The United Nations has ordered Britain to give up sovereignty over a series of tropical islands in the Indian Ocean, home to a key military base. The decision was approved by a supermajority of member states.
Wednesday’s resolution called on the UK to cede control of the Chagos Islands, which it said were unlawfully annexed from the Republic of Mauritius, then a British colony, in 1965. The General Assembly gave Britain six months to leave.
An extended legal battle over the territory culminated in a ruling last February in the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the top UN body for inter-state disputes. The court ordered Britain to leave Chagos “as rapidly as possible,” but the decision was ignored, prompting Mauritius to turn to the General Assembly for another vote.
The latest resolution was adopted with the overwhelming support of 116 countries, with just four nations joining Britain and the United States in opposition. Seventy-one states either abstained or didn’t cast a vote.
Britain granted Mauritius independence in 1968, but held onto the Chagos archipelago. Between 1967 and 1973, the UK expelled the majority of the Chagos population to make way for a massive military complex on the atoll of Diego Garcia, which is today leased out to the United States.
American and British officials were not pleased with the decision.
“The United Kingdom is disappointed by the results in the General Assembly today,” British UN Ambassador Karen Pierce said in a statement, arguing that the number of abstentions “underscores the fact that states have concerns about the precedent that this resolution is setting.”
Pierce’s American colleague Jonathan Cohen responded in much the same way, saying the island’s “status as a UK territory is essential to … our shared security interests.”
However, Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Kumar Jugnauth said he was ready to offer the US and UK unhindered access to Diego Garcia, meaning that the two powers are unlikely to give up the base.
The question of sovereignty over the #Chagos Islands is secondary to that of resettlement and treating the Chagossians with the human rights and respect they deserve. No decisions over the future of the islands should be taken without input from the Chagossian ppl themselves.
— UK Chagos Support (@ChagosUK) May 22, 2019
UK Chagos Support, an advocacy group, was somewhat critical of the move, insisting that “no decisions over the future of the islands should be taken without input from the Chagossian people themselves.”