(CNSNews.com) – In a stinging rebuke to Britain and the United States, the U.N. General Assembly by a large margin on Wednesday voted to give Britain six months to leave Indian Ocean islands that are home to the strategically-located U.S. military base at Diego Garcia.
The two allies won just four supporters in the 116-6 vote – Israel, Australia, Hungary and the Maldives (a nearby island nation whose vote was based on an ongoing dispute with Mauritius over the limits of the continental shelf).
Most European Union members were among the 56 abstentions, although some (Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Spain and Sweden) voted for the measure. Fifteen countries were absent.
The UNGA chamber burst into applause as the result was announced.
The resolution censured Britain’s occupation of the Chagos islands – which Britain calls the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) – and called for the archipelago to be ceded to Mauritius within six months.
The move followed an advisory opinion in February by the U.N.’s top court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which called on Britain to surrender its sovereignty over the islands as soon as possible.
The court, whose opinion was sought by the UNGA in a 2017 resolution, said Britain had acted unlawfully when it held onto the BIOT after Mauritius, a former British colony, achieved independence in the 1960s.
Britain says the BIOT has been under continuous British sovereignty since 1814 (when after Napoleon’s defeat France ceded territories including Mauritius and the Chagos islands to England.)
It rejects the characterization of the issue as one of “decolonization,” arguing that it is rather a matter of disputed sovereignty between two countries.
Britain, backed by the U.S., objected to the ICJ ruling, given that Britain had not accepted its jurisdiction in the dispute. (According to its own Statute, the court is only meant to consider contentious disputes if the parties directly affected have accepted its jurisdiction.)
Before Wednesday’s vote, British Ambassador Karen Pierce warned that the UNGA action was setting a dangerous precedent, saying that other countries involved in bilateral disputes were risking “throwing open the door for that dispute to be subject to an advisory opinion of the ICJ and a vote of the General Assembly.”
ICJ advisory opinions are just that – advisory – and are not legally-binding.
But the prime minister of Mauritius, Pravind Jugnauth – who attended the session – said it was incorrect that the opinion had no legal consequences, as all states must respect international law and the U.N. cannot ignore or contravene the legal positions of its highest judicial bodies.
Australia’s delegate disagreed, saying state consent is a cornerstone of international law and noting that both parties had not consented to a binding judicial settlement of this matter.
‘Critical to our mutual security’
Pierce spoke at some length about the importance of the Diego Garcia naval and air base to regional and global security, noting its location relative to some of the world’s most crucial shipping lanes.
“In this important part of the world, the joint United Kingdom and United States defense facility … plays a vital role in our efforts to keep our allies and friends, including Mauritius, in the region, and beyond, safe and secure,” she said.
Pierce said the base “is vital to efforts to combat conflict, terrorism, drugs, crime, and piracy.”
It is also the site of one of the world’s four GPS ground antenna stations, and hosts seismic monitoring capabilities in support of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. (The BIOT is one of just 11 CTBT hydroacoustic monitoring stations around the globe.)
Mauritius has publicly committed to entering a long-term arrangement with the U.S. should the islands become its sovereign territory, but U.S. Ambassador Jonathan Cohen reiterated the U.S. view on the matter – the U.S.-British security arrangement “cannot be replicated” and the islands’ status as British was “essential” to the base’s value, he said.
“That joint base is critical to our mutual security as well as broader efforts to ensure global security,” Cohen said. “The strategic location of the shared base enables the United States, the United Kingdom, and our allies and partners to combat some of the most challenging threats to global peace and security.”
Diego Garcia played an important role in U.S. military missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The runways can accommodate long-range strategic bombers and vessels as big as aircraft carriers are able to anchor in the lagoon.
It has also been involved in responses to major humanitarian crises, including those resulting from the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in 2004, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013.
In the 1960s and 70s, the Chagossian population of some 1,500 was relocated to Mauritius or the Seychelles. A series of legal actions over two decades ended in 2016 with a Supreme Court decision upholding a government decision to ban their return.
Pierce restated Britain’s regret about the manner in which the removals took place, but said that after an independent study, the government ruled out the islanders’ return based on feasibility, security interests and cost to taxpayers.
She said Britain remains “determined to improve the livelihoods of Chagossians in the communities where they now live,” citing a $50 million support package for those living in Mauritius, the Seychelles, or Britain.