Britain should give up control of the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean “as rapidly as possible,” the UN’s top court said on Monday in a decades-old row with Mauritius over an archipelago that is home to a huge US airbase.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) said in a legal opinion that Britain had illegally split the islands from Mauritius before independence in 1968, after which the entire population of islanders was evicted.
Mauritius and the exiled Chagossians reacted with delight to the opinion delivered by judges in The Hague, Netherlands, which is non-binding, but will carry heavy symbolic and political weight.
Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth hailed 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.
However, Britain defended its hold on the islands, saying that the Diego Garcia military base, which has been used to bomb Iraq and Afghanistan, protected people around the world.
“The United Kingdom’s continued administration of the Chagos Archipelago constitutes a wrongful act,” Chief Judge Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf said.
“The United Kingdom is under an obligation to bring an end to its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible, thereby allowing Mauritius to complete the decolonization of its territory,” he added.
The UN General Assembly in 2017 adopted a resolution presented by Mauritius and backed by African countries asking the ICJ to offer legal advice on the island chain’s fate and the legality of the deportations.
Diego Garcia is now under lease to the US and 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.
Olivier Bancoult, chairman of the Mauritius-based Chagos Refugees Group, told reporters outside the court that he was “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.
The ICJ opinion comes as a stunning blow to London in a case that goes to the heart of historic issues of decolonization and current questions about Britain’s place in the world as it prepares to leave the EU.
Mauritius’ lawyer, Philippe Sands, said there was “no wiggle room” in the judges’ view.
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