In humiliating blow for Britain, UN asks international court to advise on sovereignty of Chagos Islands

Britain has overseen the region since 1814 and in 1965 detached the Chagos islands from Mauritius, a colony that gained independence three years later, to create the British Indian Ocean Territory

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 June, 2017, 11:21am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 June, 2017, 10:36pm

In a humiliating blow to Britain, the United Nations voted to seek an opinion from the top UN court on Mauritius’ claim that Britain illegally maintains sovereignty over the Chagos Islands, including Diego Garcia, where the United States has a major military base in the Indian Ocean.

The Indian Ocean archipelago has been at the centre of a decades-long dispute over Britain’s decision to separate it from Mauritius in 1965 and set up a joint military base with the US on Diego Garcia, the largest of the islands.

The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution presented by Mauritius and backed by African countries asking the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague to offer an opinion on the island chain’s fate.

The resolution requested the ICJ to advise whether the process of decolonising Mauritius was lawfully completed, following the separation of the islands.

It also asked the court to advise on the “consequences under international law ... arising from the continued administration by (Britain) of the Chagos Archipelago, including with respect to the inability of Mauritius to implement a programme for the resettlement on the Chagos Archipelago of its nationals, in particular those of Chagossian origin.”

The measure was approved by a vote of 94-15 with 65 abstentions, notably from many European countries including Germany, France, Italy and Spain.

China and Russia abstained.

The vote was seen as a test of Britain’s ability to rally support at the United Nations from fellow Europeans after it voted to leave the European Union.

Britain and the United States had strongly appealed to the 193-nation assembly to vote against the measure, arguing that it was a bilateral dispute.

British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft argued that the General Assembly should not intervene in a matter that London was seeking to address through negotiations.

“How many other bilateral disputes left over from history could be brought before the General Assembly in this way?” asked Rycroft.

“The present draft resolution could set a precedent that many of you in this hall could come to regret.”

Most EU countries refused to back Britain and opted for an abstention, except for Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary and Lithuania. Albania and Montenegro, which are EU candidate countries, voted against the resolution.

The ICJ’s opinion would be non-binding, but it would lend support to a campaign by Mauritius for the return of the Chagos Islands.

Mauritian Defence Minister Anerood Jugnauth told the UN assembly that bilateral talks with Britain had failed and that his country’s sovereignty over the islands would not threaten the status of the Diego Garcia base.

Diego Garcia was used by the US Central Intelligence Agency as an interrogation centre for terror suspects from Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks.

“More than five decades have passed, and now is the time to act,” said Jugnauth.

The minister accused Britain of working to block international action, saying “Chagossians were cynically referred to as ‘Tarzans’ and ‘Men Fridays’ to avoid the scrutiny by the United Nations.”

Mauritius argues that it was illegal for Britain to break up its territory while the Indian Ocean country was under British colonial rule. Mauritius won independence in 1968.

Britain rejects Mauritius’s sovereignty claim over the Chagos Islands, but has said it will return the archipelago to Mauritius when the military base is no longer needed, without specifying a possible date.

India and African countries voted in favour of the resolution.

Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, Reuters, The Guardian