The legacy of the Chagos MPA in international law

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The UN Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling on Mauritius v UK has just been released, as discussed in The Guardian (the full judgment is available on the PCA website). As I discussed in an earlier blog on "Why the legality of the Chagos MPA matters", and in an opinion piece on Fortress Conservation at Sea (open access version available here), the controversy surrounding the Chagos MPA designation sets yet another negative precedent for MPAs in the eyes of developing countries, and it raises questions about the honesty and intent of former colonial powers. Although the PCA ruling failed to endow Mauritius with sovereign rights as a coastal state under UNCLOS over Chagos, it does give Mauritius "binding rights to fish in the waters surrounding the Chagos Archipelago, to the eventual return of the Chagos Archipelago to Mauritius when no longer needed for defence purposes, and to the preservation of the benefit of any minerals or oil discovered in or near the Chagos Archipelago pending its eventual return." This outcome paves the way for Chagossian evictees and their descendants to return to the islands, while at the same time restricting the US's rights with regard to its military base on Diego Garcia (i.e. any expansion would be at the discretion of Mauritius rather than the UK).

In 2010 when the British Indian Ocean Territory surrounding the Chagos Archipelago was declared an MPA, it was "the largest in the world". Five years later, the UK has once again seized this crown from the international community with its declaration of the sea around another overseas territory, Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific. Unlike the Chagos MPA, the Pitcairn designation comes complete with a plan for satellite surveillance (privately funded by the Bertarelli Foundation, for five years), which shows a recognition that these massive MPAs are nothing more than paper parks if they cannot be adequately enforced (as discussed earlier this week by Peter Jones in his blog on Pitcairn). You can read more about this trend towards "bigger is better" in MPA designations and how enormous MPAs are being driven by international protected area targets in my paper on "Missing MPA Targets: How the push for quantity over quality undermines sustainability and social justice" (open-access version here).

So the legality and the legacy of the Chagos MPA do matter, I think we can all agree on that. Large-scale conservation is an excellent idea, if it is implemented effectively and without enflaming human rights debates. It will be interesting to see how Mauritius pursues its right to fish in the area, and how/whether the Chagossian evictees truly return. Let's hope that Pitcairn sets a better tone for the future of large MPAs, and that countries don't continue to use large, offshore designations in lieu of pursuing more effective conservation closer to home.