Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Imperial Reckoning: A Human Rights Victory

This is old news since the settlement was in June, but I thought it was important to bring our reading of Caroline Elkin's Pulitzer-winning book Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya some closure by acknowledging the victory in court of the elderly Mau Mau survivors who finally gained compensation from the British government for injuries sustained during detention in the 1950s. According to the LA Times
Five elderly Kenyans filed claims against the British government in 2009, but the law firm Leigh Day eventually represented the 5,228 Kenyan claimants. Among the original claimants, Paulo Muoka Nzili testified that he was castrated by British soldiers. Wambuga Wa Nyingi was in the Hola prison camp in 1959 when British guards carried out horrific beatings, killing 11 people. He was beaten with clubs and passed out. Jane Muthoni Mara suffered sexual abuse in a prison camp.
Caroline Elkins details her experience with the case both in submitting the evidence she used for Imperial Reckoning, and her work as an expert witness sifting through 300 newly discovered boxes of material, and finally sharing in the emotional outcome with Kenyan survivors, in The Guardian.
Ultimately, the Mau Mau case is as symbolic as it is instructive. Regardless of future claims, Britons can no longer hide behind the rhetoric of unequivocal imperial success. Instead, British liberalism in the empire – with its alleged spread of civilisation, progress, liberty and rule of law justifying any coercive actions – has been irreversibly exposed. 
Instead of being one-offs, Britain's colonial violence was as systematised as its efforts at cover-up. The British validation of the Mau Mau claims – and its first form of an apology for modern empire – offers its citizens an opportunity to understand more fully the unholy relationship between liberalism and imperialism, and the impacts not only on the elderly Kikuyu, but on themselves.
Imperial Reckoning was probably the most academic book we've read and one of the most challenging due to the unrelenting horror of the subject matter, but it's also likely the only book where we can draw a direct line between the testimony unearthed by the book's author and an important victory for the cause of human rights. That in itself is an inspiring story for authors, readers and activists.

Something to keep an eye on going forward: the law firm that drove the case is now looking for compensation for Caribbean slavery from France, Britain and the Netherlands.
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