By Thomas Verfuss
The United Nations General Assembly has voted to put questions about the legality of continuing British colonisation of a Mauritian archipelago before the International Court of Justice, the highest court of the world in The Hague.
Mauritius, now a member state of the African Union, was a British colony until 1968. In the run-up to independence, the government in London split off the Chagos Archipelago from the group of islands in the Indian Ocean that formed the colony of Mauritius. When Mauritius became an independent nation, the Chagos islands remained a British colony.
The United Kingdom deported the inhabitants of the Chagos islands and leased the biggest island, Diego Garcia, as a military base to the United States. The original inhabitants and their offspring are banned from returning to their ancestral homes. Only the US military and their contractors are allowed to come to Diego Garcia.
The problem has been the subject of various resolutions at the African Union and the UN General Assembly over the years. The UNGA recalls its 2016 resolution, in which it called for the immediate and full implementation of the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples. It also recalls that we are living in the Third International Decade for the Eradication of Colonialism.
As all those resolutions have been to no avail, the UN General Assembly has now voted to put the matter before the world’s highest judges in the Peace Palace in The Hague for an advisory opinion. The International Court of Justice has two basic functions: it renders binding judgments in legal conflicts between states, and it gives advisory opinions on questions of international law at the request of UN organs. The advisory opinions are not binding, but have the authority and the moral weight of the highest judges, drawn from the main cultures in the world, stating what the valid international law is on a particular problem.
Opinio juris (opinion on the law – what states think and agree international law is) is one of the sources of law that ICJ judges use when coming to a decision. So all UN member states will be invited to make submissions on what the United Kingdom did to its colony of Mauritius. Sometimes dozens of states send in their submissions on legal problems submitted to the ICJ. Requests for advisory opinions can also stir up emotions, like when the matter of the continued occupation of Namibia and the introduction of the apartheid system by South Africa was placed before the court.