The British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) is composed of a group of low-lying islands situated in middle of the Indian Ocean. The largest of the islands, Diego Garcia, is only 30 km2 in area. The islands are subject to British control, although sovereignty over the islands is also claimed by Mauritius. The British Government entered into an agreement with the United States in 1965 to allow the latter government to use the islands for defence purposes. The local population was expelled from the islands in order to make way for the building and operation of a military base.
The BIOT was the subject of significant litigation in the United Kingdom when a group of Chagossians (the indigenous population of the islands) challenged government policy refusing to allow them to return to the islands. However, in 2008, the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords ruled that the BIOT constitution promulgated by the British government was valid and the government had not committed an abuse of power by limiting the rights of the islanders to return to the BIOT. The case is now pending before the European Court of Human Rights and it is expected to be decided in the coming months.
The latest twist in the saga is the decision of the British government to designate the waters surrounding the BIOT as a marine protected area.
In a consultation launched in late 2009, the government asked for views on whether it should completely prohibit fishing within the 200 nautical mile exclusive fishing zone surrounding the islands. The consultation paper argues that “there is sufficient scientific information to make a convincing case for designating most of the Territory as a marine protected area (MPA), to include not only protection for fish-stocks but also to strengthen conservation of the reefs and land areas.” The new MPA announced on 1 April will include “a “no-take” marine reserve where commercial fishing will be banned.” (See press release) This will be one of the largest marine reserves in the world, almost doubling the global coverage of the world’s oceans under protection. (see map)
These proposals raise an interesting example of the potential for conflict between human rights and the protection of the environment. On the one hand, the government can claim that it is seeking to promote the protection of fish stocks and fragile marine ecosystems, fulfilling its obligations under the Law of the Sea Convention, as well as contributing towards “[addressing] a shortcoming in the global network of properly protected marine reserves” as required under the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP Decision VII/5) and the Johannesburg Plan of Action. On the other hand, the islanders have complained that banning fishing would effectively prevent them from ever returning to the islands as it would remove their only potential source of income (see Guardian, Chagos Islanders attack plan to turn archipelago into protected area, 29 March 2010) thus further undermining their human rights. Whatever view one takes, the case raises interesting questions of how one balances competing values of the protection of the environment with the protection of livelihoods of local populations.