Friday, June 07, 2013

Some justice for Kenya

Between 1952 and 1956, the British waged a dirty colonial war in Kenya against the Mau-Mau. Opponents of the colonial regime were detained in camps, deported to reserves, and of course murdered, tortured, and raped. The extent of the atrocities was exposed by the release of the British Colonial Office's secret archive last year: beatings, castration, water torture, and the roasting alive of a prisoner. But now, the UK government is finally doing the right thing and compensating its victims:

Kenyans tortured by British colonial forces during the Mau Mau uprising will receive payouts totalling £20m, Foreign Secretary William Hague has announced.

He said the UK government recognised Kenyans were tortured and it "sincerely regrets" the abuses that took place.

A lawyer for the victims said they "at last have the recognition and justice they have sought for many years".

But read the fine print: the compensation is a paltry £3,000 per surviving victim (for torture and castration, remember), and the government accepts no legal liability. What should be an apology and recognition of wrongdoing has been sullied by cheapness and a refusal to accept responsibility for the wrong that was done. Looking at it from a country which specialises in apologies for past colonial wrongdoing, it looks more than a little halfhearted.

But then, the Kenyans weren't Britain's only victims. There are others in Cyprus, Malaysia, Yemen, Palestine and India who were similarly wronged and equally deserving of an apology and compensation. The UK's treatment of its Kenyan victims has one eye on limiting future claims from its victims elsewhere - a motivation which undermines the sincerity of their settlement.

It also has one eye on preserving the reputation of the British empire. But if there's one thing we should have learned, its that all empires are evil. Once you set out to dominate other countries, torture and oppression are an inescapable part of the project. Britain did it everywhere, the US is doing it now in Afghanistan and the Middle East (and increasingly to its own citizens); hell, we did it in Samoa when we tried to have our own little empire in the Pacific. If we want people to live in freedom and dignity, then we can't have empires. It's that simple.