Culture of impunity

by Simon Collings

Two weeks ago I wrote to the prime minister and the foreign secretary urging them to come to an honourable settlement with three elderly Kenyans who were tortured in the 1950s when Kenya was a British colony. (See my earlier post.)

The response I had to my letters states that the government accepts that these individuals were tortured but does not admit responsibility for anything which happened during the colonial period. It also argues that these events took place a long time ago and it’s much too late for someone to be bringing a case now. The assistant desk officer who wrote to me was at pains to stress, however, that Britain ‘leads the world in advancing human rights.’

The idea that Britain no longer has any responsibility for the actions of officials in Kenya under British colonial rule is morally absurd. Of course issues such as land ownership passed to the Kenyan government on independence in 1963. But human rights abuses perpetrated by the colonial authorities and their masters in Whitehall must rest with us.

Equally the argument that these appeals are ‘out of time’ is preposterous. No one would tell a Jewish holocaust survivor that efforts today to prosecute Nazi war criminals were ‘too late’. In 2011 the Dutch government compensated the widows of seven men killed in a notorious massacre in Indonesia in 1947. I could quote many other examples of historical wrongs being righted after long periods have elapsed.

When Britain left Kenya much incriminating evidence about the Mau Mau suppression was destroyed. Other documents were willfully concealed. Important evidence in the case of the Kenyans’ appeal was discovered in 2011 in a secret Foreign Office store by the historian David Anderson.

 Thousands of detainees in Kenya in the 1950s wrote to the UK government making allegations of ill treatment and torture. Many of these letters were addressed to the queen. If the letter writer identified themselves the camp authorities in Kenya flogged them. J M Kariuki, who was a determined letter writer, describes several severe beatings in his book Mau Mau Detainee (Oxford University Press, 1963). For this reason most letters were anonymous, allowing the head of the Colonial Office of the time, Lennox-Boyd, to tell MPs that they could not be investigated because they contained no specific details of time and place.

In Kenya today commentators speak of the elite operating within a ‘culture of impunity.’ Senior public figures have, since independence, plundered government funds and acquired land and other assets by nefarious means. Official enquiries are held, names named, but no one is ever prosecuted. Political opponents have been assassinated but no one is arrested and tried for the crime. This is a culture where members of the elite act outside the control of the judiciary and parliament.

Britain regularly lectures Kenya about these shortcomings in its governance systems. We would have more credibility if we weren’t trying at the same time to maintain our own ‘culture of impunity’. How can we say we are leading advocates for human rights and at the same time deny responsibility for what British public servants did in Kenya in the 1950s? The shabbiness of the present government’s excuses is all too reminiscent of the denials and cover ups of the Colonial Office at the time these crimes were being committed.