Published: October 10, 2019
is a New Zealand-based legal and political analyst who focuses on US foreign policy in the Middle East, Asia and Pacific region. He is fully qualified as a lawyer in two international jurisdictions.
Any objective historian would concede that the British government has a centuries-long list of atrocities that it must one day apologize for. To this day, the British Empire has struggled with the notion of righting past wrongs.
The British government made a rare move last week: it expressed regret for the killing of Maori in New Zealand in 1769. When Captain James Cook “discovered” New Zealand, it wasn’t long before local Maori people were being attacked and killed by Cook and his band of merry men.
To be fair, the government only took this step because it wanted to push ahead with a government-funded commemoration of Cook’s initial landing, including replicating his sailing ship with an accompanying flotilla. In fact, New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters (who has Maori ancestry, mind you), suggested that Maori had their own share of the blame.
Captain Cook and his gang didn’t just kill innocent natives. As my good friend and former rugby star Eliota Sapolu points out regularly, the captain took native Polynesian women as sexual slaves. Perhaps rejecting the commemoration of people who commit such acts is actually not a bad idea.
The British Empire spanned far and wide, often at the expense of the basic rights of the local populations that fell under British rule. So much so, that you would be hard-pressed to Google search a country and find that the British hadn’t interfered extensively in that neighborhood.
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In South Africa, the British rounded up approximately one sixth of the Boer population (allegedly, the majority of whom were women and children) and detained them in camps during the Second Boer War. More than 22,000 of the 27,927 detainees who died were under the age of 16, while an unknown number of black Africans were also killed.
The Second Boer War was also infamous for Britain’s use of its devastating scorched earth policy, which saw it destroy farms and civilian homes to break the Boer’s resolve.
British forces also held thousands of Kenyans in camps during the 1950s Mau Mau Uprising, this particular event rife with allegations of sexual assault, rape and torture.
And when it comes to recognized and esteemed figures whose legacies would be better suited for review in The Hague, Great Britain certainly has an abundance of them. Winston Churchill’s international reign of terror as British prime minister comes to mind. Churchill’s rule is mired with an incredulous amount of bloodshed.
In 1921, Churchill launched a massive bombing tirade to counter unrest in Mesopotamia, allegedly cancelling out the existence of a village within 45 minutes (perhaps the world record). He also said, “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against the uncivilized tribes; it would spread a lively terror.”
Yes, indeed it would. We call this terror a war crime.
Among his eclectic list of crimes, Churchill also called for the gassing of local Indians, who he aptly termed “a beastly people with a beastly religion.” With this racist logic, he successfully starved 4 million Bengalis to death, all the while blaming the locals for their plight for “breeding like rabbits.”
Speaking of India, British troops also once opened fire until they ran out of ammunition against a number of peaceful protesters, possibly killing 1,000 protesters and injuring 1,100 more. The brigadier in charge was treated as a hero by the British public, who donated £26,000 to say thank you.
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Fast forward some decades later and the arrogance of the violent chess game played by the remnants of the British Empire continues even to this day. Prior to the NATO onslaught of Libya, the North African nation had the highest standard of living on the entire continent. Now it is a terrorist safe-haven; a lawless failed state where slaves are sold like commodities.
When then-Prime Minister David Cameron announced the success of the use of violent force in Libya in 2011, he told the world it was “necessary, legal and right.”
“It was necessary because Gaddafi was going to slaughter his own people - and that massacre of thousands of innocent people was averted,” Cameron famously stated. “Legal, because we secured a Resolution from the United Nations, and have always acted according to that Resolution. And right, because the Libyan people deserve to shape their own future, just as the people of Egypt and Tunisia are now doing.”
None of those points are correct. We already know that Muammar Gaddafi was embroiled in a battle with extremist jihadists who had fought against the British in Iraq. (These militias would eventually become ISIS). The idea that Gaddafi was massacring civilians for no apparent reason has been heavily disputed. Besides, the British government at the time had an interestingly cozy relationship with the Libyan regime and helped to capture Gaddafi’s opponents who were later sent back to Libya and tortured. The “no-fly zone” resolution did not authorise the removal of Gaddafi by force.
So no – it wasn’t legal, it wasn’t necessary and certainly wasn’t right.
The destabilization of Libya and the flow of arms following Gaddafi’s death helped prop up terror groups across the region, including Boko Haram in Nigeria.
The British have a history of destroying entire regions and justifying their actions with the same colonial mindspeak that they have always used. Centuries later, the best they can muster is a statement of “regret” – a meaningless gesture void of any meaning.
When you remove yourself from your bubble you realise how the rest of the world views the legacies you have left in your wake. A phrase I often hear while talking to people of different nationalities is “the British have a lot to answer for.” I recall one Iraqi friend telling me that in their part of the world, it is not necessarily the Americans who are despised the most, but the British.
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The Iranian people, for example, can recall a CIA-backed coup in 1953 which removed their democratically elected leader, Mohammad Mosadegh, and changed the nation’s entire course of history. I haven’t met a single Iranian who is in denial about Britain’s central role in this operation.
This is from the Guardian, a British newspaper:
“Britain, and in particular Sir Anthony Eden, the foreign secretary, regarded Mosaddeq as a serious threat to its strategic and economic interests after the Iranian leader nationalised the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, latterly known as BP. But the UK needed US support. The Eisenhower administration in Washington was easily persuaded.”
The Guardian noted:
“US officials have previously expressed regret about the coup but have fallen short of issuing an official apology. The British government has never acknowledged its role.”
Forget asking for apologies, there are some crimes that the British will just flat-out ignore.
Before the gatekeepers attack me for being anti-British (if that is such a thing), I will just point out that I am in fact a British citizen, born and raised in the United Kingdom. I am also fortunate enough to have New Zealand citizenship. But life isn’t a sports game; I am not required to pick teams. Both the British government and the New Zealand government have a good share of deeds to acknowledge and apologize for – that’s just an objective truth, whether we like it or not.
The British certainly have a lot to answer for, and as a British person I can say this quite comfortably without feeling as though I have shot myself in the foot. At the end of the day, a nation battling a rising right-wing and anti-immigrant hysteria would do well to view the actions of its own government and military over the last few centuries, as it may even help tell the story of how the current state of Britain came into being.
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