At last, the Chagossians have a real chance of going back home

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“Forced from their homes five decades ago …” Chagossians pictured in London, 2011. [Photo: The Guardian]

“Forced from their homes five decades ago …” Chagossians pictured in London, 2011. [Photo: The Guardian]

Britain’s behaviour towards its former colony has been shameful. The UN resolution changes everything.

On Wednesday, the United Nations general assembly debated a draft resolution that affirmed that the Chagos archipelago, which has been occupied by the UK for more than 50 years, “forms an integral part of the territory of Mauritius”. The draft, to give effect to an advisory opinion of the international court of justice (ICJ), demanded that the UK “withdraw its colonial administration … unconditionally within a period of no more than six months”.

The UK’s permanent representative to the assembly, Karen Pierce, has spent much of this month lobbying countries to vote against the draft, supported by the US. To listen to her address the assembly was to be transported back to another age, as she pleaded with delegates to recognise that the court got it wrong and what the world actually needs is a British presence in the Indian Ocean, forever, to keep us all safe.

Britain has “no doubts about its sovereignty over Chagos”, she said. No doubt? That seemed odd, given that 19 international judges and arbitrators have now expressed a view on the matter, of whom 15 have ruled that Chagos belongs – and has always belonged – to Mauritius. Not a single international judge has expressed a contrary view. How did the absence of doubt get past the very fine lawyers at the Foreign Office, people asked me?

Only Britain can deliver security, Pierce argued, a slap in the face to untrustworthy Mauritius (and the rest of Africa, and India, too), whose offer of a long-term arrangement to secure the continuation of the US base at Diego Garcia (one of the archipelago’s islands) simply wasn’t good enough. We offer Mauritius the hand of friendship, she continued, with even more trade and investment, if only you will leave things be.

Much of the general assembly listened in rapt embarrassment, unwilling to buy arguments of a kind you might find in a 1930s textbook on colonialism and diplomatic practice. “She’s given us a geography lesson,” one ambassador observed, who then joined the stampede to vote for the resolution. In the end, 116 states were in favour, 55 abstained and just four supported the UK and US (Australia, Hungary, Israel and Maldives). If any vote signals the decline of UK diplomatic influence, and a step change in the world order, this is it – an overwhelming message and a wake-up call to those who imagine a British colossus striding the world once again after Brexit.

Philippe Sands

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Un pas de plus a été franchi le 22 mai au Nations unies, avec l’adoption de la résolution visant à mettre en œuvre l’avis consultatif de la Cour internationale de justice (CIJ) en faveur de l’Etat mauricien. Le combat de Maurice pour l’archipel des Chagos devient celui de la communauté internationale. Nous vous proposons tout un dossier sur les divers articles qui ont été publiés sur le sujet. La parole aux Chagossiens, les revendications auprès de diverses instances, ou encore les interventions devant la CIJ et l’Organisation des Nations unies…

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