Sunday, 17 June 2012

Universal human standards

When the radio news reported the massacre in Houla, many of my generation would have instantly recalled a near homonym, Hola. This was the name of a prison camp in Kenya, where an atrocity was committed by guards serving the then British colonial administration. The often-brutal campaign to suppress Kenyan independence, affecting his grandfather, is a reason that President Obama does not share most American politicians' regard for Winston Churchill. Idi Amin was a part of the campaign for a time, as a soldier in the Kings African Rifles. No doubt his barbaric streak was reinforced there.

The authorities in Kenya attempted to cover up the mass killings, at first putting them down to accidental poisoning. Barbara Castle and the Daily Mirror were prominent in bringing the facts to the British public, against strong resistance from the Conservative government. In the Commons debate which resulted, a then government back-bencher, who would later become a ground-breaking minister, made this declaration:

[the government must not] have African standards in Africa, Asian standards in Asia and perhaps British standards here at home ... we must be consistent with ourselves everywhere ... we cannot, we dare not, in Africa of all places, fall below our own highest standards in the acceptance of responsibility. (Hansard 5C, 610.237)

It was by J. Enoch Powell, whose centenary we are marking this weekend.

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