Lords deny Chagos islanders right of return

The Chagos islanders, forcibly evicted from their homes in the Indian Ocean archipelago in the 1960s and 1970s to make way for the British airbase of Diego Garcia, are not allowed to return home, Britain's highest court ruled Wednesday.


The British government on Wednesday won its appeal to Britain's highest court against previous rulings allowing displaced Indian Ocean islanders to return home.

The three-to-two majority decision by the House of Lords overturns rulings that said the use of the royal prerogative -- the legislative method used to block the return of the Chagos islanders -- was unlawful.

It means that a bar on the islanders returning home to the British territory some 500 kilometres (310 miles) south of the Maldives from which they were evicted in the 1960s and 1970s has been upheld.

About 2,000 people were evicted when the colony was leased to the United States to build an airbase on the atoll of Diego Garcia.

Most were sent to live in Mauritius and the Seychelles.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband welcomed the ruling, but noted "the government's regret at the way the resettlement of the Chagossians was carried out in the 1960s and 1970s and at the hardship that followed for some of them."

"We do not seek to justify those actions and do not seek to excuse the conduct of an earlier generation," he added.

"But the courts have previously ruled that fair compensation has been paid and that the UK has no legal obligation to pay any further compensation."

Miliband said the government would "keep in close touch with the Chagossian communities and consider carefully future requests to visit the territory."

The resettlement of Chagossians allowed Britain to lease the main island, Diego Garcia, to the United States military for 50 years.

It now houses a major US air base and was used as a launch pad for bombing raids on Iraq and Afghanistan.

Wednesday's ruling was the latest in a protracted legal fight which first saw exiled Chagossians win a ruling in London's High Court in 2000 that they had a right to return to the group of 65 islands, although not to Diego Garcia.

Chagossian islanders now have the option of taking the battle to courts in Europe and the community's leader that brought the court action insisted they would not give up.

"We will continue our struggle in consultation with our lawyers and we shall decide where to go next," Olivier Bancoult said at a press conference.

Bancoult said the government "should put an end to the shameless victimisation of Chagossians, and adopt a lawful policy of facilitating our return to our homeland."

Richard Gifford, the lawyer who represented the Chagos islanders, added it was their "misfortune... that their passionate desire to return to their homeland has been caught up in the power politics of foreign policy for the past 40 years."

Gifford said the Chagossians were "in shock at this reversal of previous decisions, and the loss of their cherished right to return home."

In 2004 the government used the royal prerogative to introduce an "order in council", which continued the islanders' exile.

Judges ruled in 2006 that such an order -- effectively a decree by the government in the name of Queen Elizabeth II -- was a "repugnant" way to "exile a whole population".

The Court of Appeal upheld that ruling last year, describing the government's tactics as an abuse of power.