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Collective Western guilt burdens today's children

By Wendy McElroy
web posted October 13, 2003

Some 650 Kenyan women claim to have been raped by British soldiers over a period of decades and they want a multimillion-dollar settlement from the British Ministry of Defense.

Are they victims who richly deserve justice? Or are skeptics correct in labeling their case "the Kenya rape shakedown"?

A "compensation culture" seems to be spreading through poor nations. This "soak the rich" attitude toward the West draws upon Western guilt over its own prosperity and over historical wrongs, like slavery. This collective guilt is especially undeserved when placed on the blameless shoulders of children born today. It is also likely to harm the credibility of true victims who seek compensation.  
Are the Kenyan women true victims?

The London-based law firm of Leigh Day, which specializes in personal injury claims, says they are. The firm's "Kenya Team" recently won a prestigious Litigation Team of the Year award for obtaining close to $7 million in compensation for hundreds of Kenyans reportedly victimized by unexploded ordnance on sites where the British Army had trained. It is now preparing to represent the women who have been granted legal aid by the British government to cover the costs of their case before the high court. 

The case may fall apart before then.

Some Kenyan prostitutes have come forward to accuse local human rights activists of encouraging them to submit false rape claims. One woman explained: "They told me that if I said I was raped by British soldiers and showed them my baby then I would get three million shillings [approx. $50,000]. I would take two million and they would take one."

The referenced "they" is Impact -- the Indigenous Movement for Peace Advancement and Conflict -- which is listed by the U.N.'s high commissioner for human rights as a human rights organization. The referenced baby is mixed-race -- the result of a relationship, not evidence of rape as lawyers allege about other such children.

A British high commission in Nairobi had already announced the findings of police forensic experts: Police records presented in support of the rape claims were all forgeries.

A newspaper, The Guardian, analyzed supporting hospital records and concluded that they also seemed to be forged. For example, "the register [of one hospital] for 1982 details six cases of rape, with four cases referring to attacks by soldiers appearing as the last entry on the page." The other two appear in the middle of the pages.

Martyn Day heads Leigh Day's Kenya Team; the Scotsman (another newspaper) reported Day's comment that he, too, had been "surprised" by the high number of rape entries at the bottom of hospital pages. The Scotsman observed, "It then emerged he was referring to a different hospital, suggesting the issue was not isolated."

Meanwhile, the head of Impact admitted that he knew of only three alleged rapes by British soldiers in one community within recent memory. Yet the British lawyers who arrived there in 2000 to investigate collected more than 200 allegations.

How would such widespread deception be possible? Three factors could contribute:

1) Kenyan authorities are notoriously corrupt. Transparency International publishes a "Corruption Perception Index" that ranks nations according to their degree of corruption as rated by "business people, academics and risk analysts." A score of 10 indicates "highly clean"; 0 indicates "highly corrupt." The 2002 index scores Kenya at 1.9.

2) The desperately poor women alleging rape have seen others become rich from settlements with the British government. David Nderitu -- a bar owner who serves British soldiers -- told the BBC, "We have dealt with the British army for a very long time, and we've never heard of any rape cases. ... There are people who want to take money from the British."

3) The West accepts a collective guilt, especially toward Africa. The collective guilt makes people reluctant to cast doubt on victims' claims even by asking basic legal questions. Those who do are often accused of being sexist, racist or inhumane.

It may be impossible to know how many of the Kenyan rape claims, if any, are valid. Even Amnesty International's report is based largely on information gathered during a "research mission" in June 2003 -- years after the claimants had been screened by Impact and lawyers, long after the dangled prospect of British money.

Rapes undoubtedly occurred over the decades of British troop presence in Kenya and every true victim deserves justice. But credible evidence seems to be lacking for Martyn Day's contention that "there has been an epidemic of rape in central Kenya." Nevertheless, the civil case for mega-damages on behalf of several hundred women is proceeding.

The case may have merit. Amnesty International is correct in calling for "an independent and impartial commission of inquiry." But more investigation is needed.

The West must shed its collective sense of shame. It should do so for the upcoming generation toward which it has an obligation; children should not be born into a collective guilt that is passed down through the centuries.

The West should shed its shame for the true victims who deserve to have their allegations judged on merit. Perhaps then, when the baggage of collective guilt is shed, the difference between a shakedown and justice will be clear.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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