While it would appear that formal colonialism largely ended in the last century, the imperial impulse entered the new millennium in altered forms, writes Ayman El-Amir:

July 19, 2007 -- One is often tempted to believe, even through a sheer lapse of memory, that colonialism and the long trail of generations that fought it is something of the past, now dead and buried in history books. Yet nearly three-quarters of all member states of the United Nations today have become independent sovereign countries in the past half century through struggles of self-determination. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has, during his recent visit to Algeria, declined to apologise for the atrocities France committed during its 130-year-long occupation and exploitation of Algeria. It is a strong reminder that colonial attitudes remain a bitter reality and that despite the promise of globalisation, colonialism in its varied forms still poisons the lives of many around the world. Colonial powers, old and new, owe the peoples they conquered and colonised not only formal apologies but also reparations.

There was a trend during the colonial era among dominated peoples to pretend, by way of desperate resignation, that their colonial rulers were more benign than others. They thanked their lucky stars that the British administration, for example, was less brutal than the French who, in turn, were more merciful than the Portuguese. As four centuries of imperialism and colonialism have proven, the atrocities and consequences of the colonial era have belied the claim of "the white man's burden" of extending the benefits of Western civilisation to the "primitive savages" they conquered.

The fact is that colonial powers plundered the wealth of future nation- states, displaced tribal populations, carved up territories, sowed the seeds of future inter-state and tribal conflicts, reduced the indigenous population to a sub-human status and enslaved them. When the conquerors finally departed, they left virtually nothing in place to help colonised peoples develop independent governance or a meaningful political community. The legendary statesman Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, eloquently put it this way: "It is far easier for the proverbial camel to pass through the needle's eye, hump and all, than for an erstwhile colonial administration to give sound and honest counsel of a political nature to its liberated territory."

Historically, the colonial experience leaves no doubt that all its protagonists sought to create a subject race of colonised peoples. Together with suppressive military power, the cultivation of this sense of inferiority facilitated the plundering of the colonial territories' resources and the subjugation of their peoples. In Egypt, for example, the racist undertone of colonial rule was reflected in Lord Cromer's memoirs, Modern Egypt. As the British proconsul in Egypt from 1882 to 1907, Cromer denigrated Egypt's centuries-old civilisation and multicultural tradition as "barbarous", "coarse", "cruel" and "lacking in harmony". His prescription for the Egyptians was to abandon their crude cultural heritage, Pharaonic, Christian and Arab, and try to aspire to the superior ways of the civilised European colonialist. Brutal force and racist subjugation were the hallmark of colonial occupation and administration wherever invading imperial armies set foot.

The French, like other colonialists, have a good few brutal acts to apologise for, such as the Sétif massacre in Algeria. There are different accounts of the incident, which started on 8 May 1945 when a march by Algerian tribes in Sétif and Guelma in Constantine against French and European settlers - the pièds noire, who were celebrating VE Day (the day when Nazi Germany surrendered) - turned into a pro-independence uprising. French retaliation was swift and vengeful. French troops using artillery and bomber-aircraft strafed the local population incessantly for two full weeks. French estimates initially put the casualty figure at 1,500 dead. But French historians later revised the figure upward to between 15,000 and 20,000 dead. Post-independence Algerian governments estimated the death toll at more than double that figure - 45,000 dead in what President Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika recently called the beginning of genocide by the French occupation forces against the Algerian people.

This and other atrocities, for which the French refuse to apologise, have cast a dark shadow of shame over France's 200-year-old claim of being one of the chief architects of universal human rights standards. France's reluctance to apologise for the brutalities of its colonial rule in Algeria has also held up the conclusion of a negotiated treaty of friendship and cooperation between the two countries.

British colonialism had its share of acts of genocide too, whether in the suppression of the Kikuyu tribes revolt in Kenya in the 1950s, the starvation of millions in India, or the Opium Wars against China in the mid-19th century, to name but a few. The 1960 UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples was a watershed landmark ending the centuries-old colonial era. Soon afterwards the US was involved in the Vietnam War that ended more than a decade later, leaving behind tens of thousands of American casualties and millions of Vietnamese dead, maimed or terminally ill by chemical defoliants. Like France, Britain and other colonial powers, the US never offered an apology to the Vietnamese people nor was it condemned for war crimes.

Colonialism in all its abominable forms, whether direct military conquest or settler colonialism, has crept into the 21st century. Its cruelties are daily played out in Iraq and Palestine for the world to see and despair over. The US is fighting a losing war of colonial greed in Iraq while Israel, like apartheid South Africa of yore, is the epitome of 19th century settler colonialism, given the respectful mantle of statehood. During the 20th century, and despite the formal ending of old-style colonialism, old and new colonial powers adopted a new crusade against a new enemy: the threat of communist expansion.

Towards the end of the century, communism collapsed too and a new world order based on US hegemony, supported by ragtag allies seemed to take hold. The new cause is the US-proclaimed global war against terrorism. While the cause is genuine, in so far as no one would like to be sitting in a coffee shop, on a plane or a school bus, or in a movie theatre next to a terrorist replete with a belt of explosives, it has become a mixed bag of hidden agendas. US-led imperial ambition armed with the threat of military force has stymied legitimate national liberation struggles. Because the US-Israeli alliance sought to besiege and liquidate the Palestinian national liberation struggle, classifying its actors as "terrorists", the blanket definition of terrorism lumped together many groups to the extent that terrorism, often senseless, became the only salvation for a desperate people, irrespective of the worthiness of the cause. It also marks the failure of more than two decades of UN-sponsored negotiations seeking a fair and legitimate definition of terrorism that does not ostracise national liberation struggles. Old-style colonialism has mutated, and so too the struggle against it, becoming what Russian President Vladimir Putin called "the scourge of the 21th century". Despite the global spread of the US armada, in both physical military might and covert operations, there does not seem to be an end in sight.

It is probably high time to abandon the lost cause of the new world order and go back to the UN. Colonial powers, old and new, should strive to rectify their past and redeem themselves as a means of building a just and peaceful future. The UN could establish a formal but voluntary "Book of Apologies" for all powers that committed atrocities against peoples that once came under their domination - Africans, Asians and Armenians included. It may not cost them anything close to the estimated $61 billion post-war Germany paid to Israel under allied pressure as "reparations, restitution and indemnities", in the words of Chaim Weizam, for the atrocities committed by the Third Reich against Jews, but it may help clear the past and build a better future, both in terms of human relations and international trade.

The 19th century Irish-British playwright George Bernard Shaw put it this way: "A conquered nation is like a man with cancer: he can think of nothing else."