A UN tribunal has ruled the UK of creating a marine protected area (MPA) to suit its electoral timetable, snubbing the rights of its former colony Mauritius and cosying up to the United States. The ruling effectively throws into doubt the UK’s assertion of absolute ownership, restricts the Americans’ ability to expand their facility without Mauritian compliance and boosts the chances of exiled Chagossians being able to return to their homeland. The five-judge panel found that the creation of the MPA, announced by the former foreign secretary David Miliband in the final months of the last Labour government, breached its obligations to consult nearby Mauritius and illegally deprived it of fishing rights. The US was “consulted in a timely manner and provided with information”, all five judges state, whereas a meeting with Mauritius in 2009 reminded the tribunal “of ships passing in the night, in which neither side fully engaged with the other regarding fishing rights or the proposal for the MPA”.
Opinion from two of the five judges on the permanent court of arbitration at The Hague is even more scathing, stating that “British and American defence interests were put above Mauritius’s rights” both in 1965 when the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) was established and in 2010 when the marine zone, which involves a ban on fishing, was set up. The ruling, which was made under the 1982 United Nations convention on the law of the sea to which the UK is a signatory, is binding. It torpedoes the status of the MPA and orders the UK and Mauritius to renegotiate. (By coincidence, the government this week declared another marine protected area around Pitcairn Island in the southern Pacific.) A US telegram records a meeting with British officials in 2009 in which one is alleged to have said: “BIOT’s former inhabitants would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos archipelago were a marine reserve”. The main judgment says: “The UK has not been able to provide any convincing explanation for the urgency with which it proclaimed the MPA on 1 April 2010.” It adds: “Not only did the United Kingdom proceed on the flawed basis that Mauritius had no fishing rights in the territorial sea of the Chagos archipelago, it presumed to conclude – without ever confirming with Mauritius – that the MPA was in Mauritius’ interest.”
Mauritius has argued that the UK illegally detached the Chagos archipelago from Mauritius in 1965 – before the country was given its independence – contrary to UN general assembly resolution 1514, which specifically banned the breakup of colonies prior to independence. The judgment declares: “The United Kingdom’s undertaking to return the Chagos archipelago to Mauritius gives Mauritius an interest in significant decisions that bear upon the possible future uses of the archipelago. Mauritius’ interest is not simply in the eventual return of Chagos archipelago, but also in the condition in which the archipelago will be returned.”