The long shadow of torture

Posted by Bella Sankey on 10 April 2013

The right not to face inhuman treatment or torture is one of the few absolute freedoms – it can never be justified and there are no exceptions, even during conflicts or the fight against terrorism. This precious value was first recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and torture has long been forbidden under British law. The UK is also a signatory of the UN Convention Against Torture.

Yet this doesn’t mean torture never has or still doesn’t take place.

Last week Liberty, with the backing of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission, Amnesty, and individuals including UN Special Rapporteurs on Torture past and present, wrote to the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary to remind them of our duty to deal honourably with past victims of torture – specifically the “Mau Mau” litigants.

This group of elderly Kenyans suffered grave acts of torture including castration, severe sexual abuse and systematic beatings at the hands of British colonial officials during the “Kenyan Emergency”. It is estimated that during the 1950s that 90,000 Kenyans were killed or injured and another 160,000 were detained by British officials.

The Government accepts the Kenyans were tortured by British officials, and yet it continues to try to defend the claims for redress. Most recently it has argued that it’s impossible to determine whether the British Government in London – as opposed to Nairobi – was complicit in the abuse, despite the wealth of documentary evidence.

This is just the latest in the Government’s response which further prolongs the suffering of the torture victims. First it claimed that if atrocities were sanctioned by the then British Government, it was legally acting as the Kenyan Government at the time – in effect suggesting that liability for such atrocities was inherited by the Kenyan Republic as the successor to the Kenyan Colony. The High Court disagreed.

The Government then argued the claims were time barred. Again the court disagreed, and in late 2012 granted permission for the Kenyans to pursue their claims.

Six months later, the claimants are still awaiting redress. Many have died since they began their legal battle began in 2009 and will never achieve justice for their appalling treatment.

The only way to truly acknowledge this past atrocity is to deal honourably with these brave and elderly survivors of shameful wrongdoing. We believe it is time our Government lived up to the ethical values to which Ministers frequently lay claim.