On July 21 the High Court in London allowed four of five elderly Kenyans to proceed with their claim against the British government. Jane Muthoni Mara, Ndiku Mutua, Paolo Nzili, Wambugu Nyingi and Susan Ngondi started legal action in June 2009 against the British government for the sexual abuse and horrific mutilations they suffered during the 'Emergency' declared by the colonial government from 1952 until 1960. They want compensation and an apology. More than a thousand other potential claimants are still alive in Kenya, and the case might set a precedent for thousands of similar claims worldwide. The government contested the case on the grounds that any claim should have been made against the colonial government in Kenya at the time, and that responsibility had passed to the newly independent Kenyan government in 1963(1). It had argued in effect that Kenyans should be held responsible for atrocities committed against them by their colonial masters.
In spite of excellent research on the subject, by for example historian Mark Curtis, there's not a great rush on the part of governments to talk about, let alone apologize for Britain's history of human rights abuses since 1945. So effective is the illusion of the UK's innocence in such matters that even the statement that Britain has a poor human rights record sounds like something uttered by a wino at King's Cross station.
Fond memories of colonial days cloud the horror in Kenya during the Emergency. "Between 1952 and 1956, when the fighting was at its worst, the Kikuyu districts of Kenya became a police state in the very fullest sense of that term".(2) More than 1000 Kikuyu were hanged, more than 20,000 were killed in combat, and according to historian Caroline Elkins up to 100,000 died in detention camps and in "barbed wire" villages (the official figure is 11,000). Unimaginable torture, euphemistically referred to as "screening", beatings and starvation were routine, and some of the perpetrators themselves used comparisons with the Gestapo at a time when World War II was a recent memory. Kenya's assistant police commissioner Duncan McPherson said conditions in the camps were far worse than anything he had experienced as a prisoner of war for four and a half years under the Japanese. “I’ve come to believe,” Elkins writes, “that during the Mau Mau war British forces wielded their authority with a savagery that portrayed a perverse colonial logic: only by detaining nearly the entire Kikuyu population of 1.5 million people and physically and psychologically atomizing its men, women, and children could colonial authority be restored and the civilizing mission reinstated.” (3)
Some civilized white settlers believed that the only way to stop them was to "hang the Kikuyu tribe in batches of 25."(4)
Governments have to find an explanation for slaughtering those who get in their way: the conflict was portrayed in the media as being between the forces of civilization and barbaric tribes. The word "subhuman" was used in at least one parliamentary debate. British parliamentarian Enoch Powell agreed with the adjective as applied to eleven prisoners at Hola camp who had been beaten to death by warders for refusing to work – but dissented from the views of many colleagues that British officials should not be held responsible for the murder of Untermenschen.(5) Other members of parliament were concerned merely that condoning torture and murder might reflect disadvantageously on Britain's reputation as a civilizing influence in the world. One member however (referring only to the governing conservative party) summed up the essence of the colonial mentality: "Quite instictively, sincerely and genuinely, without even being aware of it, hon. Members opposite do not believe that an African life is as important as a white man's life."(6) Her own party (Labour), however, showed itself subsequently to be very far from innocent in its conduct of foreign policy.
That particular atrocity got to a parliamentary debate, but generally 'Mau Mau' atrocities were retold in detail, while those committed by the British were buried where possible, as indeed was attempted with the Hola case. Typical were the reports from British Pathe News, shown to huge audiences in cinemas, which demonized organizations like the Kenya African Union, describing them as revolutionaries and agitators stirring up irrational hatred, and depicting a war on terrorism against a bestial enemy in defence of higher values. The narrative has an uncanny similarity to current propaganda about Afghanistan:
Some of the propaganda would be astonishing in its impudence if one could be sure that those who repeated it didn't "insinctively, sincerely and genuinely" believe it themselves, and if similar contortions were not still daily routine in government and media half a century later. Kikuyu organizations that agitated for the return of Kikuyu land settled on by whites were said to indulge in "virulent anti-white propaganda"…. "They worked on the known credulity, suspicion and envy of the tribe. With the cry 'More land for the Kikuyu people!' they distorted the true facts to insinuate that the whites had stolen land which belonged to the tribe."
Clearly it was better not to distort the true facts with too much reality. This is approaching an outrageous but hopefully fictional example of chutzpah in which a young man who murdered his parents pleads mitigation on the grounds that he is an orphan.
A total of 32 white settlers were killed during the eight years of the emergency. Perpetrators are usually adept at portraying themselves as the victims. We hear from our 'leaders' today that we are constantly under attack. Many supposed and a few real assailants are demonized, whether it be those who want to destroy our civilization and values, or economic migrants who want to overwhelm us and take what we claim to have have earned by our labours. Our own responsibility is not on the horizon.
The foreign office minister for Africa, Henry Bellingham, believes " 'Our' relationship with Kenya and its people has moved on".(7) He and the government he represents just don't get it. Four elderly Kenyans are trying to move on but are unable to do so. The fifth plaintiff, Susan Ngondi died while waiting for permission to move on. Nobody moves on until torture and war crimes are acknowledged and dealt with, not even foreign office ministers or their government. New atrocities feed on past denial as the current outbreak of torture lust in western capitals indicates.
The judge in this case,(8) Justice McCombe, quoted a 2005 ruling in which the highest court in the UK, dealing with the admissibility of evidence obtained by torture via 'extraordinary rendition', "trenchantly" rejected torture, one of the judges citing a 1628 precedent:
“My Lords, on 23 August 1628 George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham and Lord High Admiral of England, was stabbed to death by John Felton, a naval officer….The 35-year-old Duke had been the favourite of King James I and was the intimate friend of the new King Charles I who asked the judges whether Felton could be put on the rack to discover his accomplices.
All the judges met in Serjeants’ Inn. Many years later Blackstone recorded their historic decision: “The judges, being consulted, declared unanimously, to their own honour and the honour of the English law, that no such proceeding was allowable by the laws of England.”(9)
The law, at least in that case, applied even to kings and dukes. After 400 years there seems to be no language on earth or logic that will get such a straightforward notion past the security barriers in the minds of those we allow to run our affairs today.
Four elderly Kenyans are going to try. But it's not just the millions that might have to be paid out to possible subsequent claimants that cause such obstinate government resistance. The precedent that might be set could be more dangerous: it could lead to further disclosures about the true extent of Britain's human rights abuses. And further erode governments' impunity to commit whatever crimes they might consider expedient in the future.
(1) The East African, January 31 2010, UK snubs compensation claim by Mau Mau victims
(2) David Anderson, "Histories of the Hanged: Britain's Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire, 2005, p.5
(3) Caroline Elkins: "Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya", 2005
(4) Time, Mar 15 1954
(5) Hansard, July 27, 1959
(6) M.P. Barbara Castle, quoted in Hansard, July 27 1959
(7) www.fco.goc.uk July 21 2011: "Foreign Office Minister responds to Mau Mau High Court judgement"
(8) Ndiku MUTUA, Paulo NZILI, Wambugu Claimants NYINGI, Jane Muthoni MARA & Susan NGONDI – and -THE FOREIGN AND COMMONWEALTH Defendant OFFICE July 21 2011
(9) UK House of Lords, Lord Hoffmann in A v Secretary of State for the Home Department (No.2)  UKHL