The Caribbean Community (Caricom) has hired the British law firm Leigh Day to prepare arguments to constitute a case to be brought before the International Court of Justice to force the countries that practised slavery in the Caribbean to pay reparations.
These countries are Britain, France and The Netherlands. The question is: If the case were to succeed, what would be the sum to be paid?
At this stage, neither the Caricom nor Leigh Day has an answer, which is vital in the eventual settlement of reparations whether a court makes an award, or the sum is settled by negotiation among the parties, or the figure is arrived at by some mutually agreed upon international tribunal, such as the United Nations.
Calculating the sum for reparations is an extremely difficult operation. Any sum arrived at would be open to dispute because of the assumptions that have to be made and the data selected for the estimation. A critical element would be estimating the wages which slaves would have earned had they been workers.
It is certain that no two estimates would be the same, and this could allow the offending slave-owning countries to dispute indefinitely the accuracy of the figures. French President Francois Hollande is reported to have dismissed as futile any calculation of the cost of slavery. He is reported to have said the cost of slavery "cannot be subjected to an accounting process", and further that such an exercise "would be impossible to complete".
If wages foregone could be added up, the next issue is what interest rate should be applied to this sum which is owed over centuries to the descendants of slaves. It would be difficult to assign an interest rate because rates have changed over time. And then there is the issue of whether the rate of interest should be based on those in Europe or those in the Caribbean.
Any calculation of reparations should include compensation for the trauma of slavery and the murder of slaves as punishment and during slave revolts. No monetary figure can be calculated for human suffering.
However, there is precedent of victims of torture and other atrocities receiving some compensation. The United Kingdom Government agreed to pay about US$21 million this year to Kenyans tortured while in detention camps during the 1950s. Germany has paid huge sums to victims of Nazi war crimes.
Another approach could be to use the sum of £20 million paid to the slaveholders at the time of the abolition of slavery as a starting point, update it to current monetary value and then calculate the interest that would have been earned had that money been invested since the 1830s. The bounty to slave owners would be worth over £200 billion in today's money.
In our view, the task of making these calculations should be assigned to the economic and history departments of the University of the West Indies, even in tandem with any other qualified experts or entities.