The Brits seem more than happy to lecture the rest of the world about the importance of international justice, but less keen to hold themselves to account. SIMON ALLISON reports on how four octogenarian Kenyans are shaming a fallen empire.
Britain’s foreign secretary William Hague seemed unconscious of the irony as he stood up on Monday before the legal and diplomatic community in The Hague – the world capital of international justice – to deliver a speech on why war crimes and human rights abuses should never go unpunished. “We have learnt from history that you cannot have lasting peace without justice, accountability and reconciliation,” he said, a sentiment hard to contest.
And yet, at almost the same moment, four Kenyan octogenarians were arriving in London, looking for Britain to give them exactly that. Bundled up against the chilly British summer, the former fighters in Kenya’s notorious Mau Mau rebel movement – Ndiku Mutua, Paulo Nzili, Wambugu wa Nyingi and Jane Mara – are suing the former colonial overlords for torturing them during their fight for independence in the 1950s and 1960s.
The Mau Mau rebellion was a particularly dark chapter of colonial history. While atrocities committed by Mau Mau fighters against British settlers and other Kenyans are relatively well known, the widespread torture and abuse employed by the British administrators and military is often forgotten, even though it was on a much grander scale.
Caroline Elkins, a Harvard professor, documented much of this in her book Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya. Columnist George Monbiot summarised her findings in the Guardian: “Interrogation under torture was widespread. Many of the men were anally raped, using knives, broken bottles, rifle barrels, snakes and scorpions. A favourite technique was to hold a man upside down, his head in a bucket of water, while sand was rammed into his rectum with a stick. Women were gang-raped by the guards. People were mauled by dogs and electrocuted. The British devised a special tool which they used for first crushing and then ripping off testicles. They used pliers to mutilate women's breasts. They cut off inmates' ears and fingers and gouged out their eyes. They dragged people behind Land Rovers until their bodies disintegrated. Men were rolled up in barbed wire and kicked around the compound.”
In all, Elkin finds that about one and a half million people were detained by the colonial administration - other estimates suggest between 10,000 and 25,000 rebels were killed.
And yet, despite Britain’s oft-proclaimed commitment to international justice, the country has been reluctant to confront its own shameful heritage. The court case brought by the four Kenyan claimants is a test case, potentially opening Britain up to hundreds of similar legal challenges and a compensation bill running in the millions. It has been opposed by Britain at every step.
Painstakingly, lawyers for the Kenyan litigants have had to force Britain to release potentially incriminating documentation. Much of this, however, was already destroyed by colonial authorities in an apparently deliberate cover-up attempt (see my colleague Kevin Bloom’s scathing piece on this subject: File destruction 101: How to whitewash the colonial legacy of 'cool Britannia’. Even more outrageously, the UK government has argued that, even if the allegations are true, it bears no responsibility. Instead, it is the current Kenyan government – as the legal successors to the colonial administration – that should be held culpable.
Though this is clearly a nonsensical argument, and was rightly thrown out by a judge earlier this year, it is true that the Kenyan government has hardly been a pillar of support for the Mau Mau veterans’ battle for compensation and accountability. Funding and organising the legal challenge has instead been left to the Kenyan Human Rights Commission, which has been strongly criticial of the government’s lack of involvement and especially funding.
“Despite assurances of both financial and political support by our government, no help has been forthcoming,” said KHRC senior programme officer Tom Kagwe.This inaction is in stark contrast to the Kenyan government’s enthusiastic support of the current politicians indicted by the International Criminal Court, which apparently extends to covering legal fees. Another KHRC official, George Morara, said Kenyan politicians are trying to keep their own skeletons in the closet.
“Most of them were collaborators,” he told the BBC. “They benefited from suppressing Mau Mau and they don't want the full history to come out now.”
Neither, one suspects, does William Hague, who in the entirety of his nearly 4,000-word speech neglected to mention the Kenyan case even once. He did, however, say a few things which lawyers for the litigants might want to bring up in the next round of hearings, due on July 16 and likely to centre on whether the statute of limitations has already passed on Britain’s human rights abuses in Kenya.
Not according to Hague it hasn’t. “The lesson of the last two decades is that if you commit war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide you will not be able to rest easily in your bed: the reach of international justice is long and patient, and once set in train, it is inexorable. There is no expiry date for these crimes,” he told his audience.
He also averred in no uncertain terms that Britain was committed to correcting its own mistakes. “It does sometimes happen that we fall short of our own standards. Mistakes are made. Governments can follow bad policies based on mistaken assumptions, or make poor decisions when confronted by competing priorities or urgent crises. But the test of our democracy is our willingness to shine a light on the mistakes of the past and to take corrective action – as we are doing in many ways including through domestic legislation, independent inquiries, changes to our machinery of government and the issuing of new guidance to our staff.”
Well, Mr Hague, your democracy is being tested right now, by four old Kenyans who want Britain to at least acknowledge the brutality of their colonial regime. So far, there’s been a distinct lack of light being shone on anything. It might be time for you to bring that torch out, or, at the very least, stop lecturing others on how to do it. DM
- Deny the British Empire’s crimes? No, we ignore them in the Guardian
- Justifiably the British are accused of brutality in 1950s Kenya. But why aren't the Mau Mau butchers also in the dock? in the Daily Mail
- Mau Mau veterans London-bound for case hearing on Kenya’s Capital FM News
Photo: Mau Mau veterans (L-R), Ndiku Mutua, Paulo Nzili, Jane Muthoni Mara, General Secretary of the Mau Mau association Gitu Wa Kahengeri and Wambugu Wa Nyingi stand in front of 10 Downing Street before delivering a letter of protest, in London June 24, 2009. Mutua, Nzili, Mara, Nyingi and another Kenyan began legal action against the British government on Tuesday, accusing the former colonial power of torture during Kenya's fight for independence more than half a century ago. REUTERS/Nigel Roddis