India has voted against the UK to back of a UN General Assembly resolution seeking the International Court of Justice’s opinion on the decades-long dispute between Britain and Mauritius over an island in the Indian Ocean. In a diplomatic blow to Britain, the General Assembly voted by 94 to 15 to ask the Hague-based court to examine the legal status of the Chagos Archipelago, which Mauritius maintains is part of its territory that has been unlawfully claimed by the UK since 1965. Britain cut off the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965 before granting it independence in 1968.
India was among the nations voting in favour of the resolution proposed by Mauritius and co-sponsored by the Group of African States. “As part of our longstanding support to all peoples striving for decolonisation, we have also consistently supported Mauritius, a fellow developing country from Africa with whom we have age-old people to people bonds, in their quest for the restoration of their sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago,” India’s Permanent Representative to the UN Ambassador Syed Akbaruddin said in his statement to the General Assembly on the resolution.
Akbaruddin said India supports the draft and votes in favour of it, “continuing with our consistent approach on this important issue of decolonisation”. Speaking before the vote, Mauritius’ Minister Mentor and Minister for Defence Anerood Jugnauth told the 193-member General Assembly that the Chagos Archipelago has been part of his country since at least the 18th century, when France had governed it.
He said the entire territory had been ceded to the United Kingdom in 1810, and kept intact until the unlawful excision of the Chagos Archipelago in November 1965. He added that information had come to light about British efforts to manipulate the international community at the time, and to present the United Nations with a fait accompli regarding the separation. Those facts alone should warrant a fresh look at the situation, he emphasised. He said “a vote for the draft resolution […] is a vote in support of completing the process of decolonisation, respect for international law and the rule of law.”
Akbaruddin said as a country that has gone through the throes of decolonisation, India since its own independence in 1947, has always been in the forefront of the struggle against colonialism and apartheid. He stressed that India shares with the international community, security concerns relating to the Indian Ocean. “We are conscious of our collective commitment towards ensuring the security and prosperity of our oceanic space. On balance, however, it is a matter of principle for India to uphold the process of decolonisation and the respect for sovereignty of nations,” Akbaruddin said.
The archipelago’s biggest island Diego Garcia is the site of a major British-American military base that is still in operation and served as a key US base during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. The US voted against the draft resolution saying it was an attempt to circumvent the ICJ’s lack of jurisdiction over a bilateral issue in which one of the parties had not consented to the submission.
It said the military base on Diego Garcia, jointly operated by the United States and the United Kingdom, was critical to regional and global security. The US said the issue was not decolonisation, but a bilateral territorial dispute that would undermine the Court’s advisory function. Britain’s envoy to the UN Matthew Rycroft said the UK is opposing the resolution “because referring a bilateral dispute to the ICJ is not the appropriate course of action.
“The request for an advisory opinion is an attempt by the Government of Mauritius to circumvent a vital principle: the principle that a State is not obliged to have its bilateral disputes submitted for judicial settlement without its consent. And let me be clear: we do not and we would not give that consent, because we are clear about what was agreed with Mauritius,” he said.
Rycroft added that UK created the British Indian Ocean Territory for defence purposes, and in 1966, concluded an agreement with the United States of America for joint defence use of the territory. “The extensive facilities that have since been established, are primarily used as a forward operating location for aircraft and ships, and they make an essential contribution to regional and global security and stability,” he said. He noted that Britain’s current agreement with the United States regarding the use of the Archipelago as a military base lasts until 2036.
“We cannot, 19 years away, predict exactly what our defence purposes will require beyond that date. We should not and will not make arbitrary, or ill-informed, or premature decisions. We cannot gamble with the future of regional and global security,” he said. The British envoy asserted that UK stands by its commitment that when it no longer needs the territory for defence purposes, it will pass on the Archipelago’s sovereignty.