Natives of the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia won't be allowed to return to the Chagos archipelago they left more than 35 years ago, following a ruling today by Britain's highest court, the House of Lords.
The London-based court upheld the British government's appeal in a 3-2 verdict, overturning earlier rulings by lower courts which held that the UK government wrongfully took away the islanders' "right of abode."
That right is a "creature of the law," wrote Lord Leonard Hoffman today. "The law gives it, and the law may take it away."
The natives sought the right to return to the British territory, now site of a US Navy base which has been used by the Air Force to bomb Afghanistan and Iraq. Hundreds of islanders were removed between 1967 and 1973 and taken to Mauritius or the Seychelles, to clear the way for the US to build its base.
The judges' ruling "vindicates" Britain's decision to appeal lower court rulings due to concerns about security and whether resettlement was feasible, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in a statement.
A US State Department letter submitted to the court cited fears that the islands might be useful to terrorists. "Some of these scenarios might be regarded as fanciful speculations, but in the current state of uncertainty, the government is entitled to take the concerns of its ally into account,'' Hoffman wrote.
Lord Hoffman also said the UK was "surely entitled to take into account'' potential costs, because the islanders were not interested in returning "to live Crusoe-like in poor and barren conditions of life.'' An April study funded by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust said the natives could be resettled to a life of fishing, eco- tourism and yachting services at a cost to Britain of £5 million annually for five years.
It said about 150 families might have returned.
Richard Gifford, attorney for the islanders, said they were in a "state of shock" at the ruling. "Seven judges in the courts below have said the treatment of the Chagossians is a shameful abuse of power, and repugnant." He said.
"In this court we have added the words 'disgraceful' and 'maladministration."
Mr Gifford said the islanders would try to work a settlement either through parliament or the Foreign Office, and then might take the case to the European Court of Human Rights. "We Chagossian people will not give up, we will continue our struggle," said Olivier Bancoult, chairman of the Chagos Refugees Group, after the ruling.
John Pilger, the campaigning journalist who has backed the Chagos Islanders’ fight to return home, commented: “This was a political decision today.
“How could it be otherwise when the highest court in this country has found in favour of the most flagrant injustice, certainly in my lifetime?”
He said the judgment upheld an “immoral and illegal” act.
Commenting on the ruling, Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Edward Davey said: “This is a devastating verdict for both the Chagos Islanders and Britain’s reputation around the world.
“Removing the Chagossians in the 1960s was a scandalous decision. Yet this Government has continued to mistreat these people in the face of opposition from the UN.
“Regardless of the legal arguments, the Government has a moral responsibility to allow these people to at last return home.
“They must also come clean about the rendition activity that has taken place on these islands. Only by doing so can they hope to salvage Britain’s damaged global reputation.”
Courtesy: Irish Times