Mau Mau: Breaking the silence of colonial torture

Lutz Oette, Al Jazeera, April 29 2016.

Providing reparation for colonial
abuses in Kenya is an important first step, and the UK must do the
same elsewhere.

The settlement
of the claims brought

by a group of elderly Kenyans, imprisoned and tortured during the Mau
Mau insurgency that preceded the country’s independence, marks an
important victory of justice for colonial crimes. 

The survivors of
the torture meted out by the colonial administration were determined
to break the silence surrounding their suffering, including rape,
castration and severe beatings. They succeeded in overcoming major
hurdles with the support of Kenyan organisations, human rights
groups, lawyers, academics and others.

The UK government
finally bowed to the inevitable, following a four-year legal battle
and faced with irrefutable evidence. During this time, the government
significant defeats in the courts
the most recent being one in October 2012, when the High Court
rejected the government’s
that “too much time had elapsed for there to be a fair trial”.

With the revelation
of a vast secret colonial archive in early 2011,
judge found
that a
fair trial was indeed possible, noting that “the documentation
is voluminous… the governments and military commanders seem to have
been meticulous record keepers”.
an international human rights organisation that helps torture
survivors obtain justice and reparation, made
and oral submissions

to the court that supported the victims’ rights.

The British
government has now agreed to provide compensation to 5,228 survivors
totalling 19.9m pounds ($31m), including 6m pounds ($9.3m) in legal
costs, and to fund the construction of a memorial in Nairobi to the
victims of colonial torture.

In his statement
to Parliament on June 6
Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed his “sincere regret”
and unreservedly condemned the torture on behalf of the government. 

This is welcome. 
However, the statement fell short on several counts. 
The UK “regretted”, but did not fully apologise for what

Its analysis failed to recognise the anti-colonial nature
of the uprising. It stressed that the settlement was confined to
Kenya and did not constitute a precedent.

“We will… continue to exercise
our own right to defend claims brought against the government,”
Hague stated in parliament. “We do not believe that this
settlement establishes a precedent in relation to any other former
British colonial administration.”

The foreign secretary’s statement
defended the UK’s legal position of denying liability. This fails to
recognise victims’ right to reparation for torture that is well
established under international law and results in delaying payouts
to people who are coming to the end of their lives.

The “Mau Mau” settlement is
groundbreaking because – contrary to the government’s portrayal – it
does indeed set a major precedent in which decades of denial and
silencing of the victims is replaced with the truth as to what
happened, the responsibility of the UK, and the right of victims to
obtain reparation.

Even though the UK government stopped
short of apologising, it is clear that the settlement goes a long way
in restoring the dignity of the victims. The terms agreed upon are
important to treat survivors as individuals who suffered grievous and
lasting injustices and to set the record straight. The case should
also pave the way for much more fundamental changes.

While Hague’s
statement downplayed the prospect of the UK being prepared to
seriously address the issues raised by the case, these questions
cannot be ignored: Who should own and have
to the historical records
such as those on the Mau Mau uprisings kept by the UK? 

How, and
through whose eyes, should the UK’s colonial history be portrayed,
taught and remembered? 

And, what lessons should be learned from what
was done to “colonial subjects” and civilians branded as
“terrorists” and the manner in which they have subsequently
been denied truth and justice?

These questions are not purely

Atrocities carried out by British forces outside of the
UK mainland are not isolated or abstract. A glimpse at current
debates and litigation concerning events in Iraq and Afghanistan
illustrate this point only too well.

The settlement has
potentially wide ramifications for victims of violations from Aden to
Cyprus and Malaysia that have been swept under the colonial carpet. 

More claims can be expected. 
The foreign office has already been
informed that it will be receiving
claim from lawyers representing a number of Cypriots

who allege that they were also mistreated during the island’s
decolonisation conflict in the 1950s.

Given the historical context, this
reparation is a small price to pay for a country that greatly
benefited from colonialism. Rather than oppose or undermine such
claims, the UK – both the government and the public at large – should
welcome these developments. They provide an overdue opportunity to
confront Britain’s past, to live up to the rule of law and notions of
justice, and to show that it respects victims and their suffering.
This includes addressing lingering colonial power imbalances.

colonial wrongdoings
the individuals and countries concerned, and sharing documentation
held about what is an essential part of these countries’ histories
are crucial to this process.

The UK government should therefore
take immediate steps to make publicly available all records about
abuses committed in all former British territories and to cooperate
with any interested parties, including survivors’ organisations.
Where sufficient evidence is available, the UK should provide
adequate reparation to the victims, which should also comprise a full

Ultimately, reflecting and acting on
this legacy will stand the UK in good stead when talking about how
countries should deal with their skeletons of human rights abuses,
both during colonial times and more recently. 

It should also act as a
reminder, especially considering experiences in places such as in
Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan, that any use of force and
exercise of military power needs to be carefully considered and
closely monitored – so as to ensure that history does not repeat