The wheels of British justice go round and round − and then fall off

We are used to pointing the finger at injustice in the global South, but occasionally we have to look closer to home.

The now widely forgotten Malayan Emergency was a guerrilla war fought 1948-60 between Commonwealth armed forces and the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA), the military arm of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). “Malayan Emergency” was the colonial government’s term for a conflict the MNLA saw as a war of national liberation. The rubber plantations and tin-mining industries argued for using the term “emergency” because Lloyd’s of London would not have covered their losses if it had been called a “war”.

Batang-KaliOn 12 December 1948, 24 unarmed villagers were killed by British troops at Batang Kali. Infantry platoons were being used to carry out patrols and lay ambushes based on intelligence from informers, captured insurgents, and aerial reconnaissance. In this incident, a platoon surrounded a rubber plantation at Sungai Rimoh near Batang Kali in Selangor. Civilians were then rounded up by British soldiers and the men separated from the women and children for interrogation. Twenty-four unarmed men from the village were killed by automatic gunfire before the soldiers set their homes on fire.

The official British position is that the villagers were killed as they tried to escape into the jungle. However, some of the soldiers involved later said that there was no escape attempt and that they were ordered to take the men out in groups and shoot them.

In the 1960s, Denis Healey, the British Defence Secretary instructed Scotland Yard to set up a special task force to investigate the case. Alleged lack of evidence gave the incoming Conservative government an excuse to drop the investigation in 1970.

On 9 September 1992, the BBC broadcast a documentary titled “In Cold Blood” that included accounts from witnesses and survivors, confessions of an ex-Scots Guards soldier, and interviews with the Scotland Yard police officers who investigated the case in 1970.

In 1993 and 2004 Malaysian the families of victims unsuccessfully petitioned Queen Elizabeth II to re-open the inquiry into the massacre. They tried again in 2008 and only received a reply from the British government in 2011 when the High Court agreed to review the case.

On 4 September 2012, the High Court ruled that Britain was responsible for the killings but upheld the government decision not to hold a public hearing. In its written judgement, the High Court said, “There is evidence that supports a deliberate execution of the 24 civilians at Batang Kali.”

In November 2015 the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court ruled that the government was not obliged to hold a public inquiry into the killing because the atrocity occurred too long ago – even though it may have been a war crime. The duty to investigate only dates back to a 10-year grace period before 1966, when the right of individual petition to the European court of human rights was introduced.

Afterwards, the solicitor who represented the families of the Batang Kali victims said, “British soldiers left the bodies of 24 innocent, unarmed men riddled with bullets and the British government left their families without a credible explanation. Our courts have decided there is no legal right to that explanation. But they have been able to acknowledge the innocence of those killed, the failures to investigate and the ‘overwhelming’ evidence of mass murder.”

The British government is sidestepping its moral duty, presumably in order to protect the names of those involved and those responsible. But, as Geoffrey Robertson QC wrote in Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice (1999):

“The commission of crimes against humanity provides an indisputable warrant for punishment of violator states… the world best remembers those its pledges have failed by determining that in the future, at whatever cost, it is going to make them stick.”

In this case, the British justice system has failed.

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