It's time to acknowledge the victims of colonial-era torture in Kenya

The coalition must practice what it preaches on human rights.

The coalition government claims to have placed human rights at the heart of its foreign policy. Next month, in the High Court, it will be asked to practice what it preaches by three elderly Kenyans.

The Kenyans will travel 4,000 miles to London in what is amounting to a seemingly endless struggle to get the government to acknowledge the tortures they were subjected at the hands of British officials in the run up to independence. They are men and women who are now in their 70s and 80s, who began their fight for redress back in 2009. 

These victims represent the wider community of several hundred elderly Kenyans who were subjected to unspeakable abuses while they were detained during the “Mau Mau rebellion”. They seek above all recognition of the abuses they suffered, but many have died while waiting for this case to wind its way through the courts, including some of the original claimants in the case.  Significantly their claims are being supported by both the Kenya Human Rights Commission and the Kenyan government.

The full truth of what occurred during the Kenya Emergency has only recently emerged due to exhaustive research conducted by historians from Oxford and Harvard, which revealed facts which are scandalous by any standard.

The Mau Mau rebellion was itself brutal but the colonial response was no less vicious. Between 1954 and 1955 over a million Kenyans were rounded up into 800 barded-wire villages where they were guarded and their movement controlled. Many thousands who had little or no connection with the Mau Mau were detained without trial for years in a labyrinth of 150 detention camps littered around Kenya known as “the Pipeline”. Among their number was Onyango Obama, Barak Obama’s grandfather.

From the start, the detention camps were places of violence and torture. Detainees were subjected to arbitrary killings, castrations and sexual assaults. Camp guards engaged in daily beatings, often resulting in serious injury or death. The worst forms of abuse and torture were routinely deployed during interrogations.

The systematic nature of the abuse and the extent to which it was known about and ultimately sanctioned at the highest level of government is what has been uncovered by recent historical scholarship, placing responsibility at the heart of Whitehall.

The three leading academic experts on the Kenya Emergency from the universities of Oxford, Harvard and London have all submitted multiple lengthy statements in support of the victims.  By contrast, not one expert has come forward to support the British government’s position.

The case has also lead to the “discovery” of the remarkable Hanslope archive, which contains tens of thousands of previously unseen documents from 37 different colonies which an internal report labelled the FCO’s “guilty secret”. These documents are now slowly being put into the public domain and provide a highly detailed account of the unfolding drama in pre-independence Kenya.

The government initially argued that they cannot be held liable for the sins of the Kenyan colony and if anyone was liable it was the Kenyan government. In July 2011 the High Court judge flatly rejected the government’s argument and stated that there was “substantial” evidence in support of the victims’ case:

The materials evidencing the continuing abuses in the detention camps in subsequent years are substantial, as is the evidence of the knowledge of both governments that they were happening and of the failure to take effective action to stop them. (Paragraph 128)

And yet, in July 2012, the government will seek to rely on a further technicality, this time by arguing that the claims are out of time and should have been brought years ago (even though they were sitting on many of the documents which have enabled experts to piece together the truth of what happened).  

Leading figures from Africa such as Desmond Tutu and Graça Machel and senior British politicians (including two current cabinet ministers, Vince Cable and Ed Davey) have called on the government to deal with these elderly Kenyans with the dignity they deserve. The previous government was on the verge of finding a solution to this issue just before the last election and yet there is no sign that William Hague is willing to do the same and it may be that the he will be dragged kicking and screaming by the judiciary into acknowledging the suffering of these elderly victims of torture.


Elizabeth Wamaitha, who was detained in a British-run labor camp for three years with her baby. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.