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Reparations back on Parliament agenda

BY BALFORD HENRY Sunday Observer senior reporter balfordh@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, February 03, 2013    

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THE House of Representatives has delayed further discussions on slavery reparations, pending a final report from a government-appointed Reparations Commission.

But the decision has not gone down well with Opposition MP, Mike Henry, who wants Parliament to ignore the commission's deadline and proceed with a joint select committee from both the Senate and the House of Representatives to take a national position on the subject, which can then be submitted to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for trial.

The reparations commission was chaired by Professor Barry Chevannes until his death in November 2010. He has been replaced by Verene Shepherd, professor of social history and director of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies (UWI). However, the work of the controversial commission continues to be hampered by a lack of resources inside.

Henry's Private Members Motion, which has been the subject of discussions in the House for more than two years, seeks to establish "a united and common position and take a vote acknowledging that reparation is due to the countries of the displaced descendants of the African peoples, and that the Government of Jamaica has the right to pursue such claims from Great Britain on behalf of all citizens of Jamaica".

Henry wants Great Britain to provide compensation, by way of cash and/or debt relief, and for that Government to accommodate any citizen, or group of citizens, who wish to enter into dialogue regarding repatriation to Liberia.

However, neither the current nor the previous Government has been willing to take a position on the subject, and are relying on the commission's report as a guide to public opinion.

On Tuesday, most Government and Opposition MPs bonded to support a motion from House Leader Phillip Paulwell, and the position taken by both Minister of Youth and Culture, Lisa Hanna, and her predecessor Olivia "Babsy" Grange, to delay a vote on the issue and await the report.

Henry, realising that he was outnumbered in the the vote on the amendment to his resolution, called for a "divide" instead of the usual show of hands. It resulted in 26 members voting in favour of Paulwell's amendment, six abstaining and five — Government members Paul Buchanan, Julian Robinson and Jolyan Silvera and Opposition members Rudyard Spencer and Henry — voting 'no'.

Disappointed by the results, but heartened by the cross-party support, Henry told the Jamaica Observer after the sitting that he would maintain his position that the commission's report is irrelevant.

"I was not in agreement with the appointment of the commission in the first place," he explained, pointing to the under-funding of its work by successive governments.

"I never saw the terms of reference, despite my requests, and I don't understand if they are trying to prove whether slavery was right or wrong," he commented.

Both governments have wavered on the issue of whether Britain should be asked to pay compensation to Jamaica for its colonial role in slavery here. Henry is convinced that since the British Parliament paid the slave owners for the loss of slaves, it should also compensate the descendants of slaves for the enslavement of their forefathers.

The only issue he sees that needs to be resolved is whether Jamaica should go it alone on the subject or join with its Caricom partners who support reparations.

Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer and his St Vincent and the Grenadines counterpart, Dr Ralph Gonsalves, have told the United Nations that segregation and violence against people of African descent have impaired their capacity for advancement as nations, communities and individuals, and have urged reparations.

Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller had been reported by the international media as indicating support for reparations from Britain, but she has responded to the local media that, while she has heard the calls, she is not making any demands on the British Government for compensation.

Hanna says that for the House to make the kind of decisions being recommended, including taking a vote, the report on consultations with the wider population was necessary.

However, Henry is insisting that all that is needed is for Parliament to establish a joint select committee, including members of the Senate and the House, to hear the submissions and report back to Parliament.

"It is time for us to take our case to the International Court of Justice, but we need a national position to do that and we need it now," he said.

According to Paulwell, the amendment passed by the House is not, in any way, denying the right to vote on the issue, but is to recognise that a process started by the previous government is already in place.

"We are going to ensure and insist that it be expedited, so that this Parliament gets a report as a matter of urgency," he promised.

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