Maldives, although had received a larger share of maritime area according to the international tribunal’s ruling, still opposed the allotment of the Chagos Islands to Mauritius.
The current political crisis prevailing in Maldives has its roots in Britain’s claim over the Chagos Islands. The history of the issue dates back several decades, which now has spiralled into a major maritime dispute between Maldives and Mauritius. Political parties within Maldives are tugging at each other over the issue that has prevailed for a long and even has the involvement of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).
It is pertinent to mention, the ITLOS, in its ruling passed in April this year regarding the dispute between the two island nations had awarded a large portion of the maritime area to Mauritius. Maldives, although had received a larger share according to the international tribunal’s ruling, still opposed the allotment to Mauritius.
The area ruled in favour of Mauritius has become the bone of contention among the political parties of Maldives. Umar Naseer, former Home Minister of the country, while addressing a rally on June 2, 2023, said the government had the right to reject the decision made by ITLOS, which it did not exercise. The opposition party is cornering the government on the issue and calling the acceptance of the ITLOS decision a defeat. The decision, they allege was influenced by the event when the Maldivian President, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih had sent an official letter to the Prime Minister of Mauritius, recognizing the disputed region of Chagos Islands as part of Mauritius.
What is the whole dispute about?
The dispute presently contested by Maldives and Mauritius, was earlier a tussle between Mauritius and the United Kingdom, its past colonial master. In 1968, Mauritius got independence from the UK and the latter as an independent entity severed the currently disputed Chagos Islands. The UK had leased one island within Chagos; Diego Garcia to the US for constructing a military base in the region.
Almost 2000 natives of the island were also forcefully deported by the UK, according to various news sources and these displaced people have been involved in a legal battle, for their resettlement and return to the Chagos Islands.
British Indian Ocean Territory in Africa was the last piece of land to be colonized by the British and continues to be under the Crown.
United Nations (UN’s), top court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in 2019 had ruled the occupation of the islands by the British was illegal and the Chagos Islands were pronounced as part of Mauritius. Interestingly, the UK had so far refused to respect the decision made by the ICJ. Although last year, London announced that it would begin talks with the island nation to decide on the terms of the return of the archipelago.
Role of climate change in the dispute
The ruling passed by the ITLOS has further reinforced the claims of Mauritius over the Chagos Islands and has resulted in political unrest in the Maldives. This is just the tip of the iceberg as experts believe, more such disputes would rise among the low-lying island nations as water levels rise due to climate change.
Maldives, while defending the case in front of the ITLOS had argued about the reef regions, which only appear only during the low tide time, staking claim over a larger area in the region. This makes it further evident, that the rising sea level played a major role in the decision of the case, as the Hamburg-based international tribunal did not consider the arguments made by the Maldivian government. Maldives has been suffering from constant land loss, submerging of landmass due to rising sea levels, saline water entering the freshwater streams and a risk of completely disappearing under water for many years now. The impact of climate change is evident in its case and losing a substantial archipelago is another challenge for the nation.
Meanwhile, the former Home Minister, Umar Naseer, has used this issue to further his political cause and has announced to contest for the post of the President, in the election, slated for September, this year.