Written by DIVE Magazine Tuesday, 29 January 2013 13:18
A legal challenge to the largest no-take Marine Protection Zone in the world has been given the go ahead by a court in the Hague.
In 2009 the UK authorities announced the decision to establish a 545,000 sq mile marine reserve around the islands. While Mauritius supports the idea of a marine reserve it fears the UK is using this as a ploy to stop people returning to Chagos and have been fighting the plan in UK and European courts. At the end of last year the The European Court of Human Rights decided that it had no jurisdiction to examine the Chagossians' claims that they been deprived of their right to return to the islands and most people thought that was the end of the matter.
However, in an unexpected development, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague announced this week that it can hear Mauritus's challenge to the UK's unilateral decision to set up the marine reserve.
Decisions by the tribunal, which arbitrates in disputes over the United Nations law of the sea, are binding on the UK. At the preliminary hearing the UK's attempt to challenge the court's jurisdiction was defeated. Britain is now obliged to explain highly sensitive political decisions dating back to 1965.
The Mauritian prime minister, Navinchandra Ramgoolam, said: 'We welcome the fact that the UN tribunal will have the whole case before it when it next meets. Never before have [the UK] had to explain why they detached the Chagos Islands from Mauritius.
Mauritius does not recognise the marine protection area. According to Ramgoolam, the government was not properly consulted and Mauritians were denied the right to exploit waters they have fished for decades.
His government has said it fears that the marine zone effectively prevents any future resettlement by Chagossians because it does not allow any fishing in the zone. Fishing on around the island would be the only realistic means of living there.
Concern is also growing in Mauritius that the reserve, which is a biodiversity hotspot of global importance, is a 'sham'. It is only patrolled for six months of the year by one old tug and the US nuclear base in Diego Garcia has been given exemption from the fishing ban. In 2010, more than 28 tonnes of fish was caught for use by personnel on the base.
A cable which came to light in the Wikileaks of 2010 casts further doubt on the real purpose of the reserve. Colin Roberts, the Foreign Office director of overseas territories, told the US State Department that there would be no 'Man Fridays' left on the islands following the establishment of the MPA and that establishing the park would, 'in effect, put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago's former residents'. He added: 'We do not regret the removal of the population.'
Some conservationists who supported the setting up of the reserve now claim they were misled by the UK government. 'I now regret my support of the marine sanctuary', said TV conservationist Ben Fogle.
The Foreign Office said it was 'disappointed' with the tribunal's decision. 'It seems out of sync with other, similar cases and may slow the process down,' it said. 'However, this is only a procedural decision. It does not address the substance of the issues at hand – neither the arbitral tribunal's jurisdiction nor Mauritius's claim. We have no doubt about our sovereignty of the territory, and are confident that Mauritius' claims are without merit.'
On the question of the marine reserve, the Foreign Office added: 'The no-take MPA around the British Indian Ocean Territory (Biot) is the largest no-take MPA in the world. The MPA provides refuge and breeding sites for migratory and reef fish, marine mammals, birds, turtles, corals and other marine life. The MPA will help reduce regional loss of biodiversity and, it is hoped, in replenishing fish stocks in the Indian Ocean.'