There is talk that negotiations between Caricom and three European powers — Great Britain, France and The Netherlands — on reparations have failed and Caricom may sue the European powers. I must say that I really had a good laugh at that prospect. However, in all seriousness, I really hope that Caricom doesn't go ahead opening that can of worms.
No doubt the first line of defence that the European powers will use is the fact that the institution was legal and morally acceptable at the time and, as such, there was no crime. They can easily claim that, just because slavery is a crime today we cannot criminalise the institution retroactively.
I think, however, that Caricom's main argument is that, since the planters were compensated for the loss of their slaves at the time of Emancipation, the slaves should also have been compensated. However, this has no legal basis.
If slavery was legal, then the act of not paying slaves up to Emancipation was also legal. As such, up to 1838 (or is it 1834?), the slaves would legally be entitled to nothing but their freedom after 1838.
The legality of the institution of slavery alone should be enough to sink any claim for reparations. However, Europe may point to other reasons there is no need to pay reparations.
One such reason would be to look at the acceptability of the institution by the blacks themselves. In particular, Europe may point to the fact that the black Maroons of Jamaica actually signed an agreement with Britain to return escaped slaves to their plantations. They will point to the fact that, though there were some slave revolts, slavery actually served out its "natural life" and was largely only ended by the European powers themselves.
Seeing that slavery was legal and morally acceptable, the issue of its morality can be ignored. Once this is done, Europe can then argue, very successfully, that Africans in the West, including Caricom, are actually better off than their brothers in Africa. Europe can point to a Caricom region that is more stable and prosperous than black Africa and Europe, and can also claim that it was the legal and economic institutions eventually bequeathed to the descendants of the slaves that enabled Caricom to enjoy a much better standard of living. Europe can then claim that, in this sense, reparations have already been paid.
Europe can claim that the hundreds of millions of dollars of development aid over the decades can be seen as reparations. This is especially true, seeing that some of those calling for reparations want them to be in the form of development aid.
Needless to say, Europe will claim that all of the persons involved in slavery are dead and, as such, those alive today should not be made to pay for the supposed sins of their forebears. Europe will claim that 20th century conventions such as racial and gender equality, on which some of these reparations claims are based, would have been meaningless to the average person of the early 19th century and before.
Also, Europe will point to the oddity of them alone being sued, while the African nations and the Maroons of Jamaica, among other Africans, are not. Europe may resist any reparations consideration until Africa and the maroons are also sued for their part in slavery.
I am no lawyer, but the more I look at this reparations business, the more I am convinced that Caricom surely doesn't have any case. It would be better if we just ask for increased economic support, outright, instead of trying to get it under the guise of being compensated for a supposed wrong.
Michael A Dingwall