Article: Human rights and Britains colonial past

Comment piece from Trevor Phillips, published in The Times 18/4/2011

The Times recent expose of the British treatment of Kenyans during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s is a grim reminder of the brutality of our colonial past. For some of today's Britons, like myself, the last generation born into the Empire, it reopens a door we thought long shut. As I've already discovered, behind that door lies a troubling personal journey into the past of our own families. The documents painstakingly unearthed by investigators and published in this newspaper detail how prisoners were beaten, subjected to water torture and even roasted alive. A new champion for human rights has emerged, too: a whistleblower named Colonel Arthur Young, Commissioner for Police in Kenya at the time, who wrote in horror to his superiors of the deplorable acts committed with disregard to the rights of the African citizen.

The rights of Kenyan prisoners had another, in our eyes, very unlikely advocate. In July 1959, a Conservative MP excoriated the colonial authorities after the massacre at Camp Hola, in which 11 Kenyan detainees had been clubbed to death by their British captors. Denis Healey called the MPs attack the greatest parliamentary speech I ever heard. The peroration was perhaps the most eloquent and passionate affirmation of the case for what we would now call a universal standard of human rights:

...Nor can we ourselves pick and choose where and in what parts of the world we shall use this or that kind of standard. We cannot say, "We will have African standards in Africa, Asian standards in Asia and perhaps British standards here at home." We have not that choice to make. We must be consistent with ourselves everywhere. All Government, all influence of man upon man, rests upon opinion. .... We cannot, we dare not, in Africa of all places, fall below our own highest standards in the acceptance of responsibility.

The speaker was J Enoch Powell. Only nine years later Powell would become infamous for the Rivers of the Blood speech which cast a shadow over race relations in Britain for forty years. But the fact that his later, more populist, speech had a largely baleful influence on the human rights of many Britons, should not obscure this earlier, passionate plea for the dignity and respect of Kenyan subjects which went against the political grain. The overriding establishment attitude was that the Mau Mau rebellion, marked as it was by horrific violence, needed to be met with equally barbaric methods; and that Africans were simply a different kind of people to whom European standards could not be applied. The patronising official attitude was succinctly expressed by the Constitutional Commission on British Guiana of 1954: "Her Majesty's Government still have a moral responsibility to the politically immature peoples of British Guiana, and ... it would be wrong to leave them to face alone without economic and political guidance the manifold difficulties which lie before them."

Powells response is at once both philosophically profound and politically compelling. He observes that our influence in the world is utterly dependent on maintaining the highest standards in our treatment of others. And where these standards are not upheld, there must be responsibility - those in breach must be held to account. These, by the way are the principal reasons why institutions such as the UKs Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights are so essential to our nations standing in the world today.

Secondly, Powell insists that these standards apply wherever we act in the world. That is why our Commission has taken action to protect the human rights of British soldiers acting abroad; and to ensure that our government does not, even by omission, collude with regimes that use torture. It is too easily forgotten, when we read about the grave abuses of human rights committed by governments in Libya, Bahrain, Sri Lanka, Colombia and elsewhere, that Britain has its own history of dealing with insurgency by violent suppression. When we finally prise the dead hand of the bureaucracy from the pages of the past, I have no doubt that we will encounter similar horrors in our rule of Malaya, Cyprus and perhaps even in my familys country of origin, Guyana.

In October 1953, three months before I was born in London, the duly elected government of the then British Guiana was ousted by the colonial administration, the constitution suspended and troops were deployed on the (largely peaceful) streets. "Ringleaders" - that is, elected Ministers - were detained on the pretext of their "communist" leanings, including a somewhat flaky suspicion of an "arson" plot. Prompted by the Times' revelations, I've had a look back at the published official documents of the time. I have found accounts of the supposedly subversive activity of two of my own relatives which amounted little more than the organisation of a moderately left-wing book club. I have read - in a Colonial Office White Paper, no less - a justification for the persecution and imprisonment of the gentle teacher and poet Martin Carter, who would ten years later introduce me to the verse of Pablo Neruda and Cark Sandburg. I have not yet delved into the detail of the series of strikes which my own impeccably moderate father helped to organise, but his involvement would certainly have identified him as an incipient revolutionary.

The final and most striking aspect of Powell's speech, however, is his assertion that the values of human rights stand above politics.. These values are in fact enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, and our own Human Rights Act. Perhaps it is because I am so strongly out of sympathy with much that Powell came to represent that his words strike me so powerfully. He reminds us that the defence of Human Rights is not the exclusive domain of any political faction, but common to all humanity. He challenges us with a question which still resonates after half a century: do we still aspire to be a society that respects and protects the integrity of every individual, regardless of race, colour, belief or position and is there a code by which we can express that aspiration? And the answer to that, I think most British people would agree, is an emphatic yes.

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