The cherished hopes of hundreds of exiled families longing to return to their native islands in the Indian Ocean were dashed today when the Law Lords upheld the British government’s last-ditch bid to stop them going home.
Some 2,000 residents were forced out of the Chagos Islands when the British colony was leased to the US in the 1960s to build an airbase on the atoll of Diego Garcia.
The courts ruled in 2000 that the Chagossians could return to 65 of the islands, but not Diego Garcia.
In 2004, the British government used the royal prerogative to nullify the rulings, but this was overturned by the UK's High Court and Court of Appeal.
In June this year, the government went to the House of Lords to argue that allowing the islanders to return would seriously affect defence and security.
Today, by a 3-2 majority, the Law Lords allowed the British government’s appeal and quashed the earlier court rulings.
A spokesman for the Chagos Islanders said in a statement before today’s ruling: “Forty years ago, in December 1966, the Harold Wilson Labour government gave away our homeland, including Diego Garcia, which has been given to the US government to use as a military base.
“The whole Chagossian population was forcibly removed from our homes, our animals were killed and we were dumped, mainly in the slums of Mauritius. We have been treated like slaves.”
After the ruling, Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in a statement: "The House of Lords has today allowed the appeal taken on my behalf and has upheld the validity of the British Indian Ocean Territory (Constitution) Order 2004.
“As a consequence of this ruling, the orders of the Court of Appeal in May 2007 and of the Divisional Court in June 2006 in this regard are set aside.
“The two Orders in Council made for the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) in 2004 therefore stand and provide that no person has a right of abode in BIOT or the right to enter the Territory unless authorised.”
He said: “It is appropriate on this day that I should repeat 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.
“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; and British citizenship was granted to a large number of Chagossians under the British Overseas Territories Act 2002.
“However, our appeal to the House of Lords was not about what happened in the 1960s and 1970s. It was about decisions taken in the international context of 2004.
“This required us to take into account issues of defence/security of the archipelago and the fact that an independent study had come down heavily against the feasibility of lasting resettlement of the outer islands of BIOT.
“I would like to express my appreciation for the careful and thorough consideration given by the Law Lords to this case on appeal.
“I believe that the judgment vindicates our decision to bring the appeal on issues of such public importance.
“We realise, of course, that this judgment will be a great disappointment to many Chagossians. We will keep in close touch with the Chagossian communities and consider carefully future requests to visit the Territory.”.