The nostalgia with which many reflect on Britain’s colonial legacies is not surprising. Tony Blair famously stated in a 1997 speech, “I value and honour our history enormously,” and that the country’s history of empire should be the cause of “neither apology nor hand-wringing”. The post-Brexit world has only encouraged this sentiment, which seeks to reinvigorate the spirit which once allowed Britain to rule more than half the world.
Although the empire that is seen by many as a product of the British state, an often overlooked aspect of Britain’s successful domination of the globe is the role of laissez-faire capitalism, outsourcing and public-private partnerships. The most well-known of these in the British context was the English East India Company, which by 1800 commanded a force larger than that of England. Ruling approximately one fifth of the world, philosopher Edmund Burke famously referred to this as, “a state in the disguise of a merchant”.
While Britain continues to focus on its post-colonial narrative, tearing down or renaming close to 70 statues of slave traders and colonialists across the country, colonialism in a different guise perseveres. Identified quite accurately as an, “incomplete process of British decolonisation” by University of London law lecturer Kojo Koram when discussing his new book, ‘Uncommon Wealth: Britain and The Aftermath of Empire’, Koram expressed how colonialism continues to inform both symbolic issues, such as monuments in public spaces, as well as more practical concerns.
Building an empire was after all, in its essences, a material project aimed at extracting resources and supporting the Empire’s foreign policy concerns. In this regard, not only is decolonization incomplete, it is being promoted in a different guise in ostensibly now independent locales employing private public partnerships. This can be seen quite prominently in the Seychelles Islands, in the role that British Queen’s Counsels have been playing in the country’s justice system.
Only becoming an independent republic within the Commonwealth of Nations in 1976, the Seychelles has remained particularly reliant on its former colonial overlords. This has become especially apparent throughout the course of an ongoing, and extremely questionable corruption trial, which has been functionally led in its entirety by British barristers and investigators. Employing KC’s Steven Powles and Edmund Vickers to lead the prosecution, the two have been responsible for overseeing the prosecution of nine arrested for a mix of allegations. Patrick Humphrey a former British police officer was tasked with leading the investigative side of the case.
Despite the involvement of internationally recognized criminal lawyers with an expertise in human rights, allegations of human rights violations have run rife. Concerns have been raised regarding impartiality, intimidation tactics have been leveraged against the defense and unconventional legal mechanisms, such as changing laws ex post facto to facilitate retroactive prosecution have been employed. All this, coupled with accusations that the case is essentially a politically motivated one, used by the incumbent President Wavel Ramkalawan to rid the country of supporters of the former government has raised more than a few alarms.
One would expect a seasoned former police officer as senior as Humphrey to ask more than a few questions regarding the methods employed to investigate the case as well as the nature of evidence found. This has included weapons, which to date cannot be conclusively tied to the suspects having any wrongdoing. Shockingly, British High Commissioner Patrick Lynch has not expressed any concern over the involvement of British lawyers in the case. This is despite regular comments by the High Commissioner commending UK-Seychellois cooperation on issues like police reform and tackling serious crime.
EU Ambassador Vincent Degert has similarly been noticeably silent. This is despite the instrumental role which the EU has played in funding ACCS anti-corruption efforts, and the role which EU ambassadors are expected to play in ensuring things such as freedom of the press and human rights. This is even more the case when EU funding is being directly allocated towards state bodies that act in stark contravention of international human rights standards.
Although their focus should be on addressing issues of democratic backsliding, these international experts have been recruited to the government’s ranks to lead the prosecution. Naturally, the support of international professionals are instrumental for establishing the legitimacy needed for the ongoing miscarriage of justice to go on unimpeded. When such actions are placed within the context of colonial history, it becomes apparent that they are in good company.
Colonial lawyers played a central role in propping up despotic local regimes that were deemed friendly to British foreign interests in the days of the Empire. Take the story of Sir Frank Clement Offley Beaman as a prime example. Educated at The Queen’s College, Oxford, he became a judicial advisor to the Indian Civil Service in 1879 working his way up over the course of the subsequent 28 years to High Court Judge, a position to which he was appointed in 1907. His position attained was a product of the relationship he established with the local government and the way in which he used legal tools in support of both the caste system and opposing women’s emancipation.
A similar example is evident in the case of Mr Dinsha Davar. A London educated barrister, Davar was a member of the same Middle Temple Inn of Court as Mr Powles and Mr Vickers, an Inn which seems to have a sordid history of members supporting neo-colonial endeavors. Davar saw the opportunity to be appointed a high court judge and having become close with the Maharaja of Baroda State, Sayajirao Gaekwad III, fervently employed the law to fight political enemies of the Maharaja, famously sentencing Indian nationalist and anti-colonial activist Bal Gangadhar Tilak to six years of hard labour.
It is unclear if the motivation of Mr Powles, Mr Vickers and Mr Humphrey are monetary, securing longer term local positions of power, as is widely (albeit controversially) practiced to this day in former colonies such as Hong Kong, or a combination of the two. Irrespective of their personal interest, British colonial legacies continue to shape the future of the Seychelles justice system and not for the better. A state in the grips of neo-colonialism can never be the master of its own destiny.