The Maldives government has defended its vote against a UN resolution calling on Britain to cede the Chagos archipelago to Mauritius, contending that support would have undermined a bid to extend Maldivian territorial waters.
The Maldives stood out at the UN General Assembly on Wednesday with Britain, Australia, Hungary, Israel and the United States, which operates a military base on the island of Diego Garcia about 310 miles south of the Maldives, prompting criticism for siding with the small minority. Some 116 countries voted in favour and 56 countries abstained despite lobbying by the UK and US.
The non-binding resolution – which cannot be enforced but reflects global opinion – endorsed an advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice that Britain had wrongfully detached the Chagos Islands in 1965 from its former colony Mauritius.
An estimated 1,800 Diego Garcia islanders were forcibly evicted to construct the joint US-UK airbase. The exiled Chagossians live mainly in the UK, Seychelles and Mauritius.
The foreign ministry said in a statement Thursday that the Maldives could not support any proposal that diminishes the country’s territory as laid out in the 2008 constitution and domestic law.
Mauritius had objected to the UN secretary general when a claim was filed in 2010 under the Law of the Sea Convention to delimit the continental shelf between the Maldives and Chagos, it added, arguing that taking a stand in the protracted dispute would have “raised questions about the submission to the UN on Maldives territory.”
The stance reflected foreign policy followed since 1990 by successive governments, the ministry noted. In 2017, the Maldives was among 15 countries that opposed seeking a ruling from the International Court of Justice, the highest court in the UN system.
In an explanatory statement before the vote, Maldives permanent representative Thilmeeza Hussain said the resolution “prejudges” the 2010 submission to the Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf.
“Without due process and clarity on the legal implications of the contested matter, Maldives is not in a position to support the resolution solely as a matter of decolonisation,” the permanent representative said.
“For the Maldives, any uncertainty concerning the issue of the Chagos archipelago will have serious implications for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and the wider security of the Indian Ocean region.”
She reiterated support for the UN’s decolonisation processes and stressed that the decision “should not be construed as a vote or a position taken against the co-sponsors of the resolution, with whom we have excellent relations.”
Speaking at the general assembly, Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Kumar Juqnauth said the island nation was prepared to enter into an agreement with the US or Britain to allow continued operation of the base.
But the British ambassador said the country would not abandon Chagos and that it was a bilateral sovereignty dispute that should not have been referred to the ICJ. The islands must remain a British territory at least until the US lease expires in 2036, she said.
The Chagos island chain was known to locals in the southernmost atoll of Addu but were never settled by Maldivians.
In 2010, the Maldives sought an extension of its Exclusive Economic Zone on the grounds that the UK had no right to claim a 200 nautical mile EEZ if the islands were considered uninhabited.
“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],” former state minister for foreign affairs Ahmed Naseem told the Maldives Independent at the time.
Asked if the Maldives would be indirectly benefiting from the homelessness of the Chagos if it succeeded with the claim, Naseem said: “That’s not our issue – the fact of the matter is that there is no native population on the island.”