UNGA backs motion censuring UK’s occupation of Chagos Islands

UNITED NATIONS, May 23:The UN General Assembly has backed a motion censuring the United Kingdom’s occupation of the Chagos Islands, in the Indian Ocean, urging the island chain to be reunified with neighbouring Mauritius within six months.
There were 116 votes for the motion, with more than 50 abstentions, and just five votes against, including the UK, United States, and Hungary.
The vote followed on from an Advisory Opinion issued by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at the end of February (UN News report here), which stated the UK was “under an obligation” to ends its administration of the islands “as rapidly as possible”.
The UK retained sovereignty over the islands after Mauritius gained its independence from Britain in 1968, following a reported compensation deal between the two States.
The entire Chagossian population was forcibly removed from the territory between 1967 and 1973 and prevented from returning. The Court said that ending UK control was a necessary step to full decolonisation of Mauritius in a manner “consistent with the right of peoples to self-determination.
The islands are known by the UK Foreign Office as the British Indian Ocean Territory. The resolution is not binding on the UK to act, but according to news reports, the overwhelming vote against, followed a robust lobbying campaign at the UN and in national capitals.
A total of 116 countries on Wednesday voted in favour of a non-binding resolution presented by African countries that urged Britain to “withdraw its colonial administration” from the Chagos Islands within six months.
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.
Britain evicted about 2,000 people from the archipelago in the 1960s and ’70s to make way for a huge US military base on Diego Garcia, which played a key strategic role in the Cold War before being used as a staging ground for US bombing campaigns against Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s. The facility was used as a CIA interrogation centre after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
In February, the International Court of Justice handed Mauritius a victory when it said in a legal opinion that Britain had illegally split the islands and should give up control of the Chagos.
After Britain rejected that ruling, Mauritius turned to the UN General Assembly to press for action.
Mauritius argues the Chagos archipelago was part of its territory since at least the 18th century and was taken unlawfully by the UK in 1965, three years before the island nation gained independence.
However, Britain insists it has sovereignty over the archipelago, which it calls the British Indian Ocean Territory.
Wednesday’s vote was the second time in two years that Britain had to defend its ownership of the Chagos islands at the United Nations.
In 2017, only 15 countries including Britain and the US voted to oppose a request for the ICJ ruling.
Non-binding measure: Before the vote, Britain and the US wrote to all UN missions, urging them to oppose the draft resolution, arguing the fate of the Chagos is a bilateral issue.
“This is not a matter of decolonisation for the General Assembly,” wrote British Ambassador Karen Pierce. “It is a bilateral sovereignty dispute between the United Kingdom and Mauritius.”
US acting Ambassador Jonathan Cohen argued the court opinion was non-binding and was in no way a legal ruling that decided on the dispute.
In 2016, Britain renewed a lease agreement with the US for the use of Diego Garcia until 2036.