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Human Rights in the Shadow of Colonial Violence

Based on previously inaccessible material from international archives, Human Rights in the Shadow of Colonial Violence examines the relationship between emerging human rights concepts after 1945 and repressive British and French actions against anticolonial movements in Africa.

Human Rights in the Shadow of Colonial Violence
The Wars of Independence in Kenya and Algeria

Fabian Klose. Translated by Dona Geyer

2013 | 392 pages | Cloth $89.95
Political Science / African-American Studies/African Studies / History
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

Chapter 1. Introduction
Chapter 2. The New World Order, 1941-1948
Chapter 3. Contested Decolonization, 1945-1962
Chapter 4. The Legitimation of Colonial Violence
Chapter 5. The Unleashing of Colonial Violence
Chapter 6. The International Discourse on Human Rights as Marked by the Wars of Decolonization
Chapter 7. Conclusion


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


The focus of research in the area of decolonization—undoubtedly one of the most influential fields in twentieth-century international history—was centered for a long time on depicting the course of events and particularly on analyzing the causes for the end of colonial rule after World War II. This field of research produced only a small number of comprehensive surveys, as opposed to a vast number of individual studies on certain regions and various colonial empires. Ever since the pioneering studies of the British historian John Darwin, one explanatory model for the end of colonial empires has emerged to link together various existing theoretical approaches and has thus become the model generally accepted by most historians. According to this model, decolonization is the result of developments within the ruling metropoles (metropolitan theory), the growth of anticolonial national movements (peripheral theory), and decisive shifts in power relations within the international system (international theory).

Although there is evidence of a growing trend in research that examines transnational factors of decolonization more intensively, the significance of international organizations is still given little attention. Very few studies emphasize the key role of the United Nations as an anticolonial forum where the colonial powers were diplomatically pilloried before the eyes of the world and foreign policy pressure exerted against them. A similar development is observable with regard to the international discourse on human rights. Only the most recent literature on the historiography of the human rights idea has linked decolonization with the debates on universal fundamental rights. Particular mention should be made here of the work by the American historian Paul Gordon Lauren. In his two books Power and Prejudice: The Politics and Diplomacy of Racial Discrimination and The Evolution of International Human Rights: Visions Seen, Lauren explicitly addresses for the first time the importance of the human rights discourse for the end of colonial rule.

Recently, a still rather limited number of newer studies have appeared that do analyze the connection between the humans rights discourse and the collapse of European colonial empires, of which two deserve special mention, namely, Brian Simpson's Human Rights and the End of Empire and especially Roland Burke's Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights.

Another area that also played a subordinate role for a long time in academic debates was the history of the various decolonization wars, which not only became "white spots" in the national memory of the former colonial nations but also in the research landscape. The publications in this area confined themselves primarily to providing strictly event and military histories of major individual conflicts, such as in Malaya, Indochina, and Algeria. The first studies to provide overarching and comparative analyses of "contested decolonization" include The Process of Decolonisation, 1945-1975: The Military Experience in Comparative Perspective by Jacques van Doorn and Willem J. Hendrix and The Wars of French Decolonization by Anthony Clayton. The collected volume of essays resulting from a conference at the Institute for Commonwealth Studies in London and edited by Robert Holland, Emergencies and Disorder in the European Empires After 1945, contained not only articles on France's colonial rearguard battles but also a series of contributions on the British conflicts in Malaya, Cyprus, and Kenya, the military operations of the Netherlands in the Dutch East Indies, and Portugal's drawn-out wars against the national independence movements in its African colonial empire. At the colloquium "Décolonisations comparées" in Aix-en-Provence in the fall of 1993, various contributions focused on the comparative aspects of decolonization wars, although the major emphasis was on the French conflict in Indochina. Special mention should be made of the work Colonial Wars and the Politics of Third World Nationalism, in which the British sociologist Frank Füredi compares the three British "emergencies" in Malaya, Kenya, and Guyana in order to identify the special relevance of these conflict scenarios for the end of the empire and thereby reaches a conclusion that does more than merely question the British interpretation of "planned decolonization."

With their book Forgotten Wars: Freedom and Revolution in Southeast Asia, Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper have produced an impressive study that systematically analyzes the various anticolonial conflicts in Southeast Asia during the immediate postwar period from 1945 to 1950. What remains to be written is a comprehensive comparative study of decolonization wars in the various overseas territories of European powers.

In recent years, an evident trend in international research involving the study of "contested decolonization" has emerged to examine the various forms of unchecked colonial violence. Subjects such as war crimes, the systematic use of torture, and colonial detention camps and relocation measures during the decolonization wars are being pushed more and more into the limelight of scientific interest, whereby a series of publications on the Algerian War have assumed a trailblazing role in this. For example, Rita Maran, an expert in international law, presented the first comprehensive analysis of the discourse on torture in Algeria in her book Torture: The Role of Ideology in the French-Algerian War, which was followed by the republication of books on the same topic by the French historian and contemporary Pierre Vidal-Naquet. Finally, in 2001, an excellent dissertation, based on new and extensive source material, was published by Raphaëlle Branche, La torture et l'armée pendant la guerre d'Algérie, in which she analyzes the torture system and the role of the French army. Other violent phenomena in the Algerian War, such as the detainment and resettlement measures, also became the subjects of new publications. Moreover, this new research trend has not simply narrowed its focus to French colonial history but expanded its view to include the decolonization wars of other European colonial powers. In 2005, the above-mentioned historical studies on the British Mau Mau War appeared. Whereas Caroline Elkins concentrated primarily on the British detention camps and resettlement measures in her book Britain's Gulag, David Anderson examined British repression policy in general and the increased use of the death penalty in particular in his work Histories of the Hanged.

Despite the increased scientific interest in this subject, no comprehensive comparative study has yet been written on the unchecked colonial violence in the various conflicts. Furthermore, a connection to the international human rights discourse has not yet been made except in a few places in Rita Maran's book. Therefore, the objective of this study is to close this gap in research at the interface between the history of the human rights idea and a comparative study on the wars of decolonization.


The constellation of case studies from two different colonial empires in combination with the international human rights discourse led to research both in Great Britain and France as well as at international organizations in Geneva and New York. Therefore, this study is based on a broad spectrum of source material from various international archives and research facilities, whereby the perspective of the metropoles is given the greater emphasis. The political explosiveness of the topic, the unbridled use of violence in the colonies, and the grave human rights abuses linked to that violence were the central reasons why access differed considerably among the various archival inventories and was sometimes made very difficult.

In the case of the Mau Mau War in Kenya, almost no restrictions whatsoever were placed on access to the files of the relevant British ministries, foremost those of the Colonial Office (CO) and the War Office (WO) found in The National Archives (TNA) in Kew. On the basis of this vast resource of source material, the military and political debates among the decision makers both in London and in the colonial government in Nairobi could be reconstructed very well, thereby offering a broad view of the "emergency" from the perspective from the British colonial power. Files from the Foreign Office (FO) added detailed insight into the foreign policy issues involved in the conflict, especially with regard to the international debates on human rights and the position of Great Britain at the United Nations.

In addition to the official papers of the British government, the study also examines a series of publications by British settlers who witnessed the state of emergency and painted a vivid picture of the "colonial situation" and the "emergency mentality." Particularly valuable with reference to such "settler literature" were the inventories at the British Library in London and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a leading international research institute in the field of African culture and history located in Harlem, New York. In the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London, a number of depictions, some previously published, were found in which individual British veterans described their military experiences in repressing the revolt. Subsequent research at the Rhodes House Library (RH) in Oxford also focused on certain individuals who played a key role during the emergency. Valuable facts were gleaned there from, among others, the documents of Arthur Young, who resigned from his post as Commissioner of Police in the East African crown colony in protest against the systematic war crimes committed by his own security forces.

Research on the Algerian War proved much more difficult, due primarily to the restrictive French archival policy in 2004. A law from 3 January 1979, which regulated access to all state archives in France, barred access for sixty years to all documents that involve either the private lives of individuals or the national security and defense interests of France. This regulation and the extremely vague definition of these document groups meant that a series of inventories relating to the Algerian War were still closed to scientific research. Striking is the fact that the files affected by this regulation were particularly those believed to contain information on torture and war crimes, such as the entire inventory of the Commission de sauvegarde des droits et libertés individuels (Commission to Safeguard Individual Rights and Liberties), an official state commission. Although the French prime minister at the time, Lionel Jospin, announced in 2000 a greater opening of the archival inventories pertaining to the Algerian War, such access continued to be problematic. In order to gain the release of any classified dossier, one had to undertake a protracted "procedure de dérogation" with the respective ministry, which only culminated in a release—laden with restrictions—in certain cases. Not until July 2008—following the conclusion of research for this book—was a new French archival law passed that significantly eased access to the inventories relevant to the Algerian War.

Despite the difficult conditions during the research for this study, it nevertheless proved possible to use the main inventories of the various French archives extensively. In the Centre des archives d'outre-mer (CAOM), the colonial archive in Aix-en-Provence, the Fonds territoriaux algérie, Gouvernement général de l'Algérie, Cabinet civil des gouverneurs généraux (CAB) provided an in-depth look at the files of the civilian colonial administration. At the same time, the État des fonds, fonds ministériels, deuxième empire colonial, Ministère d'État chargé des affaires algériennes (81 F 1- 2415) offered a comprehensive overall picture of the French Algerian policy through the papers of the various ministerial offices involved with North African affairs. Barred inventories, such as those of the Commission de sauvegarde, could be offset by the accessible Papiers Robert Delavignette (19 PA). The documents of Robert Delavignette, who was a member of the commission and resigned his post in September 1957 in protest against the passivity of the French government with regard to the systematic use of torture by security forces, provide highly interesting insights.

In Paris, research was concentrated on the inventories of the French military archive in the Château de Vincennes, on the one hand, and of the archives of the French foreign affairs ministry at Quai d'Orsay, on the other. Valuable information was found on various aspects of French warfare in the Sous-série 1H: Algérie: La dixième région militaire et la guerre d'Algérie, 1945-1967 (1H 109-4881) of the Service Historique de l'Armée de Terre (SHAT), in which the numerous military files of the Algerian War are bundled. However, it was particularly obvious that a great number of dossiers were closed because they were said to involve national security and defense interests. The inventories in the archive of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MAE), however, were available without any major restrictions. The key sources here were the papers from the series Nations Unies et Organisations Internationales (NUOI), which mirrored impressively France's foreign policy position at the United Nations and in the international human rights discourse against the backdrop of the Algerian War.

The research for this book concentrated on previously published source material when studying the two decolonization wars from the perspective of each of the respective anticolonial resistance movements. In the case of the Mau Mau movement, this primarily involves the autobiographies and memories of former Mau Mau fighters, which Marshall Clough collected and analyzed extensively in his source-critical study Mau Mau Memoirs. Particularly noteworthy are publications like Mau Mau from Within, Mau Mau General, and We Fought for Freedom, works that provide good insight into the structure, warfare, and aims of the anticolonial resistance organization. The main source of information used for the Algerian liberation movement was the comprehensive works Les archives de la révolution algérienne and Le FLN: Documents et histoire, 1954-1962 by Mohammed Harbi, who was a member of the FLN from the very beginning and made important documents publicly accessible.

With regard to the international discourse on human rights, the archival material from the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was invaluable. As neutral actors outside the propaganda of the conflicting parties, these international organizations provided a particularly valuable outside perspective in their files on the two decolonization wars, particularly on the topic of grave human rights abuse. In addition to a series of smaller inventories from the UN archives in New York, documents of the Human Rights Commission (UNOG, SO 215/1 UK and SO 215/1 FRA) from the UN archive at the Palais des Nations in Geneva proved to be especially important. Due to their highly confidential nature, these papers had not been released previously and were only made available for the first time in conjunction with the research conducted for this book under the stipulation that no revealing facts about the persons and organizations involved would be published. Therefore, in order to uphold the principle of strict confidentiality, facts about organizations and private individuals are only described in very general and neutral terms in references to the corresponding documents.

Even greater evidence on the human rights violations occurring during the conflicts in Kenya and Algeria was provided by the inventories of Archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ACICR) in Geneva, inventories that were not released until April 2004 and therefore were also viewed for the first time during the research conducted for this book. The numerous documents and particularly the reports by various ICRC missions during the two wars facilitated a telling reconstruction of the dimension to which human rights were systematically violated from the perspective of the organization that played a key role in international humanitarian law. In light of the volume and quality of this material, the documents of the U.S. State Department (NARA RG 59) at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, which also provide an outside view of the two conflicts, were only used to a minor degree in this book.

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