6 Jun 2019

Chagos archipelago5 min read

Manifest Pedagogy

Chagos as issue is important not just due to the ICJ ruling but also because it forms part of Indian Ocean which is gaining importance in recent times. This topic should be studied from both International and Geographical perspectives.

In news

The International Court of Justice opinion on Britain’s continued  administration of Chagos archipelago

And United Nations General Assembly voting on it

Placing it in the syllabus

India’s bilateral relations and

Important international organisations and their mandate

Static dimensions

  • What is the issue?
  • Give geographical details and also map
  • ICJ and its different kinds of jurisdiction

Current dimensions

  • ICJ ruling: Is it binding
  • UNGA voting on it


What is the issue?

  • For several decades the Chagos archipelago has been the cause of a dispute between Mauritius and the U.K., over the decision in 1965 to separate Diego Garcia from the rest of the archipelago for setting up the military base, in collaboration with the U.S. Mauritius, a British colony, achieved independence in 1968 but the U.K. refused to return the Chagos archipelago, claiming sovereignty over the islands.
  • The U.K. depopulated Diego Garcia by expelling all its inhabitants, to facilitate the building of the military base, paying just £4 million as compensation to Mauritius.
  • In contravention of international human rights laws, from 1967 to 1973, the U.K. forcibly moved around 1,500 Chagossians to Mauritius and the Seychelles, and prevented them from returning to their homes.
  • The dispute festered over the decades, with Mauritius, as per its Constitution, rightly claimed sovereignty over Chagos and challenged the U.K.’s stand.
  • Recently, both UN General Assembly and the International Court of Justice pressured the UK to withdraw its colonial administration from Chagos archipelago.
  • Since the late-1960s, the U.S. has maintained a military base on one of them, Diego Garcia. In 2016, Britain extended the lease to the U.S.
  • The agreement to allow Britain to administer the Chagos islands came in 1965, three years before Mauritius gained independence. Mauritius says Britain had made it a pre-condition for independence.

About Chagos Archipelago

  • The land area of the islands is 56.13 km2 and the largest island, Diego Garcia. The total area, including lagoons within atolls, is more than 15,000 km2, of which most of it is accounted by the Great Chagos Bank, the largest acknowledged atoll structure of the world (the completely submerged Saya de Malha Bank is larger, but its status as an atoll is uncertain).
  • This archipelago group is a combination of different coralline rock structures topping a submarine ridge running southwards across the centre of the Indian Ocean, formed by volcanoes above the Réunion hotspot.
  • In this archipelago there is no clearly discernible pattern in the atoll arrangement, which makes the whole archipelago look somewhat chaotic. Most of the coralline structures of the Chagos are submerged reefs.
  • It The Chagos contain the world’s largest coral atoll, The Great Chagos Bank, which supports half the total area of good quality reefs in the Indian Ocean.

ICJ and its different kinds of jurisdiction

  • The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is the principal legal organ of the United Nations (UN).
  • It was set up in June 1945 by the Charter of the United Nations and started work in April 1946.
  • The seat of the Court is at the Peace Palace in The Hague (Netherlands).
  • ICJ is made out of 15 judges, who are chosen for terms of office of nine years by the United Nations General Assembly and the Security Council.


There are two broad types of jurisdiction of the Court  – Contentious Jurisdiction, and Advisory Jurisdiction.

  • Contentious Jurisdiction: It is the jurisdiction of the Court on the basis of which the Court decides any case with the consent of the parties to the case, is called ‘Contentious Jurisdiction.’ It is a fundamental principle of international law that without the consent of any party to a case, the same shall not be referred to mediation or arbitration. The same rule is, with some restrictions, is applicable to the jurisdiction of the Court. In other words, the Court is not entitled to initiate any proceeding merely because one party files a case, rather the consent of both the parties are necessary that dependent is also required to give consent to the case. Contentious Jurisdiction is of three kinds they are:   
  1. Voluntary Jurisdiction: That jurisdiction which the parties by virtue of an agreement or treaty confer on Court is called Voluntary Jurisdiction. In other words, when the parties to a treaty or a contract stipulates that if any disputes arise in respect of such treaty or contract the dispute shall be referred to the Court for settlement, this type of jurisdiction of the Court is said to voluntary jurisdiction. So, in voluntary jurisdiction the parties to a dispute give their assent for the jurisdiction of the Court in advance.
  2. Ad hoc Jurisdiction: That jurisdiction of the Court when the parties, after the occurrence of the dispute, confers on Court and in which the Court has no right to take up the case, is said to be Ad hoc Jurisdiction.
  3. Compulsory Jurisdiction: It means that type of jurisdiction which the Court enjoys without the consent of the parties. In classic international law there is no concept of the Compulsory Jurisdiction of the Court, but recently it has been contended that no the time has reached to confide the Court with compulsory jurisdiction. In case of Compulsory Jurisdiction, the Court is to be empowered to take up a case without the consent of the parties like municipal Courts. But once again, the application of the Compulsory Jurisdiction at universal level depends on the approval of the Nation States.
  • Advisory Jurisdiction: It means that the jurisdiction of the Court by which it may only give an advisory opinion on a question of law. This does not require the consent of the parties to a case but when any International Institute (General Assembly or the Security Council) ask the Court to give an advisory opinion on the question. This opinion is not binding on the parties. So, the case may be referred by an international organization or by any organs within the scope of their activities.

ICJ ruling: Is it binding?

  • In February 2019, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) had ruled that the U.K. had illegally detached Diego Garcia from the archipelago and split the islands.
  • The International Court of Justice has ruled that  Britain’s continued administration of the Chagos archipelago is unlawful, It is a landmark in the effort to decolonise the Indian Ocean and return the islands to Mauritius.
  • It mentioned that the agreement between Britain and the Mauritius did not amount to “freely expressed and genuine will”. It is a damning assessment of colonial legacies and the attempt by former colonial powers to justify or ignore the indefensible on the basis of agreements.
  • The ICJ ‘opinion’ draws the line on what is expected from Britain for it to be a global nation in tune with the new world order. It announces that the world has moved on from passive acceptance of the injustices of empire.
  • The ruling, which is non-binding(advisory), observed that the decolonisation of Chagos was incomplete and the U.K. had the obligation to complete the decolonisation process. The court rejected the U.K.’s argument that the ICJ lacked jurisdiction and the matter was a bilateral issue.
  • The U.K. did not act on the ICJ ruling, compelling Mauritius to take the case to the UN, which has now accepted its sovereignty over the whole archipelago. The ruling highlights the isolation of the U.K. and the U.S. on this issue.

United Nations General Assembly(UNGA) voting on the issue

UNGA voted last month by a huge majority (116 out of 193 members) to demand that the U.K. withdraw its colonial administration within six months over the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean in favour of Mauritius.

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