Home / Mauritius / Britain should give ‘colonised’ Chagos Islands back to Mauritius ‘as rapidly as possible’

Britain should give ‘colonised’ Chagos Islands back to Mauritius ‘as rapidly as possible’

The UK should give up its control of a remote Indian Ocean archipelago that houses a controversial US military base ‘as rapidly as possible‘, the United Nations’ highest court ruled.

Britain forcibly evicted people from the Chagos Archipelago, a sovereignty in the Indian Ocean disputed by the UK and Mauritius, in the 1960s and 1970s.

The island was then used by the United States as a military base.

Judges at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in The Hague, said on Monday that the UK’s detachment of the islands and their incorporation into the British Indian Ocean Territory was ‘unlawful’.

The ICJ also said, in a rare ‘advisory opinion’ on the decades-old dispute, that Britain illegally split the Chagos Islands from Mauritius in 1965 – three years before it gained independence.

The islands‘ inhabitants accuse Britain of unfairly orchestrating their expulsion from the land, referred to by Britain as part of the British Indian Ocean Territory, in order to house the American base on the largest island, Diego Garcia.

Turtle Cove on Diego Garcia island. Exiled inhabitants began a challenge to a British decision to kick them off the remote island 30 years ago to make way for the US base

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Mauritius, which gained independence in 1968, maintains the islands are its own and Chagossians have also brought cases in British courts for the right to return

The ICJ’s 14-member tribunal was asked to step into the dispute after Britain was defeated in a 2017 vote by the UN General Assembly on its claim to the islands.

Judges in The Hague decided by a majority of 13 to one that ‘the United Kingdom is under an obligation to bring an end to its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible‘.

The court’s view is not binding and does not mean islanders can return, but it carries a heavy symbolic importance on the world stage.

Between 1968 and 1973 about 2,000 Chagos islanders – or ‘Chagossians’, as they are known – were evicted, to Britain, Mauritius and the Seychelles.

 

The evictions were described in a British diplomatic cable at the time as the removal of ‘some few Tarzans and Man Fridays’.

An estimated 3,000 to 4,000 Chagossians and their descendants live in the UK.

Mauritius prime minister Pravind Jugnauth said the ICJ’s pronouncement was a ‘historic moment for Mauritius and all its people’, adding: ‘Our territorial integrity will now be made complete, and when that occurs, the Chagossians and their descendants will finally be able to return home.’

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Chagos islanders outside the High Court in London in 2007, where they were fighting the UK government for the reinstatement of their homeland

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US Navy Support Facility at Diego Garcia, the largest island in the British Indian Ocean Territory.

 Judges at the International Court of Justice ruled the the UK’s detachment was ‘unlawful’

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Fuel tanks at the edge of a military airstrip on Diego Garcia, largest island in the Chagos archipelago and site of a major United States military base in the middle of the Indian Ocean leased from Britain in 1966

Olivier Bancoult, chairman of the Mauritius-based Chagos Refugees Group, said: ‘It is a big victory against an injustice done by the British Government for many years.

But UK Chagos Support Association vice-chairman Stefan Donnelly said: ‘It remains to be seen whether or not this is a win for the Chagossian people. 

‘We hope that.

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a consensus can quickly be reached that finally gives a measure of justice to Chagossians.’

The sun-kissed isles with a dark history 

The Chagos Islands were colonised by France in the 18th century and African slaves were shipped in to cultivate coconuts.

In 1814, France ceded the islands to Britain, which in 1903 merged them with Mauritius, its colony about 1,200 miles to the south-west.

In 1965, Britain separated the Chagos Islands from Mauritius, paying £3 million for them.

 

When Mauritius became independent in 1968, the islands remained under British control, and were renamed the British Indian Ocean Territory.

In 1966, Britain leased the islands to the US for 50 years.

 

Between 1968 and 1973, about 2,000 Chagos islanders were evicted. Most were shipped to Mauritius and the Seychelles.

Evicted islanders enlisted the help of human rights lawyer Amal Clooney when they took their fight to the Supreme Court in 2015, but the court ruled against them.

The secretive military base on Diego Garcia, the largest island, has been dubbed ‘the Guantanamo of the East’ amid suspicions it was a key staging post in the US rendition and torture programme.

In 2016, the US lease was extended to 2036.

Last night the Foreign Office said it would look ‘carefully’ at the detail of the ICJ’s opinion and stressed it was ‘not a judgement’.

 

A spokesman added: ‘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.’

Britain leased the islands to the US in 1966.

Diego Garcia played a key strategic role in the Cold War before being used as a staging ground for US bombing in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s. 

It is also suspected of being a staging post in the US rendition and torture programme.

Tony Blair said during his last days in No 10 that he was ‘satisfied’ the US had never transferred detainees through any British territories, but human rights groups uncovered proof that military aircraft linked to rendition – the transfer of alleged terrorists – had landed on Diego Garcia.

The judges also said that because Britain had split the islands from Mauritius before independence, the process of decolonisation was not lawfully completed.

 

They said it was up to the General Assembly to decide how to ‘ensure the completion of the decolonisation of Mauritius‘. 

The UK’s ongoing administration is a ‘wrongful act’, according to an advisory opinion given by the court, which is not binding.

The Chagos Islands were first conceded to Britain in 1965 during Maurituis’ campaign for independence – which was granted in 1968.  

But Mauritius claims it was forced to give up the islands and the ICJ has advised the UK to hand back control.

The ICJ said: ‘The court finds that the process of decolonisation of Mauritius was not lawfully completed when that country acceded to independence and that the United Kingdom is under an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible.’

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A demonstrator demanding her return to the Chagos Islands in the Diego Garcia archipelago shouts during a protest outside the Houses of Parliament in October 2008

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Diego Garcia coral atolls, seen from the Space Shuttle Atlantis in a satellite image taken in November 1990

The UK agreed a package including £3 million with Mauritius for the detachment of the archipelago in 1965.

 

Mauritius, which gained independence in 1968, maintains the islands are its own and Chagossians have also brought cases in British courts for the right to return.

A spokeswoman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said: ‘This is an advisory opinion, not a judgment.

Of course, we will look at the detail of it carefully.

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‘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.

The ICJ said the opinion the UK should ends its administration was given with a majority of 13 votes to one.

Another part of its advisory opinion which said ‘member states are under an obligation to co-operate with the United Nations in order to complete the decolonisation’ was given with the same majority.

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About 2,000 people were evicted from the islands, with many resettling in Britain, Mauritius (pictured) and Seychelles.

The UK has said the islands will be returned to Mauritius when the need for military facilities ends

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The Peace Palace, home of the International Court of Justice, in the Hague, Netherlands, where the ruling was delivered on Monday

‘After recalling the circumstances in which the colony of Mauritius agreed in principle to such a detachment, the court considers that this detachment was not based on the free and genuine expression of the will of the people concerned,’ the ICJ said.

The resettlement of Mauritian nationals on the islands should be ‘addressed by the General Assembly’ during the completion of decolonisation, it added. 

The UK has said the islands will be returned to Mauritius when the need for military facilities ends.

Rosa Curling, a solicitor with law firm Leigh Day, who represents Solange Hoareau, a Chagossian woman fighting a legal battle to return, said: ‘We are considering the judgment carefully with our client, but clearly the UK should stop breaching international law.

‘The time has come to allow the islanders to return home.

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