The Times reports today that, in an important settlement, the MoD has agreed to pay over £2.8 million to the family of Baha Musa, an Iraqi who died in UK custody. Whilst the Times rather callously focuses on the strain such payouts could place on the army (the paper version’s headline was “MoD Faces Huge Bill After Iraq Abuse Case”) the real significance comes in the casual precedent being set. I’m trying to think of another example of an occupying force being forced to pay compensation for its army’s abuses. Usually occupying forces are treated with relative impunity (I’m talking about powerful occupying forces, not Iraq in Kuwait).
Obviously this is a very minor case. The invasion and occupation of Iraq have needlessly killed hundreds of thousands, even millions of people, the vast majority of whom will never receive any reparations. There are huge campaigns which (justly or not) call for reparations to be paid to the descendants of slaves and American Indians, however of more pressing concern should be the reparations due to the Iraqis who have had their country destroyed and then reconstructed along strict Neo-Liberal principles.
Nonetheless we should look upon this story as an important milestone. In the 1950’s Franz Fanon argued forcefully that colonialism breeds two distinct kinds of people, the colonised and the settlers. The propaganda and illusion of occupation tries hard to pain the victims as lesser people, in ‘zoological terms’, as valueless and worthless. This is still a highly relevant perspective – the attention given to the handful of soldiers who have died as opposed to the countless Iraqi deaths reminds us who really counts. However today we have been reminded that such manipulation cannot work at the human level. A grieving family, angry and determined to seek justice, can call the occupier to account. We should not be fooled into thinking that this is part of a noble British tradition of self-judgement; Britain’s past is a cruel and violent one – as is the past of any country with a history of colonisalism. Yesterday’s settlement is more fairly attributed to the tireless anti-war campaigning of the past 7 years, which has exposed the realities of British foreign policy at every avenue and opportunity. Through campaigning, the reality of the death toll, of the inhumanity of the war(s), and of the mistreatment of detainees has entered the popular consciousness and the mainstream. It has also encouraged Iraqis to feel that they are not isolated, and that they have allies in the UK. With luck, this atmosphere and yesterday’s settlement will prompt others to come forward and seek their restitution. It is the very least they deserve.