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Spring 2024 Reading Group

Decolonisation and the Law

Prerequisite: None

Exam Type: No Exam

In broad terms, the course will explore the history of international law, addressing the engagement of the United States and Britain with international law, human rights and decolonisation, from 1945 to the present day.

The course will focus on the story of the Chagos Archipelago, a part of the British colony of Mauritius from 1814 until 1965, until the islands were separated from the colony to become the ‘British Indian Ocean Territory’, Britain’s last colony in Africa, and the last colony it created. The catalyst for the act was the agreement by the US and Britain to create a military base on one of the islands, Diego Garcia. Mauritius attained its independence in 1968, without the Chagos Archipelago. Between 1968 and 1973 the entire population of Chagos was forcibly deported to Mauritius, Seychelles and the UK. In 1982, Mauritius began to agitate for the return of the Chagos Archipelago, which culminated in February 2019 with an Advisory Opinion by the International Court of Justice that the separation of the Chagos Archipelago was unlawful and without legal effect, that Chagos remained a part of Mauritius, and the Chagossians were entitled to return.

The course will address these events through two lenses:
First, by reference to practise under international law, through five illustrative moments and cases before the IMT and ICJ (Nuremberg, 1945; South West Africa, 1966; Nicaragua, 1984; Whaling in the Antarctic, 2012; Decolonisation of Chagos, 2019);

Second, by reference to the experience of a single individual, Liseby Elyse, born in 1953 on Peros Banhos, an island of the Chagos Archipelago, descended from enslaved people, in 1973 forcibly deported to Mauritius by the UK (with US support), in 2018 the key witness in proceedings before the ICJ on the right to return.

The course will explore the interrelationship between the life of an individual, on the one hand, and the changing role and practise of international law and the ICJ, on the other. It addresses also the changing relationship between the US and the UK and the idea of an international rule of law – the rights of individuals and groups under international law, the role of international courts, decolonisation and self-determination – over a period of seventy-five years. The course will also touch on the implications for the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

The key themes include:

  • the reality of international law and litigation, as opposed to its presentation in academic discourse;
  • the role of individuals in the making and application of international laws;
  • matters of gender, identity and race in international legal discourse;
  • international legal discourses in the forms of narrative and story-telling; and
  • making aspects of international law more accessible to others outside the discipline.

The course will be based on Philippe Sands’s new book, The Last Colony, published in the U.S. by Alfred Knopf in September 2023.

Note: This reading group will meet from March 19 through April 9, with two makeup sessions needing to be scheduled.