Cyprus will be among 22 countries that will present arguments before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) this week in a dispute between the UK and Mauritius which is claiming a group of atolls in the Indian Ocean held by the former colonial ruler.
Mauritius declared independence in 1968 and argues that it was illegal for Britain to break up its territory while still under colonial rule.
In what is described as a diplomatic blow to Britain last year, the UN adopted a resolution presented by Mauritius and backed by African countries, asking the ICJ to offer an advisory opinion on the Chagos islands’ fate.
Starting Monday, 22 countries including Cyprus, also a former colony with a similar issue, will present their arguments before the ICJ.
“Very serious matters of principle are being raised, which affect and concern all cases in general where something similar happened,” Attorney-general Costas Clerides, who will represent Cyprus at the ICJ, told state television.
Cyprus gained independence from Britain in 1960 but the former colonial ruler retained around 3 per cent of the island’s territory for use as military bases.
The ICJ will decide whether the break up of Mauritius’ territory was lawful according to international law.
How a potentially favourable ruling for Mauritius would be used was up to the government, Clerides added.
“This is a matter of a political decision,” he said. “Any country can use such a ruling any way it thinks best.”
Mauritius argues that London “unlawfully dismembered” its territory by declaring the Chagos Island group a “British Indian Ocean Territory”, thereby reducing Mauritius in size.
In the early 1970s, Britain also resettled the archipelago’s residents — some 2,000 in total — on Mauritius and Seychelles to house a US military base on one of the islands, Diego Garcia.
Mauritius claims that it has received threats from London over the dispute.
“We have had verbal threats,” said the Prime Minister of Mauritius, Pravind Jugnauth, in an interview with BBC News.
According to the BBC, Jugnauth did not dispute a report that Britain’s former foreign secretary Boris Johnson had called him personally to pressure Mauritius to back down on its demand that the islands be returned.
“Unfortunately, we have been threatened with retaliation… on issues of trade and on issues of investment, you know, and on our relationship with the UK,” Jugnauth added.
A British Foreign Office spokeswoman told the BBC they were disappointed that Mauritius took a bilateral dispute to the ICJ.
“This is an inappropriate use of the ICJ Advisory Opinion mechanism and sets a dangerous precedent for other bilateral disputes. While we do not recognise the Republic of Mauritius’s claim to sovereignty of the archipelago, we have repeatedly undertaken to cede it to Mauritius when no longer required for defence purposes, and we maintain that commitment.”