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Noam Schimmel Headshot

Britain and Europe's Conspicuous Silence on the Destructive Legacy of Colonialism

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Colonisation and its impact on the colonised is rarely a topic of sustained public conversation in Britain. It is not even a tangential topic. It is simply ignored, elided with very infrequent and brief exceptions such as the one prompted now by the case of Kenyan survivors of torture and other human rights abuses of British rule in Kenya.

To be sure such evasions of honest national historical accounting are not unique to Britain.

One finds hardly any reflection in the US media on America's devastating interventions in Central American countries and collusion in egregious human rights violations that took place there under dictatorial regimes who engaged in crimes against humanity including mass murder on an enormous scale.

Nor do Americans know much about or discuss America's history of colonisation in the Philippines or its 'Secret War' in Laos with its devastating bombing campaign that killed and injured thousands of Lao civilians.

So Britain is not unique in this willful looking away; a looking away which is not an evasion of shame, for one can only experience emotions of shame when facing an honest accounting, rather, a looking away of studied moral evasion and denial.

All nations, including and sometimes especially democracies, who wish to perceive themselves as paragons of moral virtue even if this virtue, however limited, almost never extends meaningfully beyond its borders to foreign affairs, disdain critical self reflection.

Nations are like individuals that way - egotistical, prone to self-rationalization and self-aggrandizement, uncomfortable with the hard work of self-examination, self-awareness, and self-criticism.

When speaking about nations one can only comment about tendencies and trends, as nations are complex, multi-dimensional, and vast, containing a diverse citizenship and made of individuals who may or may not share the attitudes and beliefs of many of their fellow co-citizens.

Nevertheless, we can examine how nations function as collectives, and observe the attitudes and beliefs prevalent amongst citizens.

Certain nations cannot look away from the legacy of their own human rights violations because the legacy is inextricably linked with the people, culture, and very physical landscape of the nation.

Slavery happened in America and the former slaves eventually became US citizens. However deep the legacy of racism remains in America, America has also traveled far in confronting the legacy of slavery and segregation. How to address ongoing discrimination remains a frequent part of public discourse.

Such discrimination is an uncomfortable topic which undermines the common American self-perception of the United States offering equality and justice to all American citizens. Many would rather avoid the topic or claim that it is no longer salient. But racism still exists in many different forms and creates barriers to equal opportunity and justice. Structural racial injustices remain deeply rooted in American society.

Conversation also does not necessarily lead to tangible policy outcomes to rectify injustices but it is a prerequisite for engaging the issue.

Still, the fact that social injustices happened within a nation's borders does not guarantee greater societal openness to addressing it. The Native American experience is barely ever acknowledged in the United States in any substantive way and American attitudes towards dispossession, discrimination, and persecution of Native Americans are as evasive as many European attitudes towards colonization.

Clearly then the American accounting with its past of slavery and segregation - however incomplete and imperfect - is not merely a mechanistic function of the location of where those crimes took place.

The civil rights movement left a profound mark on American society and transformed it - forcing Americans to confront the brutal legacy of slavery, segregation, and ongoing formal and informal racism. The consequences of the movement are still felt in America today and its moral integrity and commitment to equality and justice are needed as much today as they were in the past.

But there is no such similar movement which forced and forces Europeans to confront the human rights violations of colonization and their tenaciously enduring nature long after colonization officially came to a close.

Like slavery, segregation, and structural and informal racism the impacts of colonization remain deeply felt and continue to violate the rights and welfare of those individuals, communities, and nations who were subject to it.

Yet it has been relatively easy for Britain and other European countries to avoid confrontation of the legacy of violence, sectarian divisions, and human rights violations of their colonial pasts.

For Britons the legacy of colonization happened over there - far, far away. And the brutal consequences of colonization which are still felt today in India and Pakistan, in Iraq, and in Sudan - amongst other places - is rarely ever examined within a colonial and post-colonial context outside of rarefied academic contexts.

The colonial legacy is evacuated such that Iraq and Sudan's sectarian conflicts are rarely attributed at least in part to Britain's ignorant and artificial borders created to protect British interests rather than the well being of former colonial subjects and their social and political stability. Often these borders sowed the seeds of ethnic and political conflict, mass violence, and protracted wars.

Britain of course is not unique in Europe. Belgium has also done little to collectively examine the consequences of its colonization of parts of central Africa and yet perhaps no other colonizer in Africa played as direct and immediate a role in deliberately fomenting societal divisions that lay the groundwork for ethnic hatred and mass violence on a catastrophic scale.

This would lead to massacres and genocide throughout the 20th century in Rwanda and Burundi. It also led to the largest scale crime against humanity in Africa under King Leopold's and then the Belgian government's control of Congo involving mass killings, torture, and gross violations of the most basic human rights. Belgium's king and later the Belgian government itself did not only foment ethnic and social tensions but organized and directed violence and killing with the purpose of economic exploitation of the Congolese.

The Netherlands is finally beginning to examine and provide some framework of restorative justice - however minimal - for human rights violations that took place in Indonesia as a result of Dutch colonization.

The Spanish have failed to address their role in Western Sahara and its consequences for the Saharawi people including their current lack of freedom. Nor have they accounted for colonial crimes in Central and South America that still impact peoples living there detrimentally and were massively violent and exploitative. The same holds true for Portugal regarding its colonies in Africa and its colonization of Brazil.

The French reckoning with massive human rights violations in Algeria is woefully incomplete.

After the Rwandan genocide in 1994 The French created a parliamentary commission whose aim was purportedly to examine France's role - a thoroughly neo-colonial one - in the Rwandan genocide of the Tutsi. Instead, it essentially exonerated France of wrongdoing, called for no criminal investigations, and denied the overwhelming evidence that France supported Rwanda's genocidal regime before, during, and after the genocide with training, finance, weaponry, and diplomatic support.

While Germany has confronted its Nazi past with relative candor and more introspection, contrition, and genuinely honorable and substantive efforts at reparation than any other nation with a similar history of massive human rights violations and genocide it has shown little of that moral maturity with regard to confronting its colonial legacy in Namibia.

Instead, it satisfied itself with an apology in 2004 for what it rightly termed as genocide but refused any legal claims against it with the argument that because no international laws protecting the rights of innocent civilians at the time existed it has no legal responsibility for those crimes.

Such an argument might have legal legitimacy. But it is morally obtuse beyond measure and appallingly disrespectful to the memory of the victims and to their human rights - which existed - irrespective of whether they were legally codified.

In this context the recent effort of Kenyans who were tortured during the Mau-Mau uprising to sue the British government is important not only for the pursuit of justice but also for the breaching of the largely informal but powerful societal silence over the violent legacy of colonization by Britain and other European states.