BANGKOK (AP) — A delegation from Mauritius is set to sail Tuesday to the Chagos Islands to press the country’s claim for the strategically important Indian Ocean archipelago, which is also claimed by Britain and is home to an American military base.
It is the first time Mauritius has embarked upon an expedition to the islands without seeking the permission of the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth said in a statement, adding it is a “concrete step” in “exercising its sovereignty and sovereign rights in relation to the Chagos Archipelago.”
Those rights were strengthened in 2019 by a non-binding opinion from the International Criminal Court, which said that Britain had unlawfully carved up Mauritius, an archipelago nation whose main island is some 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) off the southeast coast of Africa. The Chagos islands were a part of Mauritius until Britain separated them a few years before Mauritius became independent from British colonial rule in 1968.
The United Nations General Assembly followed that opinion with a resolution two months later demanding that Britain end its “colonial administration” of the Chagos Islands, which include the U.S. military base on Diego Garcia, and return them to Mauritius. Even Pope Francis weighed in, saying that Britain should obey the U.N. resolution.
Britain, which calls the archipelago a “British Indian Ocean Territory,” has refused to abide by the non-binding decisions. It has been argued that the Chagos archipelago has been under its sovereignty since 1814 and that its continued presence there is strategically important.
Britain’s Foreign Office did not comment on the sovereignty question, but said Mauritius had “notified the U.K. about its plans to conduct a scientific survey close to the Chagos Islands.”
“The U.K. shares this interest in environmental protection and gave assurances to Mauritius that it would not interrupt the survey,” the Foreign Office said.
In his statement, Jugnauth recalled the ICJ ruling and said that “continued administration of the Chagos archipelago by the United Kingdom constituted a wrongful act.” His office did not immediately respond to an email seeking further comment.
Jugnauth has repeatedly said that ending the British administration, however, would have no implications for the U.S. military base at Diego Garcia, which he has said Mauritius is committed to maintaining.
Britain sealed a deal in 1966 allowing the U.S. to use Diego Garcia for defense purposes. The United States maintains a base there for aircraft and ships and has backed Britain in the legal dispute with Mauritius.
Britain evicted about 2,000 people from the Chagos archipelago in the 1960s and 1970s so the U.S. military could build its base. Many resettled in Britain and have fought for years in courts there to return to the islands.
Jugnauth in 2019 told the U.N. General Assembly their forcible eviction “remains a very dark episode of human history akin to a crime against humanity.”
Jugnauth said the vessel commissioned by Mauritius, Bleu de Nîmes, is to sail Tuesday from Seychelles to the Chagos archipelago, about 500 kilometers (310 miles) south of Maldives in the Indian Ocean.
Onboard for the 15-day journey is Mauritius’ permanent representative to the U.N., as well as legal advisers and others who planned to undertake a scientific survey at the Blenheim Reef, a partially submerged atoll in the northeastern part of the archipelago.
Jugnauth said the survey results would be part of Mauritius’ submissions for a case being heard by the Hamburg-based International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which was brought by Maldives, which supports Britain’s sovereignty claim.
Jugnauth said in his statement that he would not accompany others on the current voyage, but would personally visit the islands in a separate voyage.
By DAVID RISING I Associated Press
AP journalist Jill Lawless contributed to this report from London.