Thursday, February 4, 2010

A lawsuit from - and for - the history books?

I'm intrigued to read of a rather unique lawsuit filed against the British government by ten individuals representing the Bunyoro tribe in Uganda. The Daily Telegraph reports:

Ten Ugandans are suing the British government for £300 billion [about US $473 billion] in damages for crimes committed by colonial officers in the late 1800s.

The group are seeking damages for crimes committed during the 1893-1899 war in the northwestern Bunyoro region.

Their lawyer Crispus Ayena Odongo said: "Before this war the population of Bunyoro was stated to be 2.5 million. But by the end of the war there were only 150,000 Bunyoro that could be accounted for.

"The people who were responsible for invading the place should tell us where the rest are."

. . .

The suit alleges that between 1893-1899 the British, using their own fighters and those imported from Buganda, decimated Bunyoro in an attempt to force the tribal monarch to sign an agreement with the colonial government.

Odongo, who previously served as the chief legal adviser to the Lord's Resistance Army rebel militia during failed peace talks, said his case relied heavily on dairies from colonial field officers.

He said the kingdom had never recovered from the massive losses by the British backed invasion.

The case is currently pending in a Ugandan court.

Britain has hired local legal representatives who have insisted the British government enjoys diplomatic immunity.

There's more at the link.

This is interesting on all sorts of levels. First, of course, there's the undeniable slaughter of primitive tribes by many colonial powers - even including the United States, according to some authorities, in its relationships with the Native American tribes and the inhabitants of conquered Spanish colonies like the Philippines. If one colonial power (Britain) can be successfully sued for its long-ago actions in one country (present-day Uganda), I'm sure the concept would spread like wildfire (not least because lawyers would stand to make a mint in fees).

Second, there are the legal issues. Does the Bunyoro tribe have legal standing to sue the British government? After all, they're not the rulers of Uganda, and so can't claim a political status. Can they demonstrate that they have somehow continued the authority of the tribal government during the late 1800's, and are thus entitled to sue on behalf of their predecessors in office? Also, do the ten nominal plaintiffs have the express permission and approval of the tribe to bring the lawsuit, or are they acting in their personal capacities? If the latter, I imagine they can't sue for damages on behalf of the tribe, only for themselves - and then they'll have to demonstrate how they, personally, were impacted by Britain's long-ago colonial actions.

Finally, there's the issue of boundaries. Was the kingdom of the Bunyoro actually part of an entity that is today Uganda, or was it independent of the other tribe(s) in the area? If so, then it might be argued that a Ugandan court has no standing in the case, as the events occurred in an area which at the time was not part of any Ugandan state, politically, historically or geographically.

This could get very interesting!



Stranger said...

There were certainly deaths on both sides of the "Indian Wars." Modern scholarship pegs the total number of combat and raid deaths at 10,000 on the Indian side, and 8,000 on the "whites."

There were also well documented deaths from hostile action in the Philippines. But by comparison, the total number of battle deaths from the US and Tribal sides is surprisingly small.

The primary killer on the First Nations side seems to have been starvation, either directly or through the diseases that accompany malnutrition.

That was made much worse by Congress' tendency to appropriate funds to fulfill treaty obligations both late and short. Look over the causes of the "Great Sioux Rebellion" for one example.


Anonymous said...

A Namibian gentlemen who was a member of my flying club told me in the spring of 2007 that the Herero of what is now Namibia were in the process of suing Germany for damages that occurred when the area was German Southwest Africa. I seem to recall that the suit was dismissed, although I don't remember if it was for lack of merit or on technical grounds.

B_L said...

I bet the Ugandan courts will be pretty friendly unless they are pressured or bribed. This smells like money to me, I would love to be plaintiff's counsel. 1/3rd of £300 billion...

I would totally sport a monacle and tophat and buy a bitchin' island.