Atoning for the Sins of Empire
David Anderson has an interesting op-ed in the NY Times:
THE British do not torture. At least, that is what we in Britain have always liked to think. But not anymore. In a historic decision last week, the British government agreed to compensate 5,228 Kenyans who were tortured and abused while detained during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s. Each claimant will receive around £2,670 (about $4,000).
The money is paltry. But the principle it establishes, and the history it rewrites, are both profound. This is the first historical claim for compensation that the British government has accepted. It has never before admitted to committing torture in any part of its former empire.
In recent years there has been a clamor for official apologies. In 2010, Britain formally apologized for its army’s conduct in the infamous “Bloody Sunday” killings in Northern Ireland in 1972, and earlier this year Prime Minister David Cameron visited Amritsar, India, the site of a 1919 massacre, and expressed “regret for the loss of life.”
The Kenyan case has been in process for a decade in London’s High Court. The British fought to avoid paying reparations, so the decision to settle is a significant change of direction. The decision comes months ahead of the 50th anniversary of the British departure from Kenya — once thought of as the “white man’s country” in East Africa.
The Kenya case turned on the evidence of historians, including my own role as an expert witness. I identified a large tranche of documents that the British government smuggled out of Kenya in 1963 and brought back to London. The judge ordered the release of this long-hidden “secret” cache, some 1,500 files.
The evidence of torture revealed in these documents was devastating. In the detention camps of colonial Kenya, a tough regime of physical and mental abuse of suspects was implemented from 1957 onward, as part of a government policy to induce detainees to obey orders or to make confessions.
The documents showed that responsibility for torture went right to the top — sanctioned by Kenya’s governor, Evelyn Baring, and authorized at cabinet level in London by Alan Lennox-Boyd, then secretary of state for the colonies in Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government.
When told that torture and abuse were routine in colonial prisons, Mr. Lennox-Boyd did not order that such practices be stopped, but instead took steps to place them beyond legal sanction. “Compelling force” was allowed, but defined so loosely as to permit virtually any kind of physical abuse.
Why did the British keep these documents, instead of destroying them? Plenty else was burned, or dumped at sea, as the British left Kenya.
The answer lay in the unease of some British colonial officers. Many did not like what they saw. When the orders to torture came down, some realized the jeopardy they were in. These men worried that it was they, not their commanders, who would carry the can.
They were right to worry. . .
Continue reading. As you read further, see whether any recent US initiatives come to mind.