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Implications of the International Court of Justice’s ruling on the Chagos Islands matter

The largest island in the archipelago of Chagos Islands, Diego Garcia. Picture: Reuters

The largest island in the archipelago of Chagos Islands, Diego Garcia. Picture: Reuters

Published Jul 13, 2022


By Chidochashe Nyere

A landmark ruling was made by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on February 25, 2019. Through its Advisory Opinion, the court instructed the British Indian Ocean Territory (Biot), UK, to hand back the Chagos Islands to Mauritius.

An important implication here is that, while the court made its ruling through an Advisory Opinion. It, however, is legally binding as the juridical authority of the court is recognised in Mauritius, the UK and the US – the three countries that are interested parties in this case.

Following that ruling which upheld the sovereignty of Mauritius, the UK’s British Broadcasting Corporation went as far as labelling the ICJ as a UN court. This, I argue, was influenced by the fact that the UN General Assembly had issued a Resolution, 71/292 of 2017, that recognised and upheld that the Chagos Islands, through the auspices of Mauritius, had the right to self-determination and self-governance in accordance with the doctrine of state sovereignty.

Moreover, the ICJ's ruling allows Mauritius to resettle its nationals, the Chagossians, on its territory. I note that the Chagos Islands ruling by the ICJ further reiterates the resolve to decolonise formerly colonised spaces and places that are yet to enjoy freedom and independence from their former imperial masters. In the interest of pursuing the Pan African agenda, especially as it applies to Africa’s diaspora, the Chagos Islands question must be hastily addressed.

Thus, in commemoration of the landmark ICJ’s ruling, the Chagossians rightfully celebrate their victory on the path to self-determination, self-governance, as well as their de-linking from the clutches of their former colonial masters.

The Chagos Islands or the Chagos Archipelago are a group of about 60 islands that are located in the Indian Ocean, about 500 kilometres off the coast of the Maldives. The main island, Diego Garcia, is home to an American military base. This is another thorny issue that necessarily involves the US in the resolution of the Chagos Islands question.

The Chagos Islands have undergone different political administrations that have not been without controversies. They were first a Dutch colony, then French and currently a British colony since 1814.

The United Kingdom entered treaties with the United States in the 1960s to establish an American military base on the Chagos Islands, and both extra-territorial governments used the presence of that military base as a reason to keep the Chagossians in enforced exile.

Thus, Chagos Islands have been in contention for the past 60 years. At the centre of the contention is the forced removal of the Chagossians from their territory in the 1960s by the British in order to make way for the establishment of an American military base. Chagossians have fallen victim to the two States’ colonisation and domination over the years.

The political and historical background of Chagos Islands is one of foreign domination by the United Kingdom and the United States. The forced removal of Chagossians from their territory is thus problematic. It is emblematic of coloniality - the control of a people by a foreign force - and, as always, the controlling force is European.

This is tantamount to an imposition of a Euro-North American-centric civilisation, if at all, on an already existing civilisation or people. In order to undo the violence and brutality of denying the Chagossians their right to life, right to development and right to self-determination in their own territory, various law pundits and scholars had to opt for the route of litigation in domestic and international courts of law.

The litigation has been a protracted but worthy process. A number of cases have been initiated in both the United Kingdom and the United States. In the recent past, international court cases at the European Court of Human Rights, such as the Chagos Islanders vs United Kingdom ECtHR case of 11 December 2012 and the ICJ 2019 case, that has resulted in the landmark ruling.

The seminal ICJ ruling of 2019 cemented the need for decolonisation, especially for the subaltern, Africa and its diaspora. Decoloniality, both as an epistemic and political movement, provides the concepts, language and lenses to unmask the invisible colonial matrices of power that continue to operate unabated in the Chagos Islands and, indeed, globally. The need to decolonise formerly occupied and colonised spaces and places is ever more pertinent to today’s societies. The African Union sees the Chagos Question as a matter of unfinished business of decolonisation.

In light of this, the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation (IPATC), thus, is scheduled to hold an international conference on October 4 and 5, 2022 to further unpack, dissect and interrogate the implications of the ICJ’s Advisory Opinion on the United Kingdom particularly, as well as its implications on the United States of America, seeing its involvement in Diego Garcia, where it has its military base.

As such, the conference is set to assess how far the Chagossians have come in freeing themselves of the imperial clutches of the UK and the US since the landmark ruling by the International Court of Justice.

The forced displacement and continued enforced exile of the Chagossians remain problematic and should be resolved on the basis of the ICJ's ruling of 2019. Moreover, the conference will hear from the Chagossians themselves how their displacement has and continues to deny them of their human rights.

* Dr Chidochashe Nyere is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg.