Reparations for Slavery: Can a claim be sustained?
In 1838, British slave owners in the English-Speaking Caribbean received £11.6 billion in today’s value as compensation for the emancipation of their “property” – 655,780 human beings of African descent that they had enslaved and exploited, and, in many cases, brutalised. The freed slaves, by comparison, received nothing in recompense for their dehumanisation, their cruel treatment, the abuse of their labour and the plain injustice of their enslavement.
This is the basis on which 14 governments of the member-states of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) have decided to approach the UK law firm, Leigh Day, “to consider a legal challenge to seek compensation from three European nations for what they claim is the legacy of the Atlantic slave trade”.
The legal challenge – if it is made – will be against Britain, France and The Netherlands.
Exactly who will be negotiating with whom is unclear since none of the three European governments has responded to the statement by CARICOM governments that they will be seeking reparations for slavery. It is also not at all clear which of the 14 CARICOM governments will actually take forward a legal challenge against the three European governments particularly as that, apart from the government of Barbados, they have all shown reluctance to take on bigger powers in costly legal disputes. A particular case in point is their failure to take action against the United States government at the World Trade Organisation over a rum issue. Many of them also fear reprisals from the European powers. So while the demand for reparations for slavery plays well politically with domestic audiences, few Caribbean leaders have shown much enthusiasm for legal action internationally. Indeed, “reparation committees” have only been formed in four of the 14 CARICOM countries. In this regard, the Prime Minister of St Vincent and the Grenadines, Dr Ralph Gonsalves who has written and spoken passionately on the matter, stands out. Perhaps it is because of his awareness that some Caribbean governments may not proceed vigorously against the three European governments that Gonsalves has publicly stated:
Dr Draper is reported as saying of the Hogg family:
But it was not individual families alone that helped to create African slavery and that benefitted from it; it was the British state as whole – its successive governments that provided subsidies for the trade; that adopted legislation that facilitated it; and that were complicit with the governments of their colonies in adopting laws that designated African slaves as “real estate” – people stripped of human identity, including life, and, therefore, to be treated like land, houses and buildings.
Each of these episodes of subjugation, exploitation and brutalisation of human beings was justified on the racial supremacy of the white race. And while Britain was the principal beneficiary, other European nations shared in the spoils of human degradation. Along with France and the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal were two significant beneficiaries. The latter two countries are not among the European nations that CARICOM countries are targeting because they were not occupiers of, and slave owners in, these particular territories.
Except for the blindest and unrelenting apologists for the acts of genocide and enslavement, it is impossible to discard Beckles’ assertion that these were “crimes against humanity”. As he says:
Their achievement re-enforces the position that their enslavement, their servitude and the infamous acts of violence against them were wrong, and it cannot be right that those who were the principal perpetrators of those wrongs benefitted while they were left as nothing more than a human catastrophe.
Today, the Caribbean could have been much further along the road of social and economic development if even half of the “compensation” given to slave owners had been provided to slavery’s victims 175 years ago. There is clearly a moral case for reparations. But can it be prosecuted legally?
If a negotiation with the three European countries fails and the ICJ route becomes impenetrable, another option could be an appeal to the General Assembly of the United Nations. A majority vote may be possible despite opposition from former slave owning countries, including Arab states.
With the moral case so strong, several CARICOM governments would undoubtedly want to take the claim for reparations as far as they can – and the UN General Assembly would give the issue the scale of international attention the issue deserves without involving heavy legal costs that might deter some of them. But none of this should absolve the governments of all the European nations that indulged in slavery, and benefited from it, of the obligation to at least apologise – although Prime Minister Gonsalves has said an apology would not be sufficient.
THE HOLY BOOK OF RACIAL GOVERNMENT