Feb. 25 (UPI) -- The United Nations' highest court ruled Monday that Britain's claim of sovereignty over the Chagos Islands, in a remote portion of the Indian Ocean, is illegal.
The International Court of Justice said in its decision that initial British efforts to separate the Chagos archipelago from Mauritius in 1965 violated international law and was not based on a "free and genuine expression of the people concerned."
Mauritius claimed it was forced to give up the islands in exchange for independence from Britain, which it gained in 1968.
"Decolonization of Mauritius not conducted in a manner consistent with the right of peoples to self-determination -- United Kingdom's continued administration of the Chagos Archipelago constitutes a wrongful act entailing the international responsibility of that state," the court said.
"Continuing character of the unlawful act, United Kingdom (is) under an obligation to bring an end to its administration of the Chagos Archipelago as rapidly as possible. Modalities for completing the decolonization of Mauritius to be determined by the General Assembly."
The British government removed the entire population of the islands before allowing the United States to build a strategically important military base on Diego Garcia, one of the chain's larger atolls.
Monday's ruling allows the issue to be referred to the United Nations general assembly for debate. Britain had argued the ICJ did not have jurisdiction to hear the case.
"This is a historic moment for Mauritius and all its people, including the Chagossians who were unconscionably removed from their homeland and prevented from returning for the last half-century," Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Kumar Jugnauth said.
"Our territorial integrity will now be made complete, and when that occurs, the Chagossians and their descendants will finally be able to return home."