Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Britain's dirty colonial laundry

Fifty years ago, as Britain was being kicked out of its former Empire, colonial officials grew worried. They had, naturally, documented the crimes they had committed in order to keep their "subject peoples" subjugated. But now they would be leaving, those documents could fall into the "wrong" hands, and lead to embarrassment, or even calls for prosecution. So they fired up the shredders:

Thousands of documents detailing some of the most shameful acts and crimes committed during the final years of the British empire were systematically destroyed to prevent them falling into the hands of post-independence governments, an official review has concluded.

Those papers that survived the purge were flown discreetly to Britain where they were hidden for 50 years in a secret Foreign Office archive, beyond the reach of historians and members of the public, and in breach of legal obligations for them to be transferred into the public domain.

The documents which survived the purge are damning enough, detailing assassinations, torture, murder, and ethnic cleansing, all as a matter of formal British government policy. But the Foreign Office's secrecy - itself a violation of the law - has meant that those responsible have been protected, allowed to retire and die in peace rather than in a jail cell where they belong. The criminals protected their own - and got away with it.

Meanwhile its a nice riposte to those who claim that freedom of information laws lead to officials shredding and burying documents. You don't need FOI for that - you just need a guilty conscience.