The Diego Garcia Dispute: Time To Resolve International Disagreements

 
on March 26 2014 4:51 PM

Russia’s annexation of Crimea has sent shivers throughout the international community because it revives the practice of using force to settle territorial disputes. The United States and the European Union have responded with serious sanctions on Russia in order to dissuade others from taking similarly destabilizing moves. In Asia, for example, China has laid claims to islands currently held by Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, not to mention the long-standing Chinese assertions of sovereignty over Taiwan. China’s rapid military buildup and its aggressive diplomacy validate concerns that these disputes could escalate.

Forty-six years ago, in violation of international law and UN resolutions, Great Britain seized the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius. When it granted its colony Mauritius independence in 1968, the United Kingdom excised the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius and leased Diego Garcia, the main island of the archipelago, to the U.S. After initially denying that the islands were inhabited, British officials forcibly expelled approximately 2,000 Mauritians living in Chagos to make way for American military installations.

Since 1966, Britain has "allowed" the U.S. to use Diego Garcia as a military base under a 50-year lease. The UK has stated that the Chagos will be returned to Mauritius once the islands are no longer required for defense purposes. The current lease expires in 2016 and comes up for renewal in 2014.

For years, Great Britain has repeatedly used its power and influence to stymie the peaceful resolution of this dispute. In 2012, Mauritius announced that it would leave the Commonwealth if necessary in order to take the Chagos issue before the International Court of Justice. But the UK immediately amended its declaration relating to the jurisdiction of the court so that the International Court of Justice would not have mandatory jurisdiction if a case was brought against it. In 2010, Britain declared a Marine Protected Area around the archipelago, and in response Mauritius initiated proceedings against the UK under Annex 7 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. The African Union and Non-Aligned Movement have expressed unanimous support for Mauritius over the Chagos issue.

Now is the time to do the right thing and begin negotiations over the return of the Chagos Archipelago to its rightful owner, the Republic of Mauritius. The era of colonialism is over. Russia’s actions in Crimea are a searing reminder that the international community will no longer tolerate the forceful subjugation of weaker states by their more powerful neighbors Mauritius is acting responsibly, consistent with recognized international norms, to resolve this dispute peacefully. The West has the opportunity to match its words with deeds. Great Britain and the United States should do honor to their status as great powers and sit down with us to negotiate a formal, legal transfer of sovereignty.

Washington has no interest in being the subject of protracted challenges against the legality of the territory on which it maintains a vital military facility. As a close ally and strategic partner, Mauritius will continue to provide full access and basing rights to the United States on Diego Garcia. By accepting Mauritian sovereignty, the UK will not prejudice its position with respect to other colonial territories, nor will it prejudice the "defense purposes" by which it justifies its continued occupation of the islands

Africa is watching. What’s good for Europe should be good for Africa as well.

Adam Ereli is a former U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom of Bahrain.

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