The exiled islanders of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean have received a breather barely a month after the European Human Rights court ruled that they did not have a case against their forcible removal from their island homes.
The Chagos Islanders were forcibly expelled from their homes and dumped in Mauritius and Seychelles almost 50 years ago when their remote islands acquired a strategic importance during the cold war era.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration has now given a ruling rejecting a claim by the British government that the court did not have jurisdiction in the matter.
The court will now take up for arbitration a petition filed by the Mauritius government, and would go into issues of sovereignty over the islands.
Mauritius, which claims the islands, has strongly backed the Chagos Islanders right of return to their homes.
The British government would have to convince the international tribunal that it had valid reasons for hiving off the Chagos group of islands from Mauritius when it was a British colony.
Britain had separated the ChagosIslands, a dependency of Mauritius, a few years before Mauritius gained independence, and constituted the British Indian Ocean Territory.
The Chagossians, as the habitants of the Chagos islands are known, were removed from their homes by the colonial authorities and sent to Mauritius and Seychelles.
The islanders were mostly illiterate fishermen, who were given no assistance to resettle in Mauritius. Many of them lived in the slums and eked a miserable living without their fishing boats. Compensation was offered only in the 1980s after they won a case in a British court.
Britain leased out the islands to the United States in a secret deal in the late 1960s for building a military base at Deigo Garcia, the biggest island in the group.
Deigo Garcia became a major American military base to counter Soviet influence in the Indan Ocean region during the cold war period.
India supported the Mauritian claim to the islands and had strongly opposed the establishment of an American naval base just 1200 km from the Indian coast.
The Chagos lie just 500 km west of the Maldives.
With the changed Indo-US equation, the Diego Garcia issue has since faded into the background.
The Chagossians are descendants of African slaves and Indian-indentured workers brought from Mauritius in the 18th century to work on the French coconut plantations.
At the time of their expulsion, the British claimed that the islanders were not permanent residents of the Chagos islands but temporary workers brought to work for short periods.
The islanders are banned from visiting the islands even for a short visit though Solomon Island, about 100 km from Diego Garcia in the Chagos group remains a favourite halt for yachts sailing across the Indian Ocean.
The Chagossians, some of whom have moved to UK, have been fighting a long legal battle against the British government for sending them into exile from their homeland.
The European Human Rights court held that the Chagos islanders did not have a legal case as they had accepted the compensation offered them by the British government.
The case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration was filed by the Mauritius government against the British government establishing a marine protected area around the Chagos Archipelago.
In 2006, British government had declared a protected marine area around the Chagos islands.
Mauritius, which claims sovereignty over the islands, opposed the move as it denied the Mauritians the right to fish in those waters; a right that they had exercised for decades.
Mauritius later appealed to the court of arbitration. The Permanent Court of Arbitration arbitrates on United Nations Law and its decisions are binding on both parties.
When the European court of human rights ruled that the Chagossians had forfeited any rights on the islands after they accepted compensation in the 1980s, it seemed the end of the road for the islanders.
Though the Arbitration Court’s decision is a preliminary one, the Mauritius case is now an inter-state dispute relating to sovereignty under the UN Law of the Sea.
The Chagossians have fought several battles in the British courts which ruled in their favour till 2008, when the British Law Lords overturned the Appeal Court verdict in favour of the government.
The Chagossians know that they will not be allowed to return to Diego Garcia, as it gained even greater strategic importance in the last decade when the US forces used the naval base for mounting their operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. But they still hope that they will be allowed to settle on any of the other islands of the archipelago.