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Protesters hold a placard and banners outside the World Court in The Hague, Netherlands, Monday, Sept. 3, 2018. Judges at the United Nations' highest court are listening to arguments in a case focused on whether Britain illegally maintains sovereignty over the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, including Diego Garcia, where the United States has a major military base. (AP Photo/Mike Corder)

Mike Corder/The Associated Press

Britain’s control of its last African colony is “unlawful” and should be ended “as rapidly as possible,” the International Court of Justice has ruled in a historic judgment.

The landmark ruling by the world court, while not legally binding, is a major blow to British control of the Chagos Islands, a strategically important archipelago in the Indian Ocean where the U.S. military has a secretive air base that it used extensively for its warplanes during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The court decision is officially described as an “advisory” ruling, but legal experts say the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) decisions can have moral weight and persuasive authority. Even if Britain refuses to obey the ruling, it weakens the legitimacy of British control over the Chagos Islands and inflicts further damage on Britain’s international prestige at a time when it is already struggling with the Brexit issue.

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In its ruling on Monday, the ICJ said Britain had illegally detached the Chagos Islands from the other islands in the group, which later became the independent country of Mauritius in 1968. Britain then forcibly expelled about 2,000 islanders to make room for the U.S. air base, prohibiting the islanders from ever returning home.

“It is an unlawful act of a continuing character,” the court said in a 13-1 decision, with only a U.S. judge dissenting.

“The United Kingdom is under an obligation to bring to an end its administration of the Chagos archipelago as rapidly as possible, thereby enabling Mauritius to complete the decolonization of its territory in a manner consistent with the right of peoples to self-determination,” it said.

The detachment of the Chagos Islands from the rest of the territory that became Mauritius was “not based on the free and genuine expression of the will of the people concerned,” the court said.

The court, the highest judicial body of the United Nations, called on all UN member states to co-operate with the UN to help complete the decolonization of Mauritius.

The African Union and many African countries had supported Mauritius in the court case.

The Pentagon’s heavily fortified air base on Diego Garcia, one of the Chagos Islands, was the main launching site for U.S. bombing strikes on Iraq and Afghanistan.

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The palm-fringed atoll, about 1,800 kilometres south of India, contains two long runways for B-52 bombers and B-2 stealth planes, along with docks for dozens of military cargo ships and hundreds of Navy and Air Force buildings.

The Chagos Islanders, descendants of generations of African slaves who had been brought to the islands to work on coconut plantations, are calling on Britain to respect the court judgment and allow the Chagossians to return to the islands.

Related: Diego Garcia: a shameful history that keeps repeating itself

In court proceedings at the ICJ last year, the British government had admitted that its treatment of the Chagossians had been “shameful and wrong.”

In an internal memo in 1966, British diplomats had ridiculed the Chagossians as “some few Tarzans or Man Fridays” who could easily be expelled. The term “Man Fridays,” which was repeated by a senior British official in 2009, according to a leaked diplomatic cable, was a reference to the illiterate servant of shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe in the Daniel Defoe novel.

Britain and the United States struck a secret deal in the mid-1960s to turn Diego Garcia into a vast U.S. military base. The island was leased to the United States in a deal that gave Britain a discount on U.S. nuclear missiles. After the deal was agreed upon, the British government began to squeeze the Chagossians, gradually cutting off supplies to the islands and putting pressure on the inhabitants to leave.

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To terrify and intimidate the islanders, British agents rounded up hundreds of their pet dogs, gassed them to death and burned them in cargo sheds. Then the Chagossians were forced onto overcrowded cargo ships. They were kept in filthy conditions for the five-day journey to Mauritius and the Seychelles, where they were dumped into a life of poverty. By 1973, the islands had been emptied.

For decades, however, the Chagossians have kept their history alive, campaigning for the right to return home.

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