Published June 13, 2013
The June 6 announcement by the British government expressing “regret” for its colonial atrocities in Kenya during the 1950s and offering compensation to the victims was a proud moment for UB Law Dean Makau Mutua.
As chair of the board of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, Mutua oversaw the KHRC’s filing of the lawsuit in the British courts in 2002 that precipitated the apology and the decision to compensate victims of horrific torture and other inhumane atrocities committed by the British Empire during its colonization of Kenya.
The KHRC initiated the case during Mutua’s sabbatical period in his native Kenya. He co-founded the KHRC in 1991.
“I have never been more proud of the Kenya Human Rights Commission,” Mutua said following the British announcement. “We started the long journey to hold the British accountable for the colonial atrocities they committed in Kenya way back in 2002. This settlement sets a historic precedent that colonialism and its brutalities were morally and legally wrong, and that former colonial empires are culpable and liable for their crimes against colonized peoples.
“I am so pleased that the surviving Mau Mau freedom fighters are alive to see Britain ‘express regret’ and compensate them for the crimes against humanity and war crimes committed to suppress the cry for freedom,” he said. “I hope that other former colonies will be inspired by the Kenyan example to seek justice.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the U.K. Parliament on June 6 that a total of about $30 million would be paid to 5,228 Mau Mau victims and said his government “sincerely regrets” the atrocities. It is notable that the British did not formally “apologize” for the atrocities because an “apology” could connote an acceptance of legal liability, which could trigger lawsuits from British colonial brutalities elsewhere.
During the period before Kenya became independent in 1963, British colonial officials persecuted thousands of Kenyans who resisted colonial rule. The British colonial forces killed thousands of Kenyans during the Mau Mau uprising of 1952 to 1956, the armed movement against the British colonial government. In detention camps established by the European settlers, supposed Mau Mau sympathizers were subjected to atrocities, including castration, rape and repeated violence.
The British admission is believed to be the first such settlement on colonial brutality.
According to President Obama’s book “Dreams From My Father,” his Kenyan grandfather, Onyango, was held in one such detention camp for six months. “When he returned … he was very thin and dirty. He had difficulty walking, and his head was full of lice,” Obama wrote.
The British foreign secretary told Parliament that the U.K. “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 and that they marred Kenya's progress towards independence.”
As part of the settlement, the British government also agreed to support the construction of a permanent memorial in Kenya.