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U.K. apologizes for racism in commemoration of WWI dead

The U.K. government apologized Thursday for not properly commemorating thousands of African and Asian troops who died fighting for the British Empire during and after World War I. The reason for the failure, according to a report by the organization that commemorates service members who died in the two World Wars, was "entrenched prejudices, preconceptions and pervasive racism."

While White, European casualties were commemorated with individual headstones, up to 404,000 Indian and African casualties who served the British Empire in World War I either had their names recorded in registers, were commemorated collectively or were not commemorated at all, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission found.

The commission initially set out to examine the commemoration of soldiers from the British Empire during both World Wars, but restricted its inquiry due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"Contemporary attitudes towards non-European faiths and differing funerary rites, and an individual's or group's perceived 'state of civilisation', influenced their commemorative treatment in death," the report said.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission "should not overlook the mistakes in the organization's early history — many of which have been forgotten or reimagined over the century of its existence," and should search for historic inequalities and act on what is found, the report continued.

"Whilst we can't change the past, we can make amends"

U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace issued an apology in Parliament in response to the report.

"On behalf of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the government both of the time and today, I want to apologise for the failures to live up to their founding principles all those years ago and express deep regret that it has taken so long to rectify the situation," said Wallace. "Whilst we can't change the past, we can make amends and take action."

Wallace said the government would assemble a diverse team of experts to help research and act upon inequalities in commemoration, and that physical or digital commemorative structures would be built.

"Dignity that they deserve"

The inquiry into inequalities in the commemoration of British Empire casualties from the two World Wars came after a 2019 documentary hosted by Member of Parliament David Lammy, who said he found mass graves in Kenya and Tanzania in which African troops who fought for the British Empire had been "dumped with no commemoration whatsoever."

"I'm just really, really pleased that the dignity that these men deserved — who were dragged from their villages and commandeered to work for the British Empire — that dignity that they deserve in death can be granted to them," Lammy told CBS News partner network BBC News.

Historian David Olusoga, who produced the 2019 documentary, told the BBC that if the commission was interested in restorative justice, more than an apology would be necessary.

"If the Commonwealth War Graves Commission had set up a committee and discovered that 100,000 white British soldiers lay in mass graves — unmarked, uncommemorated — and the documentation proved that that had been deliberate, what would they do?" he told the BBC.

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