Labour would return Chagos Islands, says Jeremy Corbyn

Owen Bowcott Legal affairs correspondent
Photograph: Fiona Hanson/PA

Jeremy Corbyn has pledged to renounce British sovereignty of the remote Chagos Islands and respect a UN vote calling for the archipelago to be handed back to Mauritius.

In comments that appear to commit Labour to return the Indian Ocean islands, the party’s leader said on Friday he intended to “right one of the wrongs of history”.

Asked by reporters on the campaign trail in Stoke-on-Trent whether he would accept the international court ruling on sovereignty, Corbyn said: “Yes, absolutely. I’ve been involved in the Chagos campaign for a very long time.

“What happened to the Chagos islanders was utterly disgraceful. [They were] forcibly removed from their own islands, unfortunately, by this country.

“The right of return to those islands is absolutely important as a symbol of the way in which we wish to behave in international law. So yes, we will carry that out.”

Britain’s “outright defiance” of a UN deadline to hand the Chagos Islands to Mauritius by Friday, in a final act of African “decolonisation”, has been condemned by Mauritius and the globally scattered communities of exiled islanders.

The UK’s refusal to end its occupation of the Indian Ocean archipelago is expected to be marked by protests outside the UK high commission in the Mauritian capital, Port Louis, organised by those who were forcibly deported more than 40 years ago and their descendants.

The Labour party’s election manifesto, published on Thursday, pledges to allow Chagossians to resettle in their homeland.

Earlier this year, the UN general assembly voted by an overwhelming majority of 116 to six countries in favour of a motion condemning Britain’s occupation of the remote islands and demanding that what the Foreign Office terms the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) be reunified with Mauritius.

An advisory opinion by the international court of justice (ICJ), in The Hague, found the islands had been illegally severed from Mauritius in the 1960s. The president of the ICJ, Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, urged the UK and other member states to “complete the decolonisation of Mauritius”.

The UK regards neither the ICJ judgment nor the UN motion as binding.

The UN vote in May, which underlined Britain’s diplomatic isolation in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, set a six-month deadline for UK withdrawal, which expires on Friday. The Chagos archipelago is the last African territory to be held by the UK.

Diego Garcia, the largest island in the archipelago, is now a strategically important US military base used by American bombers on long-range missions and, in the past, for rendition flights carrying terrorism suspects.

Speaking at the UN last month, Jagdish Dharamchand Koonjul, the permanent representative of Mauritius, said: “The response of the United Kingdom to [the UN deadline of 22 November] has been one of outright defiance.”

Koonjul described the UK’s position as disrespectful of the ICJ and the UN. “The time has come for the United Kingdom to comply with the international rule of law which it has so long championed,” he said.

The UK’s representative, Dame Karen Pierce, said Britain remained clear that it held sovereignty over BIOT and was providing a £40m support package to improve the livelihoods of Chagossians.

Fuel tanks by a US military airstrip on Diego Garcia, the largest island in the Chagos archipelago. Photograph: Reuters

About 1,500 islanders were forcibly deported between 1968 and 1973 so Diego Garcia could be leased to the US for an airbase. They have never been allowed to return apart from a few short “heritage” visits.

Related: At last, the Chagossians have a real chance of going back home | Philippe Sands

In a speech to Mauritus’s national assembly, the country’s prime minister, Pravind Kumar Jugnauth, said on Thursday: “The United Kingdom cannot profess to be a champion of the rule of law and human rights whilst maintaining an illegal colonial administration in part of the territory of Mauritius and preventing the return to the Chagos archipelago of the former inhabitants it forcibly removed five decades ago, thereby being in clear violation of international law.”

Prof Philippe Sands QC, who represented Mauritius at The Hague, said: “The failure to give effect to the [ICJ] ruling and general assembly decision is lawless and deeply regrettable, a reflection of a continuing colonial mindset. It undermines the UK’s supposed commitment to the rule of law.”

Most of the islanders and their descendants live in Mauritius, the Seychelles or the UK, where there have been attempts to deport third-generation Chagossians on the grounds that even if their grandparents would have been entitled to UK residency they are not.

Olivier Bancoult, the leader of the Chagos Refugees Group UK, said protests were planned outside the British high commission in Port Louis on Friday.

He said: “[We] call on all world leaders – and particularly the UK government – to take this opportunity to engage directly with the Chagossian community … and to recognise Chagossians’ right to determine their own future, and the future of their islands.

“It’s time the government engaged directly with the Chagossian community across the world, deliver support for Chagossian return and offer proper support for those still living in exile.”

Third-generation Chagossians who come to the UK via the Seychelles or Mauritius can face deportation. The Home Office initially told Jeanette Valentin, who lives in Milton Keynes, that both of her daughters, Taniella and Nesta, would be removed when they reached the age of 20.

Lawyers intervened and successfully obtained citizenship rights for both teenagers. “They can now go to university in Britain,” a relieved Valentin said at the time.

Alexander Finch, a solicitor at the law firm Fragomen, who took up her case pro bono, added: “Had Jeanette been able to pass on British citizenship to her children this application, and its costs, would never have been necessary.

“We hope the Home Office will review its policy towards third-generation Chagossians recognising their unique historical connection to Britain.”

A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “The UK has no doubt as to our sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), which has been under continuous British sovereignty since 1814. Mauritius has never held sovereignty over the BIOT and the UK does not recognise its claim.”

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