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Britain can’t escape its colonial past

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"I wish to make it clear before I cross-examine the three claimants that the (British government) does not dispute that each of the claimants suffered torture and other ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration (in Kenya)," said the British government’s defence lawyer, Guy Mansfield, QC. Damn right they did. One, Paulo Nzili, was beaten so hard he went deaf, and castrated in public with the same pliers used to geld cattle.

British colonial officers commanded the African troops who did that and worse to Nzili and thousands of others in the concentration camps that Britain set up to hold suspected supporters of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s. Fifty years later, it has finally made it into the courts.

About 70,000 people spent years in the British camps in Kenya. Some were murdered, and almost all were beaten, sexually abused or tortured. But it was a long time ago, and only about 5,000 former inmates of the camps were still alive when three of them, Paulo Nzili, Jane Muthoni Mara, and Wambuga wa Nyingi decided to sue the British government for compensation.

With financial support from Kenyan human rights organizations, they launched their case in the high court in London. The British government, while admitting the torture, claimed that the victims should sue the Kenyan government instead, since it had inherited the responsibilities of the former colonial administration at independence in 1963.

Lawyers really do use arguments like that. They don’t even blush when they do it. But in June of last year the high court rejected the British government’s defence — whereupon its lawyers shifted their ground and said that it was all far too long ago. The few surviving witnesses are too old, and there are no documents. Sorry, we’d love to help, but in the circumstances....

Last Friday the same high court judge dismissed that argument too. There are actually almost too many documents: the publicity surrounding the case led to the discovery that the British Foreign Office has been hiding 8,800 files about the Kenya abuses in a country house in Buckinghamshire for the past 50 years.

Those files contain enough evidence to prove the truth of what the claimants say. The British government will appeal the judge’s ruling, probably in the hope of dragging things out until the claimants die (two are in their mid-80s) or become too ill to testify. But it’s likely that the actual lawsuit will be heard next year, and will result in a victory for the claimants.

That would open the floodgates for thousands more claims for compensation from other Kenyan victims of British atrocities. It would also allow many thousands of aging victims of British violence and cruelty elsewhere during the last years of the empire, especially in Malaysia, in Cyprus, and in Aden (now Yemen), to seek compensation in the British courts for their suffering.

Good. Britain should offer generous compensation to them all, plus an abject apology for the great crimes committed in its name. It can afford to pay. In fairness, it should also track down the families of those victims who have already died and compensate them properly (even though that would be a legal and administrative nightmare).

So if these half-century-old injustices can be acknowledged by the courts and at least partly compensated, how about more recent ones? What are the chances that a British or American court will one day offer compensation to innocent Arabs, Afghans and other Muslims who were swept up in the so-called "war on terror" and spent years in confinement without charge or trial, often being beaten or tortured? Very small, unfortunately.

Under the pressure of events, even the governments of democratic countries readily abandon the rule of law, and they rarely apologize afterwards, let alone offer compensation. After50 years the British courts can address the horrors of the colonial past more freely, but even now Britain will not bring the men who ordered the abuse of these old Kenyan men to trial. Yet their names are known, and some of them must still be alive.

Most crimes go unpunished. It’s true in private life, and it’s even truer for great states. But gradually, at the edges, the courts are making inroads on this ancient and brutal reality. As in, for example, Kenya itself.

After the terrible post-election violence in Kenya in 2008, in which both the leading parties were deeply implicated, a Commission of Inquiry led by Judge Philip Waki recommended that the Kenyan government set up a special tribunal to prosecute those responsible for the worst crimes.

The National Assembly of Kenya, taking the British government as its model, refused. But the judge passed his evidence to the International Criminal Court, which opened a case against the senior officials of both parties held to be most responsible. The Kenya government did everything it could to stop the case, but it is going ahead in the Hague anyway — and a majority of ordinary Kenyans support the ICC process.

So there is progress, if only slowly.

 

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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