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
Getty
Show Hide image

Let's turn RBS into a bank for the public interest

A tarnished symbol of global finance could be remade as a network of local banks. 

The Royal Bank of Scotland has now been losing money for nine consecutive years. Today’s announcement of a further £7bn yearly loss at the publicly-owned bank is just the latest evidence that RBS is essentially unsellable. The difference this time is that the Government seems finally to have accepted that fact.

Up until now, the government had been reluctant to intervene in the running of the business, instead insisting that it will be sold back to the private sector when the time is right. But these losses come just a week after the government announced that it is abandoning plans to sell Williams & Glynn – an RBS subsidiary which has over 300 branches and £22bn of customer deposits.

After a series of expensive delays and a lack of buyer interest, the government now plans to retain Williams & Glynn within the RBS group and instead attempt to boost competition in the business lending market by granting smaller "challenger banks" access to RBS’s branch infrastructure. It also plans to provide funding to encourage small businesses to switch their accounts away from RBS.

As a major public asset, RBS should be used to help achieve wider objectives. Improving how the banking sector serves small businesses should be the top priority, and it is good to see the government start to move in this direction. But to make the most of RBS, they should be going much further.

The public stake in RBS gives us a unique opportunity to create new banking institutions that will genuinely put the interests of the UK’s small businesses first. The New Economics Foundation has proposed turning RBS into a network of local banks with a public interest mandate to serve their local area, lend to small businesses and provide universal access to banking services. If the government is serious about rebalancing the economy and meeting the needs of those who feel left behind, this is the path they should take with RBS.

Small and medium sized enterprises are the lifeblood of the UK economy, and they depend on banking services to fund investment and provide a safe place to store money. For centuries a healthy relationship between businesses and banks has been a cornerstone of UK prosperity.

However, in recent decades this relationship has broken down. Small businesses have repeatedly fallen victim to exploitative practice by the big banks, including the the mis-selling of loans and instances of deliberate asset stripping. Affected business owners have not only lost their livelihoods due to the stress of their treatment at the hands of these banks, but have also experienced family break-ups and deteriorating physical and mental health. Others have been made homeless or bankrupt.

Meanwhile, many businesses struggle to get access to the finance they need to grow and expand. Small firms have always had trouble accessing finance, but in recent decades this problem has intensified as the UK banking sector has come to be dominated by a handful of large, universal, shareholder-owned banks.

Without a focus on specific geographical areas or social objectives, these banks choose to lend to the most profitable activities, and lending to local businesses tends to be less profitable than other activities such as mortgage lending and lending to other financial institutions.

The result is that since the mid-1980s the share of lending going to non-financial businesses has been falling rapidly. Today, lending to small and medium sized businesses accounts for just 4 per cent of bank lending.

Of the relatively small amount of business lending that does occur in the UK, most is heavily concentrated in London and surrounding areas. The UK’s homogenous and highly concentrated banking sector is therefore hampering economic development, starving communities of investment and making regional imbalances worse.

The government’s plans to encourage business customers to switch away from RBS to another bank will not do much to solve this problem. With the market dominated by a small number of large shareholder-owned banks who all behave in similar ways (and who have been hit by repeated scandals), businesses do not have any real choice.

If the government were to go further and turn RBS into a network of local banks, it would be a vital first step in regenerating disenfranchised communities, rebalancing the UK’s economy and staving off any economic downturn that may be on the horizon. Evidence shows that geographically limited stakeholder banks direct a much greater proportion of their capital towards lending in the real economy. By only investing in their local area, these banks help create and retain wealth regionally rather than making existing geographic imbalances worce.

Big, deep challenges require big, deep solutions. It’s time for the government to make banking work for small businesses once again.

Laurie Macfarlane is an economist at the New Economics Foundation