Delimitation of maritime boundary between Mauritius and Maldives – Is it due to Chagos Archipelago dispute?

AG Riffath
Attorney General of Maldives, Ibrahim Riffath at the second round of oral pleadings regarding the dispute. | Photo: Twitter

A dispute has been created between a South African country, Mauritius and the Republic of Maldives over delimitation of maritime boundaries. Therefore, the two countries has sent concerns about the dispute to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) as Mauritius claims that their territorial water is being overlapped with the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Maldives. However, since the territory that is being disputed over is the maritime area between Addu City and Chagos Archipelago, questions have been raised whether the dispute between Maldives and Mauritius is due to the UK-Mauritius dispute about Chagos Archipelago.

Therefore, this report will give a description of the current dispute between Mauritius and Maldives and the long-standing dispute between the United Kingdom and Mauritius due to the Chagos Archipelago.

Dispute between the United Kingdom and Mauritius 

In the 18th century, Mauritius claimed a group of seven islands in the Indian Ocean called the Chagos Archipelago. However, on the 20th century, the British Empire cut off Chagos from Mauritius and claimed their rights on the Chagos islands. In return, the UK decided to give a total of three million pounds to form the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).

One of the Chagos Islands - Diego Garcia
Diego Garcia is one of the Chagos Islands. It is also the home to a US military base. Photo: Science Photo Library.

Dispute between Maldives and Mauritius 

On December 18 of 2019, an issue was presented to ITLOS requesting to find a solution as the territorial water of Mauritius is being overlapped by the EEZ of Maldives. The sea area that is being disputed by the two countries is between the southernmost atoll of Maldives, Addu City and the Chagos Archipelago which is approximately 500 kilometers from Addu City.

Therefore, ITLOS established a special chamber to resolve the dispute between the two countries on October 12 of 2020. This chamber includes of the president of ITLOS, Paik Jin-hyun and eight others to inspect the problem and find an appropriate solution for the problem.

During the meeting, Attorney General of Maldives, Ibrahim Riffath clearly stated that the island nation does not wish to be a part of the dispute between Mauritius and UK, as his opening statement at the hearing on Preliminary Objections. He stated that this problem could have been easily solved between the two countries, however, Mauritius took advantage of this opportunity by presenting it to ITLOS and attempting to prove that Mauritius has the power over the Chargos islands instead of the United Kingdom.

“It saddens me that Mauritius decided to settle the territorial disputed between UK and Mauritius by presenting the issues with Maldives to the tribunal. Maldives has been dragged into a matter that does not concern with it, AG Riffath stated.”

AG Riffath further stated that they have previously also mentioned that in order to determine the sea area of Mauritius, it is not possible to have a discussion with Mauritius alone as it is still not sure whether the Chargos islands are under the power of Mauritius or the United Kingdom. However, he mentioned that the fact that Mauritius implied that Maldives opposes decolonization -when in fact, the country has always encouraged decolonization and self-determination of countries- was offensive and unfair to the country.

“Maldives cannot be expected to take sides in that dispute, especially in proceedings before this tribunal. The Special Chamber cannot rule on disputes over land territory, let alone where one of the parties to the dispute is not even present to argue its case. If there was no dispute as to who is the coastal State of the Chagos Archipelago, there would be no issue with delimitation. The Maldives would eagerly negotiate an agreement on the maritime boundary,” AG Riffath stated.

According to AG Riffath, the Preliminary Objections of Maldives are very clear and adheres to the decisions made by the international courts and tribunals. As the matter was already decided in 2015 by the Annex VII Tribunal in the Chagos Marine Protected Area Arbitration between Mauritius and UK, the tribunal states that any dispute over territory will not fall under United Nations Convention for the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

“Mauritius claims that the 2015 Award is irrelevant because the sovereignty dispute over the Chagos Archipelago has now been resolved. It invokes as its central argument or perhaps their only argument that the non-binding Advisory Opinion rendered by the International Court of Justice on 25 February 2019 had immediately extinguished British sovereignty over this territory, AG Riffath stated.”

However, AG Riffath continued to say that the Court clearly noted that in case of that opinion, the questions put to it by the United Nations General Assembly did not involve the bilateral territorial dispute and that the Advisory Opinion was related to matters of self-determination and decolonization. Therefore, AG Riffath stated that the Court said nothing about sovereignty.

While stating that Maldives respects the international laws and has always supported multilateralism, AG Riffath stressed that the Maldives was left with no choice but to inform the jurisdiction of the Special Chamber regarding the dispute. However, he also stated that the island nation has no disagreement with Mauritius regarding maritime boundary and that the only disagreement is between the UK and Mauritius regarding the sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago.

“We look forward to the day when Mauritius and the United Kingdom resolve their dispute over the Chagos Archipelago. This would allow the Maldives to negotiate a maritime boundary with complete clarity as to which is the coastal State for the purposes of UNCLOS,” AG Riffath stated.