are important for laying the foundation of Indian Ocean security and advancing norms for an open international order in the coming decades.

An emerging issue is in Antarctica, where Australia is playing an active role in conceptualising upcoming security issues in the nearby Southern Ocean, especially with regard to increasing Chinese equities.

Australia continuing to play this strategic role in areas outside the Western Pacific advances US goals for stability in the Indian Ocean and beyond.

This piece was produced as part of a two-year project being undertaken by the National Security College on the Indian Ocean, with the support of the Department of Defence. The views expressed are solely those of the author and not of any organization with which she is affiliated.


The strategic consequence of the Chagos Islands legal dispute

Diego Garcia (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Diego Garcia (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Published 26 Mar 2019 14:30   0 Comments

At the end of last month, the African archipelago nation of Mauritius secured an important legal victory in its territorial and maritime disputes against its former coloniser, the United Kingdom.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) produce an advisory opinion that rejected the UK’s claims to sovereignty over the Chagos Islands, a small group of atolls in the Indian Ocean. It found instead that the UK had unlawfully separated the islands from the former colony of Mauritius, and that the UK should cede control “as rapidly as possible”.

The advisory opinion emerged after Mauritius successfully petitioned the United Nations General Assembly to ask the ICJ to produce an advisory opinion on the determination of the islanders (the “Chagossians”) in 2017. 

Both the petition and the advisory opinion were widely viewed as a blow against the last vestiges of British colonialism in Africa. The UK’s denial of Chagossian self-determination has damaged its international reputation at a time when it is struggling to fulfil its own independence by leaving the European Union, as well as defend the “rules-based” international system.  

A “pressured” agreement and geo-strategic importance

Mauritius had been engaged in a long-term struggle to reclaim Chagos Islands from the UK. The islands fell under British control in the 19th century and were administered under the colony of Mauritius. In contrast to the legal principle of uti possidetis – in which European colonial borders determined the boundaries of new, independent sovereign states ­– the UK planned to separate Chagos from Mauritius in the 1960s. While an “agreement” with Mauritius was struck in 1965 that the Chagos Islands would remain part of “British Indian Overseas Territory” (BIOT), the Mauritians claimed they had no choice and had been pressured into the agreement.

Chagos Islands have geo-strategic importance, as the UK leased out the biggest island – Diego Garcia – to the US for a Cold War-era military base.

While Chagos Islands was a non-self-governing territory, it never made it on the 1960 UN Declaration on Decolonisation list, which would have entitled it to a process of self-determination under international law. 

From 1967–1973, the UK forcibly moved around 1500 Chagossians to Mauritius and Seychelles, and/or prevented them from returning. This dispossession was contrary to international law. Articles 9 and 13(2) of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, for example, respectively state “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile” and “everyone has the right to leave any country including his own and to return to his country” (emphasis added). In 2002 and 2006, reports by the UN Human Rights Committee determined that the exile of the Chagossians was unlawful.

Britain argued that compensation in 1982 had resolved the issue and that a process of decolonisation had been completed. Closer to Australia’s neighbourhood, this is reminiscent of arguments employed by Indonesia in East Timor and West Papua, in which coercive, sham processes were (and in West Papua’s case, continue to be) employed to counter self-determination arguments. 

There are strategic and material reasons why the UK is keen to hold onto Chagos Islands. They have geo-strategic importance, as the UK leased out the biggest island – Diego Garcia – to the US for a Cold War-era military base.

The UK also sought to claim an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and Marine Protected Area (MPA) around the Chagos Islands.

US Air Force B1 bombers on Diego Garcia in 2001 preparing for strikes in Afghanistan (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A challenge to the marine claims

In 2011, the UK government attempts to create an MPA were subject to an arbitral tribunal case initiated by Mauritius and constituted under Annex VII of the United Nations Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The dispute primarily concerned the legality of UK’s MPA under the convention in the context of ongoing disputes over sovereignty, and as such constitutes a “mixed dispute” involving concurrent unresolved land sovereignty issues and maritime entitlement issues.

The MPA extended over a distance of 200 nautical miles, covering an area of more than half a million square kilometres. Mauritius argued that the UK was not entitled to declare an MPA or other maritime zones because it was not a “coastal state” for the purposes of law of the sea – that is, not legally sovereign over the Chagos Islands. It also argued that the MPA infringed the fishing entitlements of Mauritius, and that its purpose was to block the Chagossians from returning to the islands in violation of international law.

According to the UK, the proceedings were “artificial and baseless” and it asserted that it held sovereignty over the islands (as well as maritime entitlements) permitted to coastal states under the convention. Ultimately, the arbitral tribunal concluded that the declaration of the MPA was not in accordance with the provisions of UNCLOS.

A demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London, over the Chagos Islands, July 2018 (Photo: David Holt/Flickr)

Why do these disputes matter?

As UK officials argue, the ICJ opinion on self-determination is only advisory. Nevertheless, the opinion from the court does serve to increase the international pressure on the UK to hand back sovereignty of the islands to Mauritius, even if, according to the UK Foreign Office, that threatens the role of the Chagos Islands in the UK and US defence in the Indo-Pacific. Unsurprisingly, the US supported the position of the UK.

Importantly, the ruling comes at a time when the Royal British Navy has begun conducting freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea. These operations are designed to challenge the illegality of China’s assertive island building and excessive maritime claims. Yet, the UK’s ongoing defence of its illegal possession undermines its credibility as it simultaneously seeks to defend the “rules-based international system” in maritime domains.

In a time of great power contestation, the lack of consistent application in the international rule of law by non-great powers, such as the UK, ultimately weakens the capacities of the UNCLOS-led legal regime to establish maritime order.