07.12.2023 Author: Taut Bataut

Confronting Colonial Legacies

Confronting Colonial Legacies

Apologies and Accountability

Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s recent expression of ‘shame’ and apology for the colonial atrocities inflicted by his country on Tanzania, particularly during the Maji Maji rebellion in the early 1900s, sheds light on the ongoing global discourse surrounding the colonial legacies of former imperial powers. These instances of apology reflect broader trends in addressing colonial wrongs, while raising questions about the need for more comprehensive acknowledgments of imperialism’s inherent brutality.

President Steinmeier’s apology to Tanzania for the Maji Maji rebellion serves as a pivotal moment in acknowledging Germany’s colonial history. The Maji Maji rebellion, one of the bloodiest anti-colonial uprisings in history, took place in what was then German East Africa, encompassing modern-day Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, and parts of Mozambique. The German president’s plea for forgiveness and commitment to repatriate cultural property signify a significant step in recognizing the shared past of Tanzania and Germany. However, it is important to consider the historical context that has long prevented such acknowledgments. Germany’s colonial amnesia, as pointed out by historian Jürgen Zimmerer, highlights the need for deeper understanding and collective processing of colonial history.

In contrast to Germany’s recent efforts, we observe a trend of former colonial powers facing pressure to address their historical colonial legacies and contemporary challenges tied to racism and discrimination. Formal apologies have emerged as a potential avenue for reconciliation. These apologies are primarily political acts, emphasizing moral responsibility rather than legal liability. They are often accompanied by clarifications that they do not imply compensation claims.

The legal aspects surrounding the issuance of such apologies and their implications for international state responsibility warrant consideration. While formal apologies may serve as a form of satisfaction under the International Law Commission’s Articles on State Responsibility (ARSIWA), they do not automatically trigger state responsibility under international law. The challenges of establishing international state responsibility for colonial injustices are exemplified when examining Belgium’s colonial past.

Proving the violation of international obligations concerning colonial injustices presents a complex task. The principle of intertemporal law dictates that states can only be held responsible for breaches of international obligations that were in effect at the time of the wrongful acts. While issuing apologies for colonization itself does not expose former colonial powers to legal liability, atrocities committed during colonial rule present a more nuanced situation due to the timing of international obligations.

Despite concerns that formal apologies might lead to legal admissions of wrongdoing and potential compensation claims, it is essential to recognize that these apologies primarily serve moral reconciliation. Whether or not formal apologies are issued, the entitlement of former colonies to reparation remains intact, including the pursuit of financial compensation.

The case of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in India presents a similar dynamic, as Jeremy Corbyn’s promise of a formal apology mirrors a broader trend among former colonial powers. However, these apologies often separate specific incidents from the broader act of colonization, focusing on the misdeeds of individual actors rather than the imperial system itself. To truly address the horrors of colonialism, former colonial powers should consider apologizing for imperialism as a whole.

An apology for imperialism itself would force a reckoning with the fundamental immorality of one group subjugating another. Such an acknowledgment could bring closure and delegitimize the notion that there is anything worth celebrating in the enslavement, economic exploitation, and systematic subjugation of millions of people.

This broader apology is necessary because the legacy of colonialism endures in the present day. Its effects are felt in the erasure of African heritage in Guadeloupe through French enslavement, in the ongoing consequences of partition in South Asia, in the conflicts that persist in the Middle East due to colonial apathy, and in the colonial tactics employed in regions like Kashmir.

For former colonial powers like the United Kingdom, it is particularly important to confront their delusions of a glorious imperial past. Issues such as the invasion of Iraq and the Brexit campaign are rooted in imperial fantasies and a refusal to accept a diminished global role. Recognizing the true nature of the British Empire as one of history’s most cruel and barbaric states is a crucial step in dispelling these delusions and moving toward a more just and equitable future.

Indeed, an apology may be more necessary for the colonizers than the colonized. Even in the 21st century, the United Kingdom continues to be trapped by the delusions of its own false history. British participation in the invasion of Iraq was essentially an imperialist adventure—an attempt by Tony Blair to rediscover the glory of empire. Similarly, the Brexit campaign was rooted in the imperial fantasies of a country that has failed to accept its lowly place in the world. The only way to remove such delusions is to acknowledge that the supposedly glorious British Empire was, in fact, one of history’s most cruel and barbaric states.

Although formal apologies for colonial injustices represent a significant step in addressing historical wrongs, a broader apology for imperialism itself is necessary to confront the fundamental immorality of colonialism. This acknowledgment can help bring closure and force former colonial powers to recognize their heinous past, leading to a more honest assessment of history and its implications for the present and future. The path to reconciliation is complex, involving a deep understanding of historical context, international law, and morality.


Taut Bataut – is a researcher and writer that publishes on South Asian geopolitics, exclusively for the online magazine  “New Eastern Outlook”.

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