In the first week of October Justice Richard McCombe of the High Court of England and Wales ruled in favor of the three Kenyan citizens who had made the long trip to London to seek justice for crimes committed by the British colonial administration in the crown colony of Kenya sixty years ago. Paulo Muoka Nzili, Wambugu Wa Nyingi and Jane Muthoni Mara can now sue the current British Government for injustices committed by the British governments of the 1950s when the colonial establishment in Kenya viciously suppressed the Mau Mau rebellion. The implications of this ruling could be immense, opening the door for former colonies of the erstwhile British Empire to take their former colonial master to court. Already the US, Germany and Iraq have had to make amends for offences committed in the past (not all relating to colonial crimes).
In this case, the court rejected the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s claim that too much time had passed and that the successor state to the British Colony, the Kenyan government of 1963, should instead be held accountable for those atrocities. The defendants admitted that the colonial administration had employed torture to quell the almost decade-long rebellion, but argued that they should no longer be held accountable. George Morara of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission had a ready response – “crimes against humanity [were] not time bound.”
Could this open a can of worms for the current British government at a time when its economy is still on the road to recovery? The International Coalition for British Reparations, a “global network of citizens who have suffered injuries at the hands of the British Empire over the last five hundred years” founded by an American puts the amount at 31 trillion pounds in indemnities owed to the erstwhile subjects of the empire. While that figure, in all likelihood, wouldn’t be taken seriously in a court of law, it is noteworthy to remember that Germany stopped paying reparations for the Great War only two years ago having paid a total of 22 billion pounds to the allied powers.
Since there has been no ruling in the British case as yet (the plaintiffs can only now sue the British government), we do not know what the impact statistically will be for the country’s economy. However, any ruling in favor of the plaintiffs is likely to have as an accompaniment the transfer of monies because the absence of monetary compensation may not be acceptable to the ones taking the government to court for the assumption is that if someone can get away by just apologizing, it must mean that he didn’t commit a grave enough crime. In these times of austerity, with any extra amount that the exchequer is asked to cough up there is the real possibility of the government seeing a decline in popularity.
Some observers believe that the Kenyan case is unique and once these crimes have been expiated, the British will not have to undergo the same exercise for anymore of its former empire’s misdeeds. That idea may turn out to be groundless. One need only look at the attempts of the kin of the victims of the Batang Kali massacre of 1948 in Malaysia (then the Federation of Malaya) to seek justice at the British High Court just last month. In this instance the claimants were not successful in getting their case pushed forward.
The Mau Mau case is different for the simple reason that the same court, which has in the past rejected cases similar in typology, this time said, “the evidence on both sides remains significantly cogent for the court to complete its task satisfactorily.” This significantly alters the playing field and the verdict (if it ever comes to that) could go either way.
What of the British Empire’s other crimes? Indeed, what of the crimes committed by all empires? One need not single out the British for criticism. All empires have attempted to justify acts of brutality. The three Kenyans came to London not just to press for reparations, but to seek a formal apology from the British Government for the dehumanizing treatment they were subjected to during those years. Since this judgment is in the context of colonialism and colonial practices of empires, chiefly European, of the past, the neo-imperialist empires of today do not enter this discussion. That is a separate story, although there are many similarities between the empires of yesterday and those of today.
In historian Sugata Bose’s essay titled “Starvation amidst Plenty: The Making of Famine in Bengal, Honan and Tonkin, 1942-45,” one of the epigraphs reads, “When we entered the villages we saw the peasants miserably dressed. Many of them had only a piece of mat to cover their bodies. They wandered about aimlessly…When a dog or a rat died, it was the occasion for the whole village to come around to prepare it and parcel it out among themselves.” This quotation succinctly states the difficult existence that many Vietnamese peasants endured under French colonial rule. Bose argues that by failing to distribute food grains efficiently, the British and the French administrators in India and Vietnam, respectively, were directly responsible for the humanitarian crises that followed. This was how empires generally worked – the imperial center profited at the expense of millions in the periphery.
The direct and indirect consequences of the imperial project are being felt even today. While empires of the past ruled foreign territories with the aid of strong militaries, they left behind weak state structures. Africa has still not reconciled itself to the nation-state arrangement ever since the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 carved up the continent for Europe’s imperialists. If it did, events such as Rwanda ’94 would perhaps never have happened. Time alone will tell if the ruling on the Mau Mau case establishes a precedent for future cases to be permitted to be brought before courts, or whether there will be more cases rejected than heard. On what basis will such commissions and omissions be made remains to be seen.
The court rulings in these cases, however, are important because firstly, they point to a level of seriousness associated with the case (for such cases to go to full trial, they must have merit) and secondly, if a judgment is made in favor of the plaintiff, it reflects the historical guilt of the North for injustices suffered by the South. While such guilt has been addressed in the past, seldom has it been validated by high-level judicial bodies.