This week, a British human rights lawyer backed by the Foreign Office managed to strong-arm an apology out of Libya’s revolutionary leadership for the actions of the man it is struggling to overthrow.
The apology and promise of compensation over Muammar Gaddafi’s supply of explosives used in IRA bombs and his role in blowing up the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie was made by the rebels in the name of the Libyan people as a whole – a move that astonished and offended many Libyans, who see no reason to take responsibility for the crimes of their oppressor.
But the Foreign Office shared the view of the British lawyer, Jason McCue, that saying sorry for something they had no hand in would somehow be good for the Libyan people as a whole by establishing a newfound commitment to human rights. The promise of money helps, of course.
The truth is that the revolutionary leadership, which has rather more pressing issues to hand such as keeping Gaddafi’s troops from overrunning Benghazi, felt it had to play along to bolster crucial support from the UK and the west. McCue even praised David Cameron for making the case a priority at the Foreign Office.
This demonstration of power politics is made all the more distasteful by the contrasting attitude of the British government at the high court toward victims of the most depraved torture, gruesome killings and mass hangings by Britain during Kenya’s struggle for independence.
Hiding behind legal contortions, the government is refusing to apologise or pay compensation for appalling abuses done in the name of and with the knowledge of the British state, with the intent of preserving a system of racist privilege for white settlers in the east African colony.
The Kenya Human Rights Commission says about 160,000 black people were held in dire conditions in camps run by the British colonial authorities and tens of thousands were tortured to get them to renounce their oath to the Mau Mau rebellion against British rule in the 1950s.
The Foreign Office doesn’t deny there was torture and killings in the camps. How could it? Many of the abuses are documented in files discovered in its own archives. They including a telegram from the British governor of Kenya, Sir Evelyn Baring, documenting torture allegations against colonial district officers including “the burning alive of detainees”.
Instead the Foreign Office is deploying an array of legal barriers to argue that it is not required to pay compensation. Among the arguments is that Britain’s responsibility for its colonial crimes ceased to exist when Kenya became independent in 1963 – a legal convenience that apparently does not apply in Libya where Britain has willed it that responsibility for Gaddafi’s crimes has been transferred to the people as a whole and their representatives in the struggle for freedom.
The Foreign Office also argues that these crimes are historic. But they are not history to those who live with the consequences, including the four claimants at the high court such as Ndiku Mutua and Paulo Nzili, who say they were castrated in a British camp. Or to Jane Muthoni Mara who I spoke to in Nairobi several years ago and who described to me how as a 15-year-old she was arrested as a Mau Mau spy and, among other things, tortured under the supervision of a British army officer by being raped with a bottle filled with hot water.
Other prisoners told of being beaten, starved, anally raped and flogged. The official documents found at the Foreign Office acknowledge that prisoners were used as forced labour. Some detainees were tortured so badly they died.
More than 1,000 Kenyan men met their death at the end of a hangman’s noose, many after confessions they said were tortured from them.
All of this led a Kenyan colonial judge, Arthur Cram, who was appointed to examine the role of British officials in torture and killings, to draw comparisons with infamous Nazi camps.
“They [British colonial officials] not only knew of the shocking floggings that went on in this Kenya Nordhausen, or Mathausen [sic], but must be taken to be the men who were said to have carried them out. From the brutalising of flogging it is only a step to taking life without qualm,” he said in his judgment.
Germany is still apologising and paying compensation for the crimes of the Nazi state in Nordhausen and Mauthausen. It has not tried to say that responsibility dissolved with the collapse of the Third Reich.
The survivors of the British camps in Kenya are asking for what the victims of the IRA and Lockerbie have now been promised from the new Libya – an apology and compensation to live out the rest of their lives with respect and dignity.
But the Foreign Office believes apologies are for Libyans.