Suddenly, the Chagos Islands gets prominence: What is in it for Britain?

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Over the summer, Britain suffered a major diplomatic blow after their attempt to block a Mauritius-led initiative for an International Court of Justice advisory on the Chagos Islands was thwarted. Members of the UN General Assembly voted 94 to 15 in favour of the motion. The Chagos Islands, referred to by Britain as a British Indian Ocean Territory, are home to the U.S. military base Diego Garcia, and were separated by Britain from Mauritius three years before it won independence. The General Assembly vote happened despite furious lobbying by Britain. Interestingly, it emerged earlier this year that the Foreign Office had requested India’s help in trying to persuade the Mauritian government to help negotiate a deal without a UN intervention.

Significantly a large number of European nations, including Germany, France, Spain and the Netherlands, abstained from the vote in June. While the development attracted limited media attention, some observers were quick to warn that it could be a sign of things to come: just at a time that Britain needed to bolster its international standing, a combination of the distraction of the Brexit negotiations, cuts to the Foreign Office budget, and changing global dynamics meant the country was losing significant international clout.

In a piece for Chatham House, Sir Simon Fraser, the top civil servant at the Foreign Office between 2010 and 2015, pointed to other signs of Britain’s declining influence since the Brexit vote such as Boris Johnson’s struggles to pursue G7 nations to implement tougher sanctions against Russia over Syria and the government’s initial reluctance to criticise U.S. President Donald Trump. “It is hard to call to mind a major foreign policy matter on which we have had decisive influence since the referendum,” he wrote in the paper. “Our political establishment commands little respect abroad, and the negative economic consequences of Brexit are beginning to show.”

ICJ vote

All these developments gain added significance following last week’s election of Judge Dalveer Bhandari to the International Court of Justice, after Britain withdrew its candidate, Christopher Greenwood. For the first time in the world court’s 71 years of history, no British judge will sit on the Bench. Following 11 rounds of voting, it became clear that Britain didn’t have the backing in the General Assembly.

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