In August 2022, Maldives’ President Ibrahim Solih sent a letter to the prime minister of Mauritius, Pravind Jugnauth, expressing the Maldives’ government’s support for Mauritius’ claim to the Chagos Islands, which are currently administered by the United Kingdom as part of its British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). Solih affirmed that Maldives would back Mauritius’ claim during future votes at the United Nations General Assembly.
Previously, Malé took no explicit view regarding which state has legitimate jurisdiction over the Chagos Islands. Yet it alternated frequently regarding which country’s claim it implicitly favored. Considering its proximity to the Chagos Islands, Maldives’ primary concern has always been upholding its claims within overlapping Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and thus keeping access to rich fishing grounds, benefitting an industry that accounts for two-thirds of the country’s exports. Maldives has thus typically negotiated with whichever interlocutor is most congenial to its interests, maintaining no consistent principle.
The president’s latest decision on Chagos has been criticized domestically. His opponents allege that it was made contrary to Maldives’ national priorities or in deference to the wishes of outside powers. Yet international pressure has been mounting on the United Kingdom to vacate Chagos, and Mauritius is increasingly likely to become the sole recognized owner. To keep equivocating on whether it recognizes Mauritius’ claim would jeopardize Maldives-Mauritius bilateral relations and put Maldives at odds with international law and global opinion at a time when it is trying to expand its multilateral outreach.
Criticism and Backlash
Some have dismissed Maldives’ new recognition of Mauritian sovereignty over Chagos as the latest in a series of cynically motivated and contradictory positions. For instance, in 1992, Maldives implicitly conceded the U.K.’s sovereignty over the archipelago when Malé negotiated with London to demarcate the EEZ between Maldives and Chagos. But in 2010, Maldives issued a Joint Communique with Mauritius protesting the U.K.’s unilateral authority to declare the area around Chagos a Marine Protected Zone, banning activities such as fishing. Then in 2019, only three years prior to the government’s new position, Maldives voted against General Assembly Resolution 73/295, which urged the U.K. to return Chagos to Mauritius.
Given this history, criticisms of the Maldives’ shifting positions are fair. However, the government’s new position is an opportunity to permanently align with international law and global opinion, while improving relations with Mauritius.
This has not stopped Solih’s rivals from questioning the president’s decision. For instance, Speaker of Parliament and former President Mohamed Nasheed asserts that Maldives itself has a historic claim on Chagos and that the government has no standing to concede it to another country. This assertion is echoed by Solih’s immediate predecessor as president, Abdulla Yameen Abdul Qayoom.
These criticisms are best ascribed to the political rhetoric of an election season, with the presidential elections set for September. Yameen is leading the opposition (a recent conviction on money-laundering against him notwithstanding) and Nasheed is challenging Solih from within the ranks of the president’s own Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP). During their respective administrations, neither Nasheed nor Yameen pressed a dubious Maldivian claim on Chagos, based on vague historical accounts of interactions between Maldivian seafarers and communities in Chagos (called Foalhavahi in Dhivehi).
Charges that Maldives is bending to pressure by India, made by the country’s former Attorney General Dr. Mohamed Munawwar, have slightly more merit. India has strong ethnic and commercial links with Mauritius and is interested in building a naval base in Mauritian territory, as rival power China expands its Indian Ocean presence and Seychelles continues to rebuff India’s attempts at building a base on Assumption Island. Given India’s own history, New Delhi is also sympathetic to Port Louis’ position against the U.K. based on anti-colonial principles.
India is well-positioned to influence the Maldives’ decision: it is the Maldives’ largest and most powerful neighbor, and Solih’s administration maintains an “India First” foreign policy. However, reducing the government’s decision to this alone neglects the wider context – one in which there is increasing international recognition of Mauritius’ strong claims on the Chagos Islands.
Winds of Change
Throughout almost 400 years of Mauritius’ colonial history, Chagos was governed as part of its territory. As a decolonization wave swept the world in the 1960s, the last of Mauritius’ colonial masters, the United Kingdom, entered negotiations with Port Louis on independence, which Mauritius achieved in 1968. During the lead up however, in 1965, the U.K. excised Chagos from Mauritius, following conversations with the United States on building a joint naval base in the island of Diego Garcia to meet Cold War imperatives of containing the Soviet Union. Chagos was incorporated into the newly created BIOT, and its native inhabitants brutally expelled and prevented from returning.
The U.K.’s actions contravened UNGA Resolution 1514, which states that dividing a non-self-governing territory prior to independence is inconsistent with decolonization. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) referred to these facts when it ruled in February 2019 that the U.K.’s decolonization of Mauritius was incomplete and conducted unlawfully; that the U.K. should vacate Chagos and return the islands to Mauritius; and that it should help resettle the indigenous community it had expelled.
London dismissed the court’s opinion as advisory and non-binding. However, the U.K. suffered another blow in May 2019 when UNGA Resolution 73/295, upholding the ICJ position and urging the U.K. to vacate Chagos within a six-month period, passed with a resounding majority. In the final tally, 116 countries voted in favor and only six voted against the resolution: the United Kingdom, Maldives, Hungary, Australia, Israel, and the United States.
Even one of the U.K.’s strongest traditional supporters, the United States, could soon lose any compelling motive to continue its traditional backing. This should be credited to Mauritius’ pragmatism on Diego Garcia, currently leased to the Americans. Diego Garcia has been a vital strategic asset to the United States for decades. Its importance will only continue to increase as Washington expands power projection in the Indian Ocean, now conceptually part of a vast Indo-Pacific theater prominent in U.S. foreign policy concerns.
Mauritius understands that Washington will not risk losing Diego Garcia, especially if it could fall into the hands of a rival such as China. To assuage U.S. concerns, Mauritius’ ambassador in Washington recently expressed his government’s willingness to lease Diego Garcia to the U.S. for 99 years. If this can be guaranteed, it would divest the United States of any strong incentive to support the U.K. on Chagos – especially given how that support undermines the credibility of its commitment to a rules-based Free and Open Indo-Pacific, and of its criticisms leveled at China’s failure to abide by the rulings of international courts in pressing expansive claims in the South China Sea.
The United Kingdom itself now sees the writing on the wall and is willing to negotiate with Mauritius on returning Chagos.
Soon, Maldives will have no choice in which country it negotiates with on matters involving Chagos. This was made evident during ongoing hearings at the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), where since 2019 Mauritius has been pressing its EEZ claims from Chagos against Maldives. Malé raised a preliminary objection to the court’s jurisdiction to rule on maritime delimitation as a bilateral matter while ownership of Chagos remains unresolved. ITLOS dismissed this objection, stating that the ICJ’s ruling had settled Mauritius as the rightful legal owner of the Chagos Islands.
Going forward, Maldives has strong reasons to quickly improve relations with Mauritius. At ITLOS Mauritius is now pressing for a much larger EEZ share than it had done previously, a reflection of its irritation with Maldives’ past positions on Chagos. Because of that same irritation, Mauritius has a history of obstructing Maldives’ attempts to join regional groupings: Port Louis hindered Malé’s attempts to join the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) for years before Maldives successfully joined in 2018.
The current Solih government prides itself on a foreign policy of proactive international engagement, touting achievements such as rejoining The Commonwealth of Nations; its foreign minister securing the presidency of the 76th Session of the General Assembly; and winning a seat at the U.N. Human Rights Council. Having recently announced future bids for a non-permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council and membership at the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the government wants to build on that momentum.
To succeed, Maldives will need the support of fellow Small Island Developing States (SIDS) – including Mauritius. Maldives’ new position on Chagos removes a key source of tension between itself and Mauritius and can make Port Louis more amenable to supporting Malé’s broader international pursuits (and possibly to reaching an amicable compromise in the two countries’ EEZ dispute). Additionally, given the new international context, denying Mauritian sovereignty over Chagos is untenable. Thus, recognizing Mauritius’ claim over the islands was not only an intelligent move by the government, but its only reasonable course of action.