Why a birthday bash was called off on Mauritius – and why NZ sat on the fence on Chagos Islands vote

If we heard the BBC correctly this morning, Queen’s Birthday celebrations were cancelled in one of Britain’s diplomatic outposts this year.  The knees-up at the UK embassy in Mauritius was called off because the Ambassador reportedly sensed the celebrations might be inappropriate.

The cancellation might also have been an expression of British miff after the UN overwhelmingly voted (116-6) that Britain should return control of the Chagos Islands to Mauritius.

New Zealand joined France, Germany and 53 other countries in abstaining.

The wellbeing of the Chagos Islanders, we may suppose, is not quite as high in priorities in foreign affairs policy as our relations with countries like Britain, the US and Australia (among the few to vote against the resolution).

Between 1968 and 1973, these islanders were forcibly removed from their homeland to make way for an American military base.

New Zealand’s regard for the International Court of Justice came into considerations during the vote at the UN, too.

Asked by the UN in June 1917 to look into the matter, the court ruled in February this year that the UK had illegally detached Diego Garcia from the Chagos archipelago and split the islands.  Britain’s continued administration of the archipelago was unlawful.

This was a landmark ruling (but a non-binding one) in the effort to decolonise the Indian Ocean and return the islands to Mauritius.

When the UK did not act on the ruling, Mauritius took the case to the UN which has accepted its sovereignty over the whole archipelago.  But the UN General Assembly vote was non-binding too.

As a British overseas territory, the Chagos Islands remain among the last few vestiges of UK colonial rule.

Situated some 1,800 kilometers from Mauritius and the Seychelles, their history is shabby (you can check it out on The Conversation here).

Quartz Africa recounts the islands’ more recent history: while Mauritius was negotiating its independence from the UK in 1964, London had entered into secret talks with the US to acquire the Chagos archipelago for use as a military base.

The attraction was obvious: Its more than 60 islands are located just 600 kilometers off the coast of the Indian subcontinent, a convenient and strategic site for air and sea operations. Without disclosing this interest, the UK formally disaggregated the Chagos Islands from Mauritius during independence negotiations in 1965, paying Mauritius a sum of £3 million. Mauritius was granted independence in 1968.

Between 1967 and 1973, UK forcibly removed the islands’ more than 3,000 occupants, moving them to Seychelles and Mauritius. Declassified correspondence from the time reveals that this was in accordance with the agreement that the UK had reached with the US, which included assurances that there will be “no indigenous population left on the island except seagulls.”

The US promptly built a military base on the largest of the atolls, Diego Garcia, that remains in use till today. The lease on Diego Garcia—the US’s largest military base beyond its own shores—does not expire till 2036.

The US base on Diego Garcia – for the record – is called Camp Justice

Mediawatch Midweek on May 29 reported on the UK’s crushing defeat in the UN General Assembly.

It noted the story barely made a ripple in the New Zealand media.

Anyone wanting to know how New Zealand had voted in the non-binding UN General Assembly motion setting a six month deadline for Britain to return the Indian Ocean islands to Mauritius would have been out of luck if they went looking on local news websites.

That’s a pity because the story of how Britain expelled the indigenous people of the Chagos Islands is as fascinating as it is tragic – and it seems likely some people will be disappointed by New Zealand’s abstention.

Al Jazeera’s The Stream dedicated an episode in the run up to last week’s vote, titled: Did the UK Steal the Chagos Islands?

It was something of a rhetorical question with Britain’s own courts and the International Court of Justice – in February this year – having already answered in the affirmative. But it’s well worth a watch. A spokesperson for the Chagossians makes it plain that they’re happy for the US base to remain on Diego and Garcia – but demand the right to return to their ancestral homeland.

MediaWatch looked into why New Zealand abstained and reported the official explanation delivered to the UN General Assembly by ambassador Craig Hawke.

Explanation of Vote – Chagos Archipelago, ICJ advisory opinion resolution

  • New Zealand is a strong supporter of the international rules-based system.  International obligations relating to processes of de-colonisation have particular resonance for us given our own history in the South Pacific.  In these contexts, New Zealand both acknowledges and respects the International Court of Justice’s advisory opinion on the legal consequences of the separation of the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965.
  • Taking into account the Court’s opinion, New Zealand supports all efforts to encourage a constructive dialogue between the United Kingdom and Mauritius to resolve the issues identified in the Opinion.
  • New Zealand is concerned that the resolution’s proposals for giving effect to the International Court of Justice’s opinion may not assist with resolving the matter in a manner consistent with the General Assembly’s responsibilities regarding decolonisation under the Charter.
  • In particular, we are concerned that insufficient time has been allowed since the ICJ delivered its opinion for constructive dialogue between Mauritius and the United Kingdom to take place. Similarly, we are concerned that the six month time-frame for the United Kingdom to withdraw its administration is unreasonable.

At No Right Turn, Malcolm Harbrow lamented that we abstained rather than vote to uphold international law.

“So much for our commitment to decolonisation and a law-governed international environment.”

But New Zealand’s position has shifted under the Ardern Government.

In June 2017 the UN General Assembly voted 94 in favour to 15 against (with 65 abstentions) to ask the International Court of Justice whether the decolonisation of Mauritius had been carried out in a lawful manner, given the archipelago’s subsequent separation.

On that occasion NZ was among those voting “no” with the UK (joined by the US, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea, Bulgaria, Croatia, Lithuania and Israel). Canada and most EU countries were among the abstentions.

The New Zealand representative on that occasion said the issue should be resolved at the bilateral level.


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