THE BLOG

Britain Has a Duty to Compensate All Victims of Colonial Repression

07/06/2013 11:52 BST | Updated 07/08/2013 10:12 BST

The UK government's expression of regret and its agreement to pay compensation to Kenyan torture victims must now lead to similar redress for the victims of repression in other colonial era domains: Malaya, Aden, Cyprus and the north of Ireland.

This repression included detention without trial, torture and extra-judicial killings. Those targeted often included people merely suspected of nationalist sympathies.

Britain's widespread human rights abuses during the self-rule struggles from the 1950s to the 1970s are well documented by Amnesty International, the European Commission of Human Rights and the International Red Cross.

These abuses are beyond dispute and, in the case of Kenya, are admitted by the UK government. Moreover, the detailed evidence is documented in the secret, recently discovered colonial archives stored at Britain's top security Government Communications Centre at Hanslope Park in Buckinghamshire.

While the Kenyan compensation deal is a pioneering, laudable breakthrough, it was resisted for many years by the UK government, which fought tooth and nail in the British courts to deny the just claims for redress by Kenyan victims.

The agreement, announced yesterday by the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, also has its flaws and limitations. It expresses regret for what happened but falls short of a formal apology. The UK government has refused to accept legal liability for the brutalities meted out by the colonial administration.

Moreover, the compensation accord covers only 5,228 victims and does not include a further 8,061 victims represented by UK solicitors, Tandem Law.

Bryan Cox QC of Tandem Law said: "The matter is far from over." His firm intends to continue its legal case on behalf of Kenyan victims in the UK courts.

Responding to the announcement of the agreement by the UK Foreign Secretary, Mr Cox said:

"Today's expression of regret about the events in (the) Mau Mau (uprising) by William Hague is welcome. However, with many more thousands of claims currently unresolved, the matter is far from over. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has agreed a compensation package with just one law firm representing 5,228 victims, there are many more victims still awaiting an agreement. We are currently working with over 8,000 Kenyan claimants who have received no such offer.

"More worryingly, the sums being awarded appear modest; we are very concerned about this. Having been in Kenya for the past 14 months taking very detailed witness statements, it is absolutely crucial that the FCO understands, in detail, the very great suffering of all the victims to ensure they are properly compensated," said Mr Cox.

The Kenya Human Rights Commission says 160,000 Kenyans were detained during the 1950s independence struggle. Most were interned without trial in concentration camps, often on mere suspicion of support for the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (Mau Mau) nationalist movement. The evidence against them was often flimsy or non-existent.

The Commission reports that 90,000 Kenyans were executed, tortured or maimed by the British colonial authorities.

The UK government is offering compensation of only £2,600 per person. This sum is derisory and insulting, given that many of the victims were interned without trial for many years in squalid, brutal concentration camps, where they were variously subjected to starvation, forced labour, beatings, torture, rape and castration.

Some people ask why Britain should pay any compensation for abuses that were committed more than half a century ago; especially given our country's dire financial state and the hardship of widespread public spending cuts.

This is an understandable concern. However, apologising and compensating the victims will not cost billions. Besides, it is the honourable thing to do - to pay reparations to the victims of gross brutalities.

I am sure the critics of the Kenyan compensation agreement would want an apology and compensation if they were unjustly detained without trial for several years, beaten, raped and castrated. So why shouldn't the Kenyan victims receive the same redress?

Another downside to the deal is that it involves no prosecution of the British forces - mostly soldiers, police and prison guards - who were responsible for terrible crimes against humanity.

In the case of grave human rights abuses, surely there should be no time limit on prosecution? Given that the UK still supports the pursuit of Nazi war criminals from the 1940s, it would seem consistent that we should also seek to bring to justice the perpetrators of war crimes during the colonial conflicts in the 1950s.

What happened in Kenya is not an isolated case. Similar abuses occurred during the national liberation struggles in Malaya, Aden, Cyprus and the north of Ireland, when the people there sought independence:

During the Malayan counter-insurgency, from 1948-60, at least 34,000 opponents of British rule were detained without trial. Tens of thousands of villagers were forcibly uprooted from their land at gun point. Troops burned their homes and crops, and deported them to barbed-wire encampments euphemistically known as 'new villages' - where they were, in effect, held prisoner.

Throughout the Cyprus 'emergency' of 1954-58, when the Cypriot people demanded self-government, torture techniques were widely used against nationalists by the British army. These included beating suspects on the stomach with a flat board, twisting the testicles, suffocation with a wet cloth and burning with cigarettes. In 1957, Britain was hauled before the Council of Europe accused of 49 cases of torture in Cyprus.

Similar abuses happened in Aden in the 1960s. In 1981, the Scottish Sunday Mail reprinted parts of a dossier by an ex-member of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders containing information on 40 murders committed by the regiment in Aden.

The use of torture in Aden was systematic at the Fort Morbut Interrogation Centre and at Al Mansoura prison. Detainees were beaten, interrogated naked, refused toilet visits and deprived of food and sleep.

It was a similar story in the north of Ireland in the 1970s. In 1971, the British government was forced to set up the Compton Committee to investigate allegations of army brutality against nationalists interned without trial. The Committee concluded that electric shocks, hooding, loud noise, and sleep and light deprivation had been used by the security forces and that these methods constituted 'physical ill-treatment'.

Following its own separate inquiry, Amnesty International reported: 'It is a form of torture to force a man to stand at the wall in the posture described for many hours in succession, in some cases for days on end, progressively exhausted and driven literally out of his mind by being subjected to continuing noise, and being deprived of food, sleep and even light.'

In 1976, the European Commission on Human Rights declared that the British government and army were guilty of 'torture, inhuman and degrading treatment' in Ireland and that such practices were institutionalised and officially condoned.

Justice has been long delayed to the many victims of colonial era human rights abuses. Let it not be denied.

For more information about Peter Tatchell's human rights campaigns and to make a donation, visit petertatchell.net