Pope Francis’ Chagos Islands quip is being interpreted by Mauritius as a sign of support for its ICJ- and UNGA-backed claims to the archipelago that the UK arbitrarily partitioned from the then-colony just a few years before independence, but neither London nor Washington care what the Pope says since the strategically positioned island of Diego Garcia fulfills much too important of a purpose in ensuring their control over the Afro-Asian (“Indian”) Ocean for them to bend to global opinion on this issue and return the territory to its rightful owners.
The UK’s partition of the Chagos Islands from Mauritius and subsequent removal of its indigenous inhabitants during the Old Cold War is one of the least-known historical injustices of the 20th century, though it’s recently gained a lot of international attention following the International Court of Justice’s non-binding ruling earlier this year that London return control of the archipelago to its rightful owners and the UN General Assembly’s support of the same. Pope Francis appeared to touch on this issue by referring to the territory by its rightful name of the Chagos Islands instead of the “British Indian Ocean Territory” that London calls it during his brief visit to Mauritius, which still lays claim to it on the basis that it was illegally separated from the then-colony in contravention of the international standard that colonial borders were supposed to remain as they were during the granting of independence instead of being arbitrarily changed by the colonizer for self-interested reasons.
The UK didn’t just undertake its moves for the sake of it, but in order to preserve its control over the strategically positioned island of Diego Garcia that fulfills much too important of a purpose in ensuring its control over the Afro-Asian (“Indian”) Ocean, which is also directly relevant to American interests as well after it leased the island to Washington shortly after Mauritius’ independence. Both Great Powers have proven time and again that they aren’t swayed by global opinion and are unwilling to sacrifice their strategic interests in order to give their soft power a short-time boost. It doesn’t matter to them what the ICJ ruling was, what the UNGA said, or especially (and definitely for Trump) what Pope Francis says. Mauritius must be aware of this reality but is still hoping to capitalize on the pontiff’s quip in order to continue keeping the Chagos Islands issue in the media. Simply put, even if the UK unexpectedly agreed to return the islands to Mauritius, the US military wouldn’t let them because they can’t abandon their “unsinkable aircraft carrier”.
This brings to mind the larger issue at play, namely the contrast between geopolitical realities and international law. Theoretically speaking, every state should abide by the agreed-upon principles enshrined in the UN Charter that they all officially endorse, yet without credible enforcement mechanisms, these said principles are merely “guidelines” for ensuring some degree of predictable behavior by the vast majority of states powerless to defy the Great Powers (who are usually the enforces, whether unilaterally or multilaterally) without consequence. The moral of the story is that Mauritius might never reunite with the Chagos Islands irrespective of how much international soft power support they receive since the ICJ, UNGA, and Pope Francis can’t forcibly evict the UK and US from the territory. When it comes to unresolved territorial disputes, however unfortunate it is to accept, the fact of the matter is that “might makes right” and that only the powerful are able to get their way. This isn’t an endorsement of that reality, but just a recognition thereof, which isn’t likely to change anytime soon.
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