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On 22 May 2019, the U.N. passed a non-binding resolution demanding the U.K. to return control of the Chagos Islands to Mauritius. Approved by 116 votes to 6, the British occupation of the islands has been rendered unlawful. The resolution was opposed by the U.S., Australia, Hungary, Israel and the Maldives. Austria, Greece, Ireland, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland all voted for the UK to relinquish the territory. There were 56 abstentions to the resolution, including from France, Germany and Portugal. The U.K. Foreign Office refers to the overseas islands as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), an area given up by Mauritius in 1965 in exchange for independence. Britain forcibly evicted Chagossians from the island in 1960-70s, to create a U.S. military base on Diego Garcia. British diplomats believed the non-binding resolution would hold little practical impact. Yet Britain faces enormous international pressure on this issue.
Those that voted against the resolution, made claims to security and sovereignty. The Foreign Office claimed the U.K.-U.S. defence facility “helps to keep people in Britain and around the world safe from terrorism, organised crime and piracy”. Likewise, Karen Pierce, the U.K. ambassador to the U.N., stated the matter was a “bilateral sovereignty dispute”. Meanwhile, the Maldives representative disputed the motion due to the “serious implications for the security of the Indian Ocean region”.
It is unclear as to how Britain could hold a legitimate claim to sovereignty on a region of islands thousands of miles off its coastline. Irrespective of the need for security measures and peace-keeping bases in the Indian Ocean, the British control of the Chagos Islands is in engrained in colonial power and imperialist venture, rather than global co-operation or international security. Britain must revoke its unlawful claim to sovereignty over the islands and return control to Mauritius, viewing it not as a threat to security but as a progressive step forwards in the decolonisation process. If the Chagos Islands are rightly given back to Mauritius, there is no reason why its government would be incapable of overtaking security and peace-keeping processes in the region.
Since the initial occupation in 1965, British control of the Chagos Islands has been highly disputed for its violent colonial practices. The forcible eviction of Chagossians can be understood as a violation of human rights and crime against humanity. In more recent years, the island of Diego Garcia has been used by the U.S. and U.K. for highly unlawful military practices. For example, the island has been used for illegal rendition after the 9/11 attacks, CIA interrogations, and as a base for U.S. planes to bomb Afghanistan and Iraq.
The U.K.’s dismissal of Mauritius’ claim to sovereignty, is highly contradictory in light of British rhetoric concerning its ‘values’, which evangelize democracy, rights and the rule of law. The defeat reveals the extent of weakening international support for the U.K. in the U.N.’s General Assembly, but also raises questions over its permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Britain’s claim to the Chagos Islands is not grounded in a concern for ‘security’, ‘global co-operation’, nor the safety of the ‘international community’. This dispute concerns Britain holding onto its final slither of imperial power. Running the risk of diminishing international support and extreme isolation, the vote indicates a serious political message for Britain. Britain must either reconsider its outdated imperialist foreign policies, or become isolated in a changing and forward thinking world.