Chagos islanders have hailed a "big victory" after a United Nations court found that Britain illegally seized control of their Indian Ocean archipelago for the construction of a US military base 50 years ago.
The International Court of Justice said Britain’s acquisition of the Chagos archipelago in the 1960s was "wrongful" and that it must "bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible."
Britain evicted about 2,000 people from the Chagos islands in the 1960s and 1970s so the United States could build a large airbase on Diego Garcia, the largest of its atolls. They and their descendants have been campaigning for the right to return home ever since.
Olivier Bancoult, chairman of the Mauritius-based Chagos Refugees Group, said the ruling made him "so happy." "It is a big victory against an injustice done by the British government for many years. We people have been suffering for many years – I am so lucky today," he said outside court.
Monday’s ruling is advisory and non-binding, but carries significant symbolic weight because it came after the United Nations General Assembly asked for the court’s advice on the case.
The United Kingdom paid the then-self governing colony of Mauritius £3 million for the Chagos islands in 1965. It combined them with three islands from the Seychelles to create British Indian Ocean territory, a new British Oversea Territory.
Three islands were subsequently returned to the Seychelles. But Britain retained the Chagos archipelago, which had been chosen as the site of a major US navy and air base.
The International Court of Justice found on Monday that although Mauritius’ government agreed to the division when it gained independence in 1968, the "detachment was not based on the free and genuine expression of the will of the people concerned."
"The United Kingdom is under an obligation to bring to an end to its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible, thereby allowing Mauritius to complete the decolonisation of its territory," the court said.
Pravind Jugnauth, the prime minister of Mauritius, hailed the ruling as a " historic moment for Mauritius and all its people".
"Our territorial integrity will now be made complete, and when that occurs, the Chagossians and their descendants will finally be able to return home," he said in a statement.
The United Kingdom has apologised several times for the "shameful" way the evictions were carried out, most recently on the first day of the ICJ hearing in September. But it has consistently refused to allow Chagosians to return.
Diego Garcia became an important US base during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, acting as a launch pad for long-range bombers. The US lease lasts until 2036. The United States joined Britain in voting against the resolution.
The hearing was seen as a critical test of Britain’s diplomatic clout in the Brexit era, after it failed to rally enough to support to prevent the UN General Assembly adopting the June 2017 resolution that led to the court hearing.
An FCO spokesperson said: “This is an advisory opinion, not a judgment. Of course, we will look at the detail of it carefully.
“The defence facilities on the British Indian Ocean Territory help to protect people here in Britain and around the world from terrorist threats, organised crime and piracy.”