“Sorry” shouldn’t be the hardest word

by James Watkins

Saying sorry can be annoying. Nobody like admitting their mistakes. But when it comes to international politics, apologising just makes common sense. When wrongs have been committed in the past, a line needs to be drawn so that the country can move on. This is a truth that David Cameron was grasping for when he rightly said, on a recent visit to Pakistan, “with so many of the world’s problems, we are responsible for the issue in the first place”.

Yet, David Cameron’s Government is resisting saying sorry to four Kenyan senior citizens. Ndiku Mutua, Paulo Nzili, Wambugu Wa Nyung and Jane Muthoni Mara have begun legal action in the high court following the repressive actions of the British colonial authorities in Kenya between 1952 – 60. In response to the Mau Mau revolt, many Kenyans were herded into internment camps and only now are the true horrors coming out – after the high court ordered the foreign office to release documents on the use of torture by the colonial authorities in the 1950s.

Government barristers have owned up to the torture – but have said that the responsibility for these camps lay with the colonial authorities and any liability incurred for actions taken in the camps would now rest with the current Kenyan government. This Kafkaesque response has echoes of another controversy regarding the demand for an apology – that of the actions of the Japanese government after the second world war.

Following the end of the war, the 1951 San Francisco peace treaty formally agreed the peace terms between Japan and the war time allies. But, unlike the situation with Germany, the formal apology that people in east Asia, Britain and elsewhere received was not seen as adequate. When the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo was re-dedicated to include Japanese war criminals to be remembered as well as the Japanese war dead, this led to an additional outcry in countries across east Asia.

Strong feelings were also expressed here in Britain when the Japanese emperor made a state visit to London in May 1998. British veterans who had suffered in Japanese prisoner of war camps wanted the emperor to personally apologise for the treatment they had received. Over time, apologies have begun to be expressed by the Japanese government regarding the atrocities committed during the war. Following a cabinet discussion, a strong apology was issued by prime minister Tomiichi Murayama in 1995 and this apology has been echoed over the years – most recently by current Japanese prime minister, Naoto Kan, in December.

But this row over the apology has bedevilled Japanese efforts to restore normal diplomatic links with many countries and only now is Japan beginning to move beyond this contentious issue. Whereas Britain is now in danger of being bedevilled in a similar controversy for years to come because of its current refusal to apologise for the Kenyan atrocities.

The implications could be profound. When Britain, in the future, calls for the international criminal court (ICC) to be respected and for human rights to be upheld at all times, the shilly shallying of government barristers in the case of the 1950s atrocities could be thrown right back at us by critics who are already hostile to the existence of the ICC. This could begin to seriously hinder our effectiveness in taking a leading role in calling for human rights to be respected across the world, when the UK itself is not seen to be righting its own wrongs.

And when humanitarian intervention is urgently needed, such as the action Britain recently took to stop a massacre in Benghazi, we must not allow any wriggle room for dictators to use perverse legal arguments deployed in a London court room to cast doubt on the reasons for future British intervention.

Leading by example can have a significant impact on the force of moral argument. Rumpole of the Bailey tactics can, then, have negative repercussions for Britain beyond a mere tactical victory in the courts.

Clearly, the government is concerned is that if it gives way now in the High Court, then the compensation bill could be high for the estimated 1400 other Kenyan senior citizens who were interred in camps in the 1950s.

But British ministers need to learn from the decades-long argument over the apology issue that held back the development of Japanese foreign policy.

For the sake of maintaining a strong foreign policy aimed at projecting human rights across the world, the government has to apologise for the wrongs of the past if it is to promote the spread of human rights for the future.

Labour, as a truly internationalist party, should urge the government to think again and instruct its legal counsel formally to apologise for the actions taken by British colonial authorities in the 1950s.

Only then will four Kenyan senior citizens get justice – while Britain will retain moral force in pursuing today’s foreign policy.

James Watkins is a member of the Unite national political committee and Labour Movement for Europe executive. He writes in a personal capacity.

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3 Responses to ““Sorry” shouldn’t be the hardest word”

  1. Errm says:

    While there is no excuse for crimes of this nature against anyone for whatever reason, i think your anti-colonialist prejudices are perhaps getting the better of your common sense. The British response, though shameful, was far less than proportional to the horrors inflicted by the Mau Mau on the native population themselves:

    “Contrary to African customs and values, [Mau Mau members] assaulted old people, women and children. The horrors they practiced included the following: decapitation and general mutilation of civilians, torture before murder, bodies bound up in sacks and dropped in wells, burning the victims alive, gouging out of eyes, splitting open the stomachs of pregnant women. No war can justify such gruesome actions. In man’s inhumanity to man there is no race distinction. The Africans were practising it on themselves. There was no reason and no restraint on both sides” — Dr Bethwell Allan Ogot

    Any apology to people like these would be beyond the pale.

  2. iain ker says:

    ‘When wrongs have been committed in the past, a line needs to be drawn so that the country can move on.’

    Nice piece of vapid psychobabble.

    It’s not entirely clear to me how not apologising for Britain’s slave trade was somehow ‘holding us back’ a couple of centuries after the event. Or the Irish potato famine.

    It’s not difficult apologising for a load of stuff for which you were not remotely responsible. John Howard got a round of applause in the Australian Parliament for apologising for the settlers’ treatment of Aborigines and afterwards sent his staff running around looking for other things to apologise for.

    Now a politician apologising for something he *was* responsible for.

    That’s a different story altogether.

  3. AmberStar says:

    And when humanitarian intervention is urgently needed, such as the action Britain recently took to stop a massacre in Benghazi……..

    …. we should remember what happened in Kenya & stay out of other countries unless our intentions & actions are purely humanitarian. How can Cameron apologise for what happened in Kenya, when at this time he is leader of the pack responsible for prolonging a civil war in Libya? Or is bombing Libya something which Cameron can do now, in the knowledge that some other politician can simply apologise on our behalf decades later.

    Sorry should mean lessons have been learned & the behaviour that required the apology will not be repeated. Does anybody really believe that a Cameron apology for what happened 50 years ago in Kenya would meet those criteria?


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