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This Day in International Law: October 20th

Updated: Jun 10, 2019

By Dru Spiller

On this day in 1952, Kenyan Governor Eveln Baring declared a state of emergency in response to the Mau Mau Rebellion. The British occupation of Kenya started in 1895 and the Mau Mau Rebellion was neither the first, nor the last, revolt against British colonial rule. Most of the fighters came from Kenya’s major ethnic group, the Kikuyu, who had suffered increasing economic marginalization as white settler expansion decimated their land holdings. While nationalists of the Kenyan African Union (KAU) argued for political rights and land reforms with the British government, radical activists splintered from KAU and began to employ militant national strategies. In 1952 the Kikuyu fighters began attacking political opponents and raiding white settler farms. This led to the British declaring a state of emergency and the deployment of army reinforcements into Kenya. What followed was a violent counter-insurgency. The state of emergency did not end until 1960. While the number of Mau Mau and other rebels has varied between 11,000 – 25,000, only 32 white settlers were killed during the insurgency.

Hundreds of thousands of suspected leaders and fighters of the Mau Mau Uprising, including the future first president of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta, were rounded up and imprisoned. There were also those taken to detention and rehabilitation programs. These prisoners lived in deplorable conditions with a high risk of repertory diseases and violence. Prisoners were deprived of food, forced into labor, and torture. They have been described as the British gulag and as one Nairobi judge called a particular camp, “Kenya’s Belsen”. One colonial officer described the British work camps as “short rations, overwork, brutality, humiliating and disgusting treatment and flogging – all in violation of the UN DECLARATION FOR HUMAN RIGHTS” (articles 3, 5, 9, and 17 to say the least).

Although neither the league of nations nor the UN existed, and the UN Convention Against Torture was not adapted until 1984 (signed by UK and Northern Ireland in 2003). The Magna Carta provided clauses against unlawful detention. “No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land” (Magna Carta Clause 40, 1215). In a landmark case in which a former colonized nation sued their former colonizer, Mau Mau survivors sued the British government in a case that alleged castration, physical, and sexual abuse. In 2013 the case eventually led to 5,228 victims receiving a total of 19.9 million pounds. In 2016 the Kenyan Emergency Group Litigation brought another case to the London High Court seeking reparations for survivors. Litigation is ongoing.



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