Maldives takes on UK in high seas legal drama

The Maldives government looks set to lock horns with the UK Foreign Office over the Maldives’ long-running claim to 160,000 square kilometres of British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).

The Maldives wants an extension of its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) which impedes on a 200 nautical mile EEZ that the UK claims extends from the island of Diego Garcia.

The island is presently occupied by a US naval base, under an agreement in 1966 whereby the UK received favours including a US$14 million discount on submarine-launched Polaris missiles in exchange for use of the island until 2016. The base is now among the largest US naval bases outside the country, and has reportedly been used as a stop-off point for the CIA’s highly-controversial ‘extraordinary rendition’ flights to Morocco and Guantanamo Bay.

More recently, the UK has declared the Chagos Archipelago in the BIOT a marine reserve – an area larger than France – theoretically making it the world’s largest marine protected area (MPA). Funds to manage the MPA for the next five years have been provided by Swiss-Italian billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli.

The matter is further complicated by the existence of an indigenous population, the Chagos, who were forcibly evicted after the British bought the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius for £3 million (US$476,000) in 1965. The then-Mauritian Prime Minister Seewoosagur Ramgoolam subsequently received a knighthood that same year.

The British attempted to resettle 1000-odd Chagos in the Seychelles and Mauritius, which demanded an additional £650,000 (US$1 million) to settle the refugees.

The Chagos were known to Maldivians in the southern atoll of Addu, as they occasionally rescued a stranded fishermen who had strayed too far south and sent him home. The islands themselves were never settled by the Maldivians, although they retained the Dhivehi name of Feyhandheebu.

Dispossession and the courtroom

The Chagos won a high court victory in the UK in 2000 enabling them to return to archipeligo, but the decision was extraordinarily overruled by the Queen’s royal prerogative. In 2008 the House of Lords overturned the high court verdict, forcing the Chagos to appeal in the European court of human rights.

The Maldives contends that as the islands are uninhabited, according to the Law of the Sea Convention the UK had no right to claim a 200 nautical mile EEZ.

“We will send a delegation to the UN in February and the UN will question us as to our claim, which we believe we have according to the Law of the Sea Convention,” said State Minister for Foreign Affairs Ahmed Naseem.

“Sri Lanka has also filed claims, and we need clarification of them,” he added.

The Maldives’ interest in the area extends to fishing and potential exploitation of mineral resources, Naseem explained.

“We are saying that since there is no population benefiting from the area, the British government cannot claim it as their territory. We feel the [original] claim made by the British is not legally valid [under the Law of the Sea Convention],” Naseem said.

Were the Maldives – or any other country – to succeed in its claim, it would be indirectly benefiting from the homelessness of the Chagos by claiming the territory from which they were forcibly evicted.

“That’s not our issue – the fact of the matter is that there is no native population on the island,” Naseem explained.

On Tuesday the Chagos community in the UK, who live in Crawley next to their arrival point of Gatwick airport, expressed surprise at the UK Foreign Office’s apparent opposition to the Maldives’ claims on their homeland.

In an interview with the UK’s Guardian newspaper, Roch Evenor, chairman of the UK Chagos Support Association, said the Foreign Office “seems to be more interested in defending the seabed than the interests of Chagossians. Why did [politicians] give us all that sweet-talking before the elections and then afterwards we are back to square zero? We feel emotionally drained.”

Second Secretary at the British High Commission in Colombo, Dominic Williams, insisted on Wednesday that the UK was not protesting the submission by the Maldives to extend its territorial waters, but was rather making “an observation” to the UN’s Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS).

“The UK observed that the Maldives’ submission had not taken into full account the 200 nautical mile Fisheries and Environment Zones of the British Indian Ocean Territory,” he said. “We are satisfied that the CLCS will be able to consider the Maldivian submission without prejudice to the position of the United Kingdom.”

Williams said that the UK believed that a Marine Protected Area (MPA) “is the right way ahead for furthering the environmental protection of the Territory.”

The decision to establish the MPA was, he added, “without prejudice to the current pending proceedings at the European Court of Human Rights. As such, there is no need to wait for a decision from the European Court of Human Rights before implementing the MPA.”

“The establishment of this MPA has doubled the global coverage of the world’s oceans benefiting from protection and gives the UK the opportunity to preserve an area of outstanding natural beauty containing islands and reef systems rich in biodiversity.”

He noted that once the area was no longer needed for defence purposes, “the UK is committed to cede the British Indian Ocean Territory to Mauritius.”

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8 thoughts on “Maldives takes on UK in high seas legal drama”

  1. Chagos islands is the home to over 2000 people who lost their home in one of the biggest human rights violation of the so called guardian and human rights role models of the Century - the Great United Kingdom. The people lost their homeland - a whole country was taken by the English and given to States.

    The people of Chagos are fighting for their land. I hope they get it sooner than later. Maldives should not take advantage of the present situation. It is good to leave the area for now and ever protected and once the natives return to Chagos, Maldives can try to negotiate the extension.

    If Maldives wins this claim, it is a double victimization of the people of Chagos and we are part to a big human rights violation.

    Please watch the video "Stealing a Nation"http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/stealing-a-nation/

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  2. What baffles me is the why they are claim indigenous status. All who claim to be indigenous are descendants of African slaves brought to the islands by the french.

    I don't think there would be any victimization in pursing whats Maldivian.

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  3. The british are famous for ruling on other peoples land and then before leaving it,makes a mess out of it. Look at Kashmir, they divided whole India but left Kasmir. They made Israel but forgot that Palestinians were also living in the same land and they needed a country as well. Chagos is one other example. And there are many more. They are bloody clever bastards.

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  4. Thanks "concerned one" for the link (Please watch the video “Stealing a Nation”http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/stealing-a-nation/)..Nothing big for the big muscles to flex against the tiny ones... "might means right" for them... injustice, totalitarian, and deceptive ans stealing what they want by hook or crook ...that's how the big powers maintains their powers... But they had their time ...and that time is almost over!

    These are the role models that some misguided people of our society idolizes. Then what do we expect them to be. Of course ridicule our way of life, make a mockery of our sacred values, and falsely accuse the "right" to be "wrong" and "wrong" to be "right".

    My advice is for us all to love the truth... be the truth.. stand by the truth... for truth is the essence for peace.

    In Allah Almighty We Trust.

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  5. The "Chagos islanders" were not indigenous to the Chagos Islands. They arrived with the Portuguese and the British and essentially worked for the Portuguese and the British. They were Europeans who had intermarried with a variety of nationalities. The British have as much rights to the Chagos as the so called Chagosians. There were Pakistanis who came to Addu Gan with the British. Does anyone here think the Pakistanis have a right over Gan because of that?

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  6. chagosian? you joking? settling africans in the islands under slavery and again resettling them in other island (seychelles /mauritius) doesnt make 'chagos' an island nation. all done during colonial times..

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