The 193 United Nations member states on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to demand the UK hand over control of the Chagos islands to Mauritius “as soon as possible”.
A total of 116 countries voted in favour of a non-binding resolution presented by African countries that urged Britain to “withdraw its colonial administration” from the Chagos Islands within six months.
Only six countries, including Britain and the United States, voted against the measure while 56 others abstained, including Canada, France and Germany.
The Indian Ocean archipelago has been at the centre of a decades-long dispute over Britain‘s decision to separate it from Mauritius in 1965 and set up a joint military base with the US on Diego Garcia, the largest of the islands.
Britain evicted about 2,000 people from the archipelago in the 1960s and ’70s to make way for a huge US military base on Diego Garcia, which played a key strategic role in the Cold War before being used as a staging ground for US bombing campaigns against Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s. The facility was used as a CIA interrogation centre after the September 11, 2001 attacks.
In February, the International Court of Justice handed Mauritius a victory when it said in a legal opinion that Britain had illegally split the islands and should give up control of the Chagos.
After Britain rejected that ruling, Mauritius turned to the UN General Assembly to press for action.
Mauritius argues the Chagos archipelago was part of its territory since at least the 18th century and was taken unlawfully by the UK in 1965, three years before the island nation gained independence.
However, Britain insists it has sovereignty over the archipelago, which it calls the British Indian Ocean Territory.
Wednesday’s vote was the second time in two years that Britain had to defend its ownership of the Chagos islands at the United Nations.
In 2017, only 15 countries including Britain and the US voted to oppose a request for the ICJ ruling.
Before the vote, Britain and the US wrote to all UN missions, urging them to oppose the draft resolution, arguing the fate of the Chagos is a bilateral issue.
“This is not a matter of decolonisation for the General Assembly,” wrote British Ambassador Karen Pierce. “It is a bilateral sovereignty dispute between the United Kingdom and Mauritius.”
US acting Ambassador Jonathan Cohen argued the court opinion was non-binding and was in no way a legal ruling that decided on the dispute.
In 2016, Britain renewed a lease agreement with the US for the use of Diego Garcia until 2036.