2 more former AG’s voice up against Gov’t change in Chagos stance

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

Malé, Maldives – Former Attorney Generals, Fatimath Dhiyana Saeed and Aishath Azima Shakoor have voiced up against the sudden change in the current governments position in the Chagos dispute.

The statement comes after governments change of stance to support the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the legal consequences of the separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius – a controversial decision on Maldives’ part owing to a different, but related dispute about Chagos at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).

In a joint statement released on Wednesday, the two AG’s stated that the government must not have changed it’s position while there is an ongoing case relating to the same matter and that the government’s decision to accept Chagos archipelago as Mauritian territory did not make sense given the timing.

They also called upon the parliament and other relevant government institutions to verify if the government had taken this decision in the best interest of the country.

If the stance taken by the government is not paving way for the highest interest of the nation, we call upon to do everything possible to change the current position of the government.

Statement by Former Attorney Generals, Fatimath Dhiyana Saeed and Aishath Azima Shakoor read.

Their statement also stated that the government had not made any efforts in the second and third phases of the hearings to acquire the 200 nautical miles of sea territory that Maldives objected to losing in the beginning of the first phase of partition, which is part of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Maldives.

The statement said that even if the 200 nautical miles of EEZ may not be attained completely, which the state has been advocating for a long time and for which the state was obliged, the government had not made any attempts to move the area beyond the middle line to try and get as large an area for the country as possible.

Former Attorney General Dr. Mohamed Munavvar – and likely the only expert of his repute in the country relating to the field – had also voiced up against the change of Maldives stand on the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the legal consequences of the separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965 and accused that it was changed by the influence of India.

The matter came to light after it was revealed that on 22 August 2022, the President of the Maldives sent a letter to the Prime Minister of Mauritius stating that the Maldives would vote in favor of the United Nations General Assembly Resolution entitled “Advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the legal consequences of the separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965”.

AGO had since released a statement following the public criticism stating that the dispute case concerning delimitation of the maritime boundary between Mauritius and Maldives in the Indian Ocean which is currently on going in the Special Chamber of International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) was a different matter and that the government agreed to vote in favor of Mauritius regarding the 2019 advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice.

However, the governments sudden change in the ICJ’s advisory opinion and the secrecy around the matter has lead to the government being heavily scrutinized from local political parties and the public.

Maldives had previously maintained a position against Mauritius and voted against the resolution in the 2019 vote at the UN along with the United States, Hungary, Israel and Australia voted against the resolution, while 56 countries abstained from the vote. 116 nations were in favor of the motion, which sets a six-month deadline for Britain to withdraw from the Chagos island chain and for the islands to be reunified with neighboring Mauritius.

Explaining the reason behind Maldives’ decision to vote no at the UN General Assembly in New York in 2019, Maldives Permanent Representative Thilmeeza Hussain told that 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 decolonization. 

She had also told that for the Maldives, any uncertainty concerning the issue of Chagos archipelago will have serious implications for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and to the wider security of the Indian Ocean region and that it was for these reasons the Maldives voted no, on the resolution in 2019.

Background of the issue:

In July 2010, Maldives submitted its claims to the United Nations for an extended continental shelf and new coordinates that claimed the full 200 nautical mile EEZ measured from Addu Atoll, the southern-most atoll in the country. This ignored the 1992 understanding with the United Kingdom and was also inconsistent with Maldives’ previous willingness to negotiate overlapping EEZs with Sri Lanka and India, its northern neighbours. 

Maldives argued that Chagos was a unique case because it does not possess a population dependent on fishing, or indeed any permanent population at all – an argument apparently not supported by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which allows EEZs to be claimed for any habitable island whether or not it is inhabited.

Mauritius then entered the fray, protesting against both the United Kingdom and Maldives. Maldives did not officially take any position over Chagos sovereignty and had previously declined to negotiate with Mauritius over maritime boundaries. However, in 2011, President of Maldives Mohamed Nasheed, during a visit to Mauritius, issued a joint communiqué stating that the two countries would make a “collective stand” against the United Kingdom in relation to their extended continental shelves and EEZs.

But when Maldives failed to implement this apparent new understanding, Mauritius initiated legal proceedings against both Maldives and the United Kingdom. Its action against the United Kingdom resulted in the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issuing an advisory opinion in 2019 that the decolonisation of Mauritius from the United Kingdom had not been lawfully completed and that the United Kingdom should end its administration of the islands as soon as possible (which the United Kingdom has effectively ignored).

Mauritius also brought an action against Maldives before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), including expanded claims of Chagos’ EEZ measured from new baselines. This was to Maldives’ distinct disadvantage, creating even greater overlap of their EEZs of some 96,000 square kilometres. In January 2021, ITLOS rejected Maldives’ argument that the tribunal had no power to hear claims involving disputed sovereignty over Chagos. 

The Special Chamber of the tribunal also accepted Mauritius’ claim that the ICJ had already determined the archipelago was an integral part of Mauritius. The substance of the case is yet to be decided upon.