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The case for reparations from slavery

CLAUDE ROBINSON

Sunday, March 16, 2014    

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The case for reparations for the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans inched forward last week when Caricom leaders accepted a 10-point plan for negotiations with the European nations which planned, executed and profited immensely from this crime against humanity, a crime that cannot be allowed to disappear without settlement.

At their inter-sessional meeting in St Vincent and the Grenadines, leaders of the 15-member grouping of Caribbean states embraced the plan. Among other things, it seeks a formal apology, debt forgiveness, greater development aid for public health, educational and cultural institutions as well as unspecified financial damages for the persisting "psychological trauma" from the days of plantation slavery.

Also, it calls for the creation of a "repatriation programme" to help resettle members of the Rastafarian movement in Africa. Repatriation to Africa has long been a central belief of Jamaican Rastafarians and they have been pressing Britain to foot the bill, a claim the British have rejected.

The targeted countries are Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Denmark which participated, to varying degrees, in the slave trade that took place from the 16th through to the 19th centuries.

Meanwhile, at a press conference in Barbados Thursday, following the St Vincent summit, the chairman of Caricom's Reparations Commission (CRC), Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, said the region expects to host a major conference on reparations and reparatory justice shortly, and various European government delegations are expected to participate.

Professor Beckles said the conference would address "...this matter of continuing harm and continuing suffering within the tradition of international diplomacy. The diplomatic initiative is designed... to ensure that there is reconciliation, to ensure that there is truth and justice, and to put an end to this terrible history so that the world may move on in the 21st century as a more harmonious place".

Also endorsing a "non-confrontational" approach, Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller says Caricom was seeking to engage a "process of reconciliation and dialogue, free from animosity".

But litigation should not be ruled out if diplomacy and negotiation failed. That's why the region has engaged the British law firm, Leigh Day, to push the claim under international law, should that be necessary.

Not so long ago, Leigh Day secured a £20-million compensation award for Kenyans who were tortured by colonial authorities during the Mau Mau rebellion in the 1950s. The financial settlement, though relatively small, confirms that remedies are possible.

In various media statements, Martin Day, a principal of the firm, has been arguing that there is a case for adjudication in the international court of justice in The Hague. The United Kingdom accepts the jurisdiction of the court, but only in cases relating to disputes arising since 1974 and those that do not involve Commonwealth or former Commonwealth countries. Day does not see this as an insurmountable hurdle.

With a huge footprint from its slaving imperial and colonial past, Britain's objection to litigating its past conduct is understandable, as cases could arise from the often violent exercise of authority in the vast empire once under its control. Accepting a case for slavery could open a floodgate of claims for other human rights abuses.

Recently, a British junior minister, while on a visit to Jamaica to drum up business for his country, told us flatly to forget it and move on. Slavery happened. It wasn't pretty; but we should just get over it! I don't think so.

Slave owners compensated for loss of their 'property'

The enslavement of millions of Africans and subsequent abuse for more than 400 years did not occur by happenstance. Africans were classified in law as non-human, chattel, property and real estate. They were denied recognition as members of the human family by laws and practices derived from the parliaments and policies of Europe.

British traders shipped more than three million men, women and children from Africa to slave markets in the Americas in what has been acknowledged to be the largest forced migration in human history.

In a compelling argument of the case for reparations, historian Professor Beckles argues in his recent book, Britain's Black Debt: Reparation for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide, that international law provides that chattel slavery, as practised by Britain, was a crime against humanity.

He documents that slavery was invested in by the royal family, the Government, the established church, most elite families, and large public institutions in the private and public sectors. Citing the legal principles of unjust and criminal enrichment, he argues that Britain must pay up on the black debt owed to subsequent generations of Caribbean peoples.

Slavery ended throughout the Caribbean in the 1800s in the wake of slave revolts, and the realisation in Europe that the huge profits from the region's plantation economies were becoming unsustainable.

Since the abolition of slavery, numerous groups have been calling for reparations on the basis of social justice, equity, civil and human rights, education, and cultural identity.

However, that demand remains a divided issue. Britain has steadfastly refused to apologise or consider financial compensation. The closest positive response was in 2007 when Tony Blair, the then prime minister, expressed "deep sorrow and regret" for the "unbearable suffering" caused by Britain's role in slavery.

Some would wish that the campaigners for reparations would shut up. Forget about slavery and move on to more practical issues of human and economic development. The Europeans will neither pay nor apologise, they say.

Also, cynics suggest that our regional political leaders are using the reparations issue as a diversion from their inability to properly manage governmental institutions and natural resources for the advancement of Caribbean peoples.

No one can dispute that many of our administrations perform below expectations; examples of corruption, lack of adherence to good governance and accountability abound; and too many pressing social issues are not being seriously addressed.

But this does not undermine the case for reparations, which is likely to be a defining issue of the 21st century as peoples all over the world demand the righting of historical wrongs of enslavement and native genocide, whose negative effects are still clearly visible for all who care to see.

But as UWI historian Professor Verene Shepherd, chairman of Jamaica's reparations committee, told Britain's The Daily Telegraph in an interview last month, British colonisers had "disfigured the Caribbean", and their descendants should now pay to repair the damage.

"If you commit a crime against humanity, you are bound to make amends," she said. "The planters were given compensation, but not one cent went to the freed Jamaicans." The same countries that deny culpability for their misdeeds are now busy trying African and other leaders for crimes against humanity. Justice demands that all wrongs be righted.

— kcr@cwjamaica.com

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