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
Show Hide image

The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496