A 2018 protest over the Chagos Islands in London’s Trafalgar Square (ARÊTE/David Holt)

Completing decolonization

Several African nations co-sponsored the General Assembly resolution calling on member nations to support ICJ’s advisory opinion. Many of the resolutions on Africa that have come before the 15-nation U.N. Security Council were long sponsored at least partly based on the respective interests of former African colonizers such as Britain and France, which hold two of the council’s five permanent, veto-wielding seats along with China, Russia and the United States.

Decolonization is a major undercurrent, or theme, in the working lives of diplomats posted at the United Nations’ headquarters in New York. For many years, a huge, colorful map depicting the modern decolonized world and the remaining few major territorial disputes, such as the Western Sahara, hung prominently on a wall near one of the world body’s busy corridors and chambers.

Despite heavy lobbying by the British and American delegations asking other U.N. member nations to side with them, the General Assembly approved the resolution opposing the U.K.’s “colonial administration” over the islands by a 116-6 vote, with 56 nations — including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Korea — abstaining. Only Australia, Britain, Hungary, Israel, Maldives and the United States were opposed. Fifteen of the U.N.’s 193 members did not vote.

It was a bellwether moment of sorts that well more than half the world’s nations opposed Britain, embroiled in its Brexit controversy and a shadow of its former empire, and the United States, still a superpower but fast losing prestige under U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration. After the vote, Britain’s U.K. Ambassador Karen Pierce said her nation “regrets” the vote but that it “fully recognizes the importance of the issue of decolonization and the U.N.’s role in that.”

The British government also “sincerely regrets the manner in which Chagossians were removed from British Indian Ocean territory in the 1960s and the 1970s and we are determined to improve their lives where they have resettled,” she said in a statement.

The issue, however, “remains at heart a bilateral sovereignty dispute between Mauritius and the U.K. and we continue to believe that it remains an important principle that bilateral sovereignty disputes should be resolved by the parties themselves,” said Pierce. “This vote was setting a precedent that should be of concern not only to the United Kingdom but to all member states in this chamber today that have sovereignty disputes of their own.”