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Gary Younge
Cruel and usual

"The days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over," he argued. "We should talk, and rightly so, about British values that are enduring, because they stand for some of the greatest ideas in history: tolerance, liberty, civic duty, that grew in Britain and influenced the rest of the world. Our strong traditions of fair play, of openness, of internationalism, these are great British values."

Less than a week later, photographs from Camp Breadbasket showed British soldiers standing on Iraqis enmeshed in netting, forcing them to simulate oral and anal sex, feigning to punch them in the head and parading them around on forklift trucks. Their actions suggested that while Brown was busy unilaterally absolving the inequities of our colonial past, the Iraqis are still dealing with the iniquities of our colonial present.

Like the US government following revelations from Abu Ghraib, the British government wants to dismiss the miscreants as the deviant wrongdoers in an otherwise noble cause. But the truth is that the atrocities committed in Camp Breadbasket were not aberrant but as consistent with Britain's colonial tradition and invasion of Iraq as Brown's statements are with our post-colonial amnesia.

The evidence arising from the case suggests that some other enduring values - brutality, cruelty, oppression and racism - are more readily associated with British rule in much of the world from Ireland to India.

And the ensuing show trial, in which subordinates were made to take full responsibility for policies and practices that were both endemic to the army and systemic to the Iraqi occupation, suggests that the traditions of "fair play" and "openness" are inimical to foreign occupation.

The fact that the photographs were released shortly before the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz should remind us that "following orders" is inadequate where the violation of human rights is concerned. But it should also teach us that there is a context for these atrocities that should never be overlooked.

From former BBC director general Greg Dyke to Corporal Kenyon, everybody has taken responsibility for what they have done in this war, apart from those who took us into it.

Tony Blair described the photographs as "shocking and appalling". He told the Commons that "the difference between democracy and tyranny is not that in a democracy bad things don't happen, but that in a democracy when they do happen people are held and brought to account".

The difference between "democracy" and "tyranny" may be lost on a man suspended from a forklift truck by a foreign occupier. Similarly, the difference between what is intended by "shock and awe" and what constitutes "shocking and appalling" may be lost on the soldier impaling him, not least when his commanding officer has told them to go "Ali Baba hunting" for those looting supplies and "work them hard" if he finds them.

Indeed, probably about the only thing that the Iraqi pris oners, their tormentors and the judge who sentenced them can agree on is that even those immediately responsible have not been brought to account.

Corporal Daniel Kenyon, the most senior officer on trial, said he thought that reporting the abuses would be pointless. "There was no point in passing anything up the chain of command because it was the chain of command who were, in my eyes, doing wrongdoing, and they were passing Iraqis down to us to do the same thing."

Meanwhile, Ra'id Attiyah Ali told the Independent that even though he worked in the camp and was not a looter, he was none the less beaten on the nose and tied to a pole for an hour and a half.

"I saw the soldiers kicking and beating Iraqis, I saw the guy who was held in a net," he said. "I saw five Iraqis in their underwear holding milk cartons on their head, I saw a soldier urinating on them. There were about eight soldiers."

Judge Advocate Michael Hunter, who presided over the case, told the jury: "It's quite possible, in the view of this court, that people in the course of that operation were hit and assaulted and others have not been brought to justice, and this could have been avoided."

Sadly we have been here before. In Imperial Reckoning, Caroline Elkins' book on Britain's role in Kenya, she quotes a white settler's account of "softening up" a Mau Mau: "By the time I cut his balls off he had no ears, and his eyeball, the right one, I think, was hanging out of its socket ... he died before we got much out of him."

In 1955, when Labour stood for more than office, Barbara Castle spoke up: "In the heart of the British Empire there is a police state where the rule of law has broken down, where the murder and torture of Africans by Europeans goes unpunished and where the authorities pledged to enforce justice regularly connive at its violation. And at last the Labour party has declared war on this state of affairs."

The Labour party has declared war all right. But the war it has declared won't end this state of affairs. It started them.

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