General assembly expected to vote in favour of UK relinquishing control of Indian Ocean archipelago claimed by Mauritius
Julian Borger in Washington and Owen Bowcott Legal affairs correspondent
Tue 21 May 2019
The UK is facing a diplomatic rout at the United Nations on Wednesday when the general assembly is expected to vote overwhelmingly to demand Britain relinquish hold of one of the last vestiges of empire in the Indian Ocean.
The US and the UK have lobbied intensely at the UN to avoid support for Britain dropping to single figures among the UN’s 193 member states on the issue of its continued possession of the Chagos Islands, known as the British Indian Ocean Territory.
The vote follows an advisory opinion issued by the international court of justice (ICJ) in February that UK should hand over control to Mauritius, which claims sovereignty over the islands.
London and Washington are trying to persuade allies to at least abstain, so as to prevent support for Mauritius reaching triple figures. The Mauritian mission to the UN believes it has reached that threshold, winning pledges of backing from more than 100 member states.
Chagos Islanders remind us that Britain is a shameful coloniser, not a colony
Such a lopsided defeat would also serve to underline British isolation in a battle that many UN member states, particularly in Africa, see as a last stand to preserve a relic of empire, and at a time at a time when its European Union allies, dismayed by Brexit, are no longer automatically offering support.
It would also reflect the diminishing persuasive power of the US, which campaigned vigorously for the UK cause. Last week it took the unusual step of hosting a reception for the UK, attended by over 60 member states, to allow British and American diplomats to put their arguments directly.
The Mauritian ambassador to the UN, Jagdish Koonjul, predicted that the lobbying effort would fall flat, and that much of Europe would either abstain or vote with Mauritius.
“I expect a number of European countries to stand up for the rule of law and show they value and respect the institutions member states have themselves created,” Koonjul said on Monday evening.
Britain took possession of the Chagos archipelago in 1814 and held on to the islands after Mauritian independence in 1968, allegedly through coercive pressure on independence leaders. Three years earlier the UK had secretly leased one of the islands, Diego Garcia, to the US to use as a military base.
The people of the islands, the Chagossians, were forcibly evicted and have been campaigning for their return for decades.