The oral hearings in the advisory proceedings concerning the Legal Consequences of the Separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965 took place at the ICJ last week. Readers will recall the two questions posed by the General Assembly in its request for an Advisory Opinion (Resolution 71/292) and the procedural and propriety issues raised by this case, as discussed by Marko, Dapo and Antonios – here, here and here. A host of States – and the African Union – participated in the proceedings and their voluminous written and oral statements/comments will surely keep interested scholars busy for a long time to come. In this post, I will try to restrict myself to the task of offering a few initial comments on the self-determination arguments made in relation to the first question (essentially, was the decolonization of Mauritius lawfully completed when it acceded to independence in 1968, following the detachment of the Chagos Archipelago?). For this purpose, I will focus on the claims made by the UK and Mauritius for the sake of brevity, and not because I agree with the UK’s contention that Mauritius is the ‘de facto claimant’ in this case (Transcript p. 36).
When approaching the claims and counter-claims concerning the Chagos Archipelago – or the British Indian Ocean Territory (‘BIOT’) – it is worth bearing in mind at least two important considerations. First, the UK is clearly on the wrong side of history as far as both the creation and maintenance of the BIOT are concerned. Secondly, the closest comparable case in the ICJ’s jurisprudence, the Western Sahara Advisory Opinion, is different in one key respect. The Western Sahara Opinion was sought while the General Assembly was actively engaged in a fraught and flawed attempt at decolonization and it was delivered when the crisis was still unfolding. In contrast, in the present proceedings, the ICJ has been invited to answer questions which not only require it to establish the legal significance of events which occurred largely between 1965-1968 but also to assess their present consequences. Undoubtedly, this is a difficult task and we shall have to wait and see whether the Court responds positively to the Request or whether it adopts a more non-committal approach, as it did in its Kosovo Advisory Opinion.
Self-determination and Customary International Law
The UK argued that the right of self-determination had not crystallized as a norm of customary international law (CIL) by either 1965 or 1968 (e.g. Transcript, p. 48). Specifically, it denied that the Colonial Declaration (GAR 1514 (XV)(1960)) generated any binding legal obligations as far as Mauritius’ decolonization was concerned. The 1960 Declaration proclaimed the core right – that ‘all peoples have the right to self-determination’ (para. 2) – while stating that: ‘Any attempt aimed at the partial or total disruption of the national unity and the territorial integrity of a country is incompatible with the purposes and principles of the [UN] Charter’ (para. 6). The UK claimed that the right of self-determination only acquired CIL status with the adoption of the Declaration on Friendly Relations (GAR 2625 (XXV)(1970). It relied on voting records, and the statements made, by State representatives, in the context of the development and adoption of these, and other, resolutions (and contemporaneous academic opinions) in support of its preferred interpretation. Read the rest of this entry…