United Nations court says UK control of Chagos Islands should end

Diego Garcia the largest island in the Chagos archipelago and the site of a large US airbase

Diego Garcia the largest island in the Chagos archipelago and the site of a large US airbase

Although the court was not asked to issue an opinion on sovereignty, Monday's decision in effect urged Britain to hand the islands, which it has controlled since 1814, over to Mauritius.

The UN's highest court has instructed the United Kingdom to end its control of the Chagos Islands.

The opinion, which is non-binding but carries high symbolic importance, will be good news to some 2,000 people that Britain evicted from the islands during the 1960s and 1970s so the U.S. military could build a base on Diego Garcia, the largest atoll in the group (top picture).

The court's view is not binding but it carries a heavy symbolic importance as it was specially tasked by the United Nations General Assembly to give its view on the row between London and Port Louis over the fate of the island chain.

"The UK is under an obligation to bring an end to its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible", the justices of the UN's principal judicial body ruled in a 13 to 1 vote.

In its ruling on Monday, the ICJ said Britain had illegally detached the Chagos Islands from the other islands in the group, which later became the independent country of Mauritius in 1968.

British courts have previously barred the return of the Chagossians' descendants to the islands, despite recognition of official wrongdoing over the expulsion and an agreement on compensation.

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) found that London should cede control of the archipelago, which now hosts the key American military base of Diego Garcia, "as rapidly as possible".

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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 foreign ministry said in a statement.

A British diplomatic cable at the time of the evictions described it as the removal of "some few Tarzans and Man Fridays".

Mauritian Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth said it was "a historic moment for Mauritius and all its people, including the Chagossians who were unconscionably removed from their homeland and prevented from returning for the last half century".

Britain, while apologising for the "shameful" way it evicted thousands of islanders, insisted Mauritius was wrong to have brought the case to the ICJ. Britain had argued the ICJ did not have jurisdiction to hear the case.

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

Diego Garcia has played an important role in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan since 1991, acting as a launch pad for USA long-range bombers. The island was leased to the United States in a deal that gave Britain a discount on US nuclear missiles.

The court has handed down only 28 verdicts since being established in 1946 to settle disputes between United Nations member states.

Previously such opinions include one on Israel's West Bank barrier in 2004, which judges said was illegal, and declaring legal Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2010.

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