Islanders seeking to return to the homes from which they were removed to make way for a US military base nearly 40 years ago have no right to return, the law lords were told yesterday. Allowing the Chagossian islanders to go back to their Indian Ocean homes would be a "precarious and costly" operation, and the United States had said that it would also present an "unacceptable risk" to its base on Diego Garcia, the law lords heard.
The Foreign Office is appealing this week to the House of Lords against earlier judgments which have granted the Chagossians the right to return to the islands in the British Indian Ocean Territory. A group of islanders have arrived from Mauritius, where most of them have lived since being evicted, to hear the final chapter in their legal battle. Both the divisional court and the court of appeal have already found in favour of the Chagossians.
While there were "undeniably unattractive aspects" to what had happened to the islanders in the 1970s, that was no longer what the case was about, Jonathan Crow QC, for the foreign secretary, told lords Bingham, Hoffmann, Rodger, Carswell and Mance.
The issue now was whether the government had been entitled in 2004 to issue orders in council forbidding the return of the islanders, he said. Britain took the Chagos islands from France in the Napoleonic wars and, under a 1971 immigration ordinance, removed the inhabitants compulsorily so that the main island in the archipelago, Diego Garcia, could be used as a US base.
Crow said that it had been regarded by the US since 9/11 as a "defence facility of the highest importance ... a linchpin for the UK's allies".
Although the judgments being contested do not grant the islanders the right to return to Diego Garcia itself, repopulation of the other islands would present an "unacceptable risk", the US believed.
"It has financial implications, political implications and defence implications," said Crow. "The Chagossians do not own any territory ... They have no property rights on the islands at all. What is being asserted is a right of mass trespass."
Most of the islanders were now British citizens, said Crow. They had already received "very substantial compensation" for their removal, the law lords heard.
Sir Sydney Kentridge QC will reply on behalf of the Chagossians. They argue that they should be given the right to return, whether all of them wish to do so or not, and claim that it would be possible for them to make a living through ecotourism and fishing.
© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008