Sir Eric Griffith-Jones, the attorney-general in the British colony of Kenya at the time of the Mau Mau rebellion, was a sensitive soul who worried that the torture and murder of detainees in the prison camps where suspected Mau Mau supporters were being held was "distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia." So he wrote the governor in 1957, warning him that "If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly."
It stayed quiet for a long time — so quiet that many British people were able to believe that their empire had somehow been nicer than the others. But empires are tyrannies by definition, built by violence and maintained by fear, and the British empire in Africa was no exception. Half a century late, the British government has finally been forced to admit that.
The Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya in 1952-60 was suppressed with great brutality. The Kenya Human Rights Commission estimates that 90,000 Kenyans were executed, tortured or maimed in British prison camps during the "Emergency" but nobody was ever punished for the horrors that happened there, and none of the victims ever got an apology. Until now.
By 2011, the Kenyan survivors of the camps were mostly in their 80s and dying off fast, and the few people in the British Foreign Office who even remembered that ugly episode probably assumed that the shameful details would be buried with them. But then five survivors of the camps lodged a claim against Britain for compensation, on behalf of some 6,000 victims who were still alive, and the whole can of worms was re-opened.
The British government used every legal trick in the book to avoid admitting liability. It even claimed that the victims should be seeking compensation from the Kenyan government, not from Britain, since that government inherited all of London’s legal responsibilities when Kenya got its independence in 1963. (Is there any limit to the cynicism and hypocrisy of governments bent on covering things up? Perhaps, but it has not yet been discovered.)
When that claim was rejected by the courts, the British government claimed that no fair trial was possible since it was all too long ago: there would be "irredeemable difficulties" in finding relevant witnesses and documents. We’d love to help you, but alas there are no records.
Then the lawyers for the claimants discovered that the government had been concealing the existence of an enormous secret archive, some 8,000 files from 37 former British colonies, which had been removed from the Public Records Office and stored elsewhere. It was hidden precisely because it documented the various crimes and atrocities that the British imperial authorities committed while trying to suppress various independence movements.
In the end, after a court battle so long that two of the five lead claimants died, the British government concluded that it didn’t have a legal leg to stand on. Last week it announced an out-of-court settlement that gave some 5,228 Kenyan survivors of the camps compensation of about $5,700 each. It also agreed to pay the $9 million legal costs that the claimants had run up while the government lied, stalled and stonewalled.
Foreign Secretary William Hague even said that "the British government sincerely regrets that these abuses took place" — but he stressed that the British government was not admitting any legal liability for the actions of the British colonial administration in Kenya. It just felt bad about what had happened to those poor old Kenyans long ago, and wanted to make them feel better by giving them some money.
Well, no, he didn’t actually say that last sentence, but why couldn’t he bring himself to say "it was our fault and we’re really sorry for what we did"? Because there are half a dozen other claims waiting to be submitted by the victims of other atrocities during Britain’s long retreat from empire.
There are the relatives of Malaysian villagers who were massacred by British troops in 1948. There are the Greek-Cypriots who fought against British rule in the 1950s and were imprisoned without trial; they claim that many were tortured and executed in the camps. There could even be claims from Yemen, where an Amnesty International report documented torture and genital mutilation of detainees during the revolt against British rule in Aden in the 1960s.
The British government’s strategy is the same in every case: deny, dissimulate, and delay. Hague’s refusal to admit liability, even as he pays off the Kenyan claimants, is part of that larger strategy. And the Foreign Office has already said that any future claims may be dealt with under the controversial secret court system established by the new Justice and Security Act, which comes into effect next month. If you don’t like the law, change it.
It’s that magic word "security" again. So will the Russian government ever offer compensation and apologies to all the people it has illegally detained and tortured in Chechnya over the past 20 years? Will the U.S. government ever make restitution to all the people it has held without trial in places like Bagram and Guantanamo, or handed over to its allies for more imaginative torture than it can do in its own prisons? Don’t hold your breath.