UNITED NATIONS (AN) — The U.N. General Assembly voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday to demand that Britain cede to Mauritius an Indian Ocean archipelago where the United States maintains an important military base, in an embarrassing diplomatic defeat for the two Western powers.
The non-binding U.N. resolution called on Britain to return the Chagos Islands, home to the Diego Garcia military facility, within six months. Britain has controlled the region since 1814, detaching the archipelago islands for inclusion in a new British Indian Ocean Territory in 1965.
Mauritius, a former British colony, complained that it had to relinquish control of the islands, including Diego Garcia, in exchange for independence in 1968. That dispute simmered for years as the military base became a hub for long-range U.S. bombers and Navy and CIA operations.The British began leasing Diego Garcia to the United States in 1966, then expelled the local population of about 2,000 people in the late 1960s and early 1970s, forcing them to relocate to Mauritius and the Seychelles. Finally in 2017, the U.N. General Assembly voted to refer the territorial dispute between Britain and Mauritius to the International Court of Justice.
As the U.N.'s top court for international disputes, the ICJ, based in The Hague, Netherlands, ruled in February of this year that Britain should quickly return the islands to Mauritius. The court's advisory opinion concluded that "the process of decolonization of Mauritius was not lawfully completed when that country acceded to independence” and Britain now has "an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible."
A 2018 protest over the Chagos Islands in London's Trafalgar Square (ARÊTE/David Holt)
Several African nations co-sponsored the General Assembly resolution calling on member nations to support ICJ's advisory opinion. Many of the resolutions on Africa that have come before the 15-nation U.N. Security Council were long sponsored at least partly based on the respective interests of former African colonizers such as Britain and France, which hold two of the council's five permanent, veto-wielding seats along with China, Russia and the United States.
Decolonization is a major undercurrent, or theme, in the working lives of diplomats posted at the United Nations' headquarters in New York. For many years, a huge, colorful map depicting the modern decolonized world and the remaining few major territorial disputes, such as the Western Sahara, hung prominently on a wall near one of the world body's busy corridors and chambers.
Despite heavy lobbying by the British and American delegations asking other U.N. member nations to side with them, the General Assembly approved the resolution opposing the U.K.'s "colonial administration" over the islands by a 116-6 vote, with 56 nations — including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and South Korea — abstaining. Only Australia, Britain, Hungary, Israel, Maldives and the United States were opposed. Fifteen of the U.N.'s 193 members did not vote.
It was a bellwether moment of sorts that well more than half the world's nations opposed Britain, embroiled in its Brexit controversy and a shadow of its former empire, and the United States, still a superpower but fast losing prestige under U.S. President Donald Trump's administration. After the vote, Britain’s U.K. Ambassador Karen Pierce said her nation "regrets" the vote but that it "fully recognizes the importance of the issue of decolonization and the U.N.’s role in that."
The British government also "sincerely regrets the manner in which Chagossians were removed from British Indian Ocean territory in the 1960s and the 1970s and we are determined to improve their lives where they have resettled," she said in a statement.
The issue, however, "remains at heart a bilateral sovereignty dispute between Mauritius and the U.K. and we continue to believe that it remains an important principle that bilateral sovereignty disputes should be resolved by the parties themselves," said Pierce. "This vote was setting a precedent that should be of concern not only to the United Kingdom but to all member states in this chamber today that have sovereignty disputes of their own."