Britain's expression of regret and the reparations debate

Friday, June 07, 2013

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England's expression yesterday of sincere regret and offer of compensation for the acts of torture that a British colonial government carried out against Kenyans fighting for liberation from colonial rule in the 1950s and 1960s, will, we expect, revive the reparations debate in the Caribbean.

As reported on page 29 of today's Jamaica Observer, the simultaneous announcement in Nairobi and London sparked celebration in the Kenyan capital. Elderly Kenyans clapped and sang joyful songs of struggle during a near two-hour press conference attended by Mr Christian Turner, the British high commissioner to Kenya.

In London, Foreign Secretary William Hague told the House of Commons that his Government accepted that Kenyans were subjected to torture and other ill treatment.

However, what we found most significant was that Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office insisted that an "expression of deep regret" was not the same thing as an apology.

Wire service reports tell us that the compensation will see approximately US$21.5 million being paid to the 5,200 Kenyans who were found to have been tortured, or about US$4,100 per Kenyan victim. Another US$9.25 million will be used to pay costs to the Kenyans' legal team.

Quite frankly, the payouts are low, and the British Government, we are told, has made it clear that it "doesn't accept liability for the actions of previous colonial governments".

That, we believe, is the position that England, and any other country that profited from the slave trade, will adopt in the case being made for reparations.

As we have pointed out in this space before, reparations is a most emotive issue that has generated positions that are poles apart.

Advocates argue that the enslavement of Africans for 400 years was the greatest crime against humanity for which the countries that benefited should pay compensation. Those opposed to that argument say we should forget the past and move on; with some even describing the reparations lobby as a form of mendicancy intent on bilking developed countries out of billions of dollars.

The debate, as we said, has never been short of passion, but the issue needs to be settled because it will continue to fuel rage each time it is raised.

In the Kenya case, we get the impression that, among the victims, the monetary compensation was secondary to Britain's acknowledgement that grave wrongs were committed.

Mr Francis Mutisi, assistant secretary general of the Mau Mau War Veterans Association, was reported as saying: "We are so happy today, because the truth will be told worldwide."

Mr Mutisi's reaction is understandable, given that during the period of the struggle, international attention was focused on 32 murdered white settlers, while at least 90,000 Kenyans were killed and 160,000 were jailed in camps, according to figures provided by Kenya's Human Rights Commission.

We agree that no amount of money can compensate for the lives lost. However, we can't help but admire the following view voiced by Mr Gitu wa Kahengeri, a Mau Mau veteran: "The British Government accepted that something bad happened, and this is what the veterans in this group have been seeking."

A magnanimous statement indeed.




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