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The Crimes of Our Fathers - From Kenya to Bahrain

12/06/2013 17:52 BST | Updated 10/08/2013 10:12 BST

I don't think this can be said loudly enough because it should be big news. The UK government has decided to pay compensation to over 5,000 people it tortured and kept in concentration camps in Kenya 60 years ago. It has, however, refused to accept legal responsibility for the crimes committed, or to use the word 'sorry'.

Britain's colonial legacy just won't go away, despite how little attention it gets in our national media. In its coverage of the high court settlement on the torture and violence meted out to Kenyan Mau Mau rebels in the 50s, the BBC carefully omitted any mention of the concentration camp system that was used to contain 150.000 Kikuyu people, less than 10 years after British troops liberated Bergen-Belsen to help end the Holocaust. Al-Jazeera, on the other hand, was happy to note the crimes of its owners' former Imperial protector.

Most importantly, while the UK is paying compensation to 5,228 Kenyan victims of torture, it is not saying sorry; only that it 'regrets' what happened. As noted by Channel 4, the Foreign Office claims to understand the crimes committed during colonial days, yet fought against being forced into an apology every step of the way.

Before eventually conceding that Britain might have done something wrong, Her Majesty's Government did their best to argue that there should be no justice for the crimes it committed because it happened too long ago. This legal denial mirrors the UK's refusal to allow the Chagos Islanders to return to any part of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, which they were ethnically cleansed from in the 1970s - all just to build a U.S. air base which was then used in War on Terror extraordinary rendition flights.

All the surviving Kenyan Mau Mau were looking for was an apology, an acknowledgement for their suffering. Unfortunately they are up against a post-colonial mindset which has swept crimes under the rug to project a rose-tinted, pre-lapsarian image of Britain's glorious past.

Now, however, the Mau Mau ruling threatens to open a can of worms for the British government, forcing it confront the full horror of its past. As the New York Times noted when Cameron mumbled something about regretting the 1919 Amritsar Massacre on a recent arms dealing trip to India, "Britain's colonial history is so replete with regrettable episodes that officials have quietly worried that an apology for one episode might lead to an outpouring of demands for similar apologies all over the world." This time around, Foreign Secretary William Hague said that the high court ruling "did not mean the UK accepted liability for the mistreatment of detainees and did not set a precedent for future cases", according to The Independent. The prospect of having to apologise for the unhealed wounds of colonialism frightens not just the UK, but represents an existential threat to U.S.-led neocolonialism which is even now engaged in committing serious crimes against innocent civilians through its drone strike program.

This prospect is surely a good thing. We have ignored these crimes for far too long; refusing to teach our children about the less-than-heroic parts of British history and sticking to a sanitised view of the Middle-Ages and the Two World Wars. We all have a moral duty to face up to the historic failings of our governments. If we don't, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes, as we have in Iraq and Afghanistan. The ideological inheritance of colonialism remains with us: a racist sense of entitlement to resources, and a paternalistic view of 'undeveloped' peoples whose rights can be ignored if it serves as a means to our greater end.

Coming to terms with our colonial past means taking responsibility for what kind of state we want to live in today, and what kind of foreign policy we want that state to have. It may be difficult and uncomfortable to admit past crimes, but we owe ourselves a fair assessment of the historical record. But it would mean abandoning a nostalgic view of our past - you only have to read Jack London's mesmerisingly bleak People of the Abyss, a personal account of poverty in London in 1903, and you can see that the Empire was based on brutal labour exploitation which came to an end with the rise of the Labour and Suffrage movements and the creation of the Welfare State. We must give up the idea that Britain is 'broken' due to its welfare bill and immigration. Our social fabric has been torn by the accumulation of power and wealth in the City of London more than anything else.

There is a direct line between the colonial repression of Kenyans in the 50s and our current foreign policy, directed at maintaining the power of our client states like Saudi Arabia, Israel and Bahrain. Ian Henderson, a notorious British army officer accused of widespread torture of Mau Mau Kenyans in the 50s, later went on to lead Bahrain's security service until the 90s, where he was again accused of leading torture interrogations and acquired the nickname 'The Butcher of Bahrain'. Henderson, like many torturers, died a free man, his Kenyan and Bahraini victims now denied the chance to see justice done against the author of their suffering. Meanwhile, Britain continues to supply security 'advisors' and institutional support to the Bahraini autocrats.

The problem for our current leaders is that admitting error and offering apologies is not just damaging in terms of the long list of past crimes which would need to be addressed; it is problematic in terms of the crimes which are being committed right now by Western states and their client allies. This would necessitate the kind of political balls which our leaders singularly lack. It would mean standing up to the insidious influence of Saudi Arabia's extremist Wahabi idealogues who are poisoning and radicalising young minds all over the world, and are primarily responsible for the ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Hazara people in Pakistan.

It would mean engaging with the failure of the 2 state solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict and telling Israel that it must decide between being a religious state that only protects the rights of Jews, and a democratic state which protects all citizens. It cannot be both.

It means stopping subsidies of £700m a year to the UK arms industry, who are indirectly responsible for fuelling conflict and repressing the demands of people all over the world who are struggling for democracy, dignity and self-determination.

In short, it would mean an entire mental revolution which if we are honest with ourselves, we know will not be accepted by the status quo until its roots are planted deep in our social psyche. But one thing is clear: we cannot base our foreign policy on fear - the fear that apologising for past crimes will open a floodgate of victims claiming reparations, and the fear that maintaining our commitment to secular, democratic principles could alienate our powerful allies. The status quo is untenable, and the sooner we realise that and stop standing in the way of inevitable progress, the better.