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Editorial: Britain takes responsibility, at last

It's long been known that suspected Mau Mau rebels were brutally treated

William Hague’s announcement that Kenyans tortured by British troops more than half a century ago are to receive payments totalling £20m has been a long time in coming – but is welcome for all that.

It has been known for decades that suspected Mau Mau rebels were subjected to brutal treatment by colonial forces. Warnings were voiced in Parliament at the time. It was never disputed that Paulo Muoka Nzili, Wambuga Wa Nyingi and Jane Muthoni Mara – who have fought a long legal battle – suffered indescribably brutal treatment. The issue was whether the British Government should accept responsibility.

One of the more tortuous points put forward by government lawyers was that when Kenya achieved independence in 1963, its new leaders assumed responsibility for the former colonial troops and therefore, retrospectively, for their actions. The argument was all the more absurd for the fact that all the documents needed to evaluate compensation claims had been whisked out of Nairobi and lay hidden in boxes in the Foreign Office for more than 50 years.

Even now, after a decision to award 5,228 surviving victims an average of £3,000 each, Mr Hague insists that payouts do not mean the Government is “liable” for the atrocities. That would be unfair on today’s taxpayers, he says.

Behind such word play is anxiety over what else might be hidden in our colonial past. Britain has been involved in any number of conflicts over the past half century, including bitter wars of independence in Cyprus and Aden. The Government is, therefore, understandably concerned that claims may pour in from across the old Empire, as news of the payments to the Kenyans spreads.

It is to be hoped that there is nowhere else in the world where there are survivors with stories of forced labour camps, torture, castration and rape by British troops like those that have come out of Kenya. If there are, however, the only honourable course is to accept responsibility and make amends.