British government apologizes for colonial crimes

The apology to Kenyans marks a first for the nation
Kenyan Paulo Nzili, right, with Wambugu Wa Nyingi, left, stand outside the Royal Courts of Justice, in central London, Thursday, April 7, 2011, as four elderly Kenyans who claim that they were severely beaten and tortured by British officers during an anti-colonial rebellion in the 1950s are taking their case to court in London. The Kenyans, claiming to be victims of British colonial era torture during the ’Mau Mau’ rebellion by Kenyans against British rule, are giving evidence of their claims against the British Government. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Lefteris Pitarakis/CP Images

For the first time its history, the British government has formally apologized for colonial crimes—and offered financial recompense to colonial victims.

On Thursday morning, British Foreign Secretary William Hague expressed “sincere regret” for crimes committed by British imperial officers during the 1950s “Kenya Emergency.” He also announced a compensation package worth 19.9 million pounds, which will be shared between 5,228 Kenyan claimants.

British news outlets have hailed today’s apology as historic. But the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is quick to warn that it isn’t “precedent-setting.”

Hague made his announcement to a sparsely filled House of Commons. He described the payment as “full and final”: “The British government recognizes that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill treatment at the hands of the colonial administration. The British government sincerely regrets that these abuses took place.”

The decision marks the settlement of a case brought forward in 2009 by three elderly Kenyans, each alleging severe torture at British hands. Representing Britain’s first official apology for colonial abuse, it is indeed a landmark.

But amidst widespread jubilation, many have failed to take note of the fine print. Though the foreign secretary expresses “sincere regret,” he stops well short of acknowledging any legal liability: “We continue to deny liability on behalf of the government and British taxpayers today for the actions of the colonial administration … We do not believe that claims relating to events that occurred overseas outside direct British jurisdiction more than 50 years ago can be resolved satisfactorily through the courts.”

Martyn Day, of the law firm Leigh Day & Co., which represents the Kenyan claimants, was unfazed by Hague’s tempered tone. “These days,” he explained, sitting on a park bench not far from Westminster, “people deny liability because if they admitted liability, they would establish clear precedent for other cases.” In other words: “Hague is at pains to make clear that they’re not offering an open chequebook”—to other former colonies that experienced end-of-empire tumult, like Malaysia, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and Yemen.

Veterans of the EOKA, a Greek Cypriot movement that fought British authorities in the 1950s, have already announced their intention to sue the British state.

Day does not think there will be a flood of new cases, but he does believe that the Cypriots stand a chance in court. He has already discussed that possibility with lawyers representing EOKA veterans, but would not provide details.

He says his firm has even promised as a condition of this agreement to “not encourage people to come forward” with new claims.

This morning, the British High Commissioner in Nairobi also made a public statement of apology. The BBC’s East Africa correspondent Gabriel Gatehouse described Kenyan reaction as “muted”—perhaps, he mused, because the British government continues to deny “liability” for the abuses it is now, officially, sorry for.