Croppped Diego Garcia 250219 CREDIT NASA.jpg
World

UN Court Tells Britain To Give Chagos Islands Back To Mauritius

The islands are home to a US military base which the Foreign Office says plays "an important role in regional and global security".

Croppped Diego Garcia 250219 CREDIT NASA.jpg

The largest Chagos Island Diego Garcia as seen from above (Picture: NASA).

A UN court has said the UK has an "obligation" to end its administration of the Chagos Islands "as rapidly as possible".  

The advisory ruling by the International Court of Justice in The Hague means Britain will come under international pressure to return the island chain – which form part of the British Indian Ocean Territory – back to Mauritius from whom they were taken in 1965.

The islands are home to a US military base which was built on the largest island, Diego Garcia, during the Cold War.

The base remains strategically important but now its future is in doubt.

The Chagos Islands are located seven degrees south of the equator and 640 miles (2019 km) from the next closest landmass

Britain evicted about 2,000 people from the Chagos Islands during the 1960s and 1970s so the US military could build the air base.

Many of them resettled in the UK and have fought in British courts to return to the islands.

Mauritius has long argued that jurisdiction over the islands should be given to them.

In response to the ruling, the Foreign Office 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."

Seabees in Diego Garcia, pose for a group photo in front of a bus stop they constructed 131218 CREDIT US NAVY.jpg
US personnel in Deigo Garcia pose for a group photo in front of a bus stop they constructed (Picture: US Navy).

A turning point in the dispute was 2017 when the UN General Assembly voted on the dispute. Britain’s two traditional European allies, France and Germany, decided to abstain and the General Assembly backed sending the case to The Hague.

At the time a spokesperson for the Foreign Office said:

"Taking this dispute to the International Court of Justice is an inappropriate use of the ICJ mechanism."

Britain took control of the islands in 1965 from Mauritius, which was then a British colony.

The decision was contentious and Sir Anerood Jugnauth, the last surviving participant of the negotiations with Britain for independence, described it as “real blackmail”.

Sir Anerood claims that the then British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, told Mauritians that "if you don't agree to what I am proposing [about the Chagos Islands] then forget about independence."

NMCB-3 is forward deployed throughout the Indo-Pacific region to support major combat operations, theater security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations 060219 CREDIT US Navy.jpg
Naval Mobile Construction Battalion are stationed on Diego Garcia to support humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts (Picture: US Navy).

Among those keenly waiting for the British response to the court's decision will be the native population of Chagossians.

Those evicted in the 1960s and 70s and were banned from returning.

Increasingly elderly, many Chagossians still long to return home.

Rosa Curling, a solicitor who represents 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."

The British Government has long argued, however, that the US base on Diego Garcia is too important militarily to give up.

"At present it plays an important role in regional and global security, helping to keep the UK, US and other allies, including Mauritius, safe," a spokesperson for the Foreign Office has said previously.

In 2012 there were 2,800 people living in the British Indian Ocean Territory, most of whom were American military personnel.

A small contingent from the British Armed Forces are also based there too. In 2016 40 Britons were stationed on the island, the majority of whom were in the Royal Navy or Royal Marines.

The Government had previously committed itself to returning the islands to Mauritius when they are "no longer required for defence purposes"