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.”