Diego Garcia island, which hosts a United States military base in the Indian Ocean. (Photo: NASA/IANS). Image Source: IANS News

New York, Feb 26 : Mauritius has won a case against Britain at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) involving decolonisation of the strategically important island of Diego Garcia, which is home to a US military base. Britain must give Mauritius control of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, the ICJ said on Monday.

The court in a majority opinion, which included Judge Dalveer Bhandari of India, said decolonisation of Mauritius "was not lawfully complete" when it attained independence because Britain carved away the Chagos Archipelago from it and retained control over it.

The opinion, which is non-binding, handed down by the majority of 13 judges said Britain "is under an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible".

The sole dissenter was American Judge Joan E. Donoghue. Britain is not represented on the ICJ Bench after it withdrew the nomination of Judge Christopher Greenwood for re-election in 2017 when he could not get majority votes in the General Assembly against Bhandari.

The court gave the opinion at the request by the UN General Assembly made in a 2017 resolution. Vehemently opposed by the US and Britain, the resolution received the vote of 94 countries while 15 voted against it and 65 abstained.

Britain opposed the referral to the court saying it was a bilateral matter with Mauritius and indicated it would reject it. There is unlikely to be any challenge to the US Diego Garcia base from Mauritius, either.

"We are not asking for dismantling of the base", Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth Mauritian said after the ICJ opinion, according the Mauritian newspaper L'Express.

It reported the Prime Minister did not want to reveal the next step his country was going to take, but said he wanted Britain "to recognise the unity of Mauritius".

Britain cut off the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965 before granting it independence in 1968. The residents of Diego Garcia were forcibly removed by the British colonial administration and it was leased out to the US, which set up its strategic Indian Ocean military base.

About 50 countries gave the court written statements, some against Britain and other in support of it.

Vishnu Dutt Sharma, Legal Adviser of the External Affairs Ministry, submitted India's statement that said the process of decolonisation was not completed because Britain had not complied with UN resolutions.

In the 1970s and 1980s India had opposed the US base in Diego Garcia. Then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi called the base, 2,000 km from India, a threat.

Since then the strategic environment and India's interests have changed due the rise of China and threats to navigation from piracy. India, which is now developing close defence ties with the US, toned down its rhetoric.

When the resolution to refer the matter to the court was taken up at the UN in 2017, India's Permanent Representative Syed Akbaruddin said while supporting the position of Mauritius as "a matter of principle" to uphold the process of decolonisation and the respect for sovereignty of nations, "India shares with the international community, security concerns relating to the Indian Ocean".

(Arul Louis can be reached at arul.l@ians.in and followed on Twitter @arulouis)

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