Is There an Expiration Date on Paying Reparations for Slavery?
Britain freed its last slaves in the Caribbean around 175 years ago, but Caricom — a group of 12 former British colonies together with the former French colony Haiti and Suriname, a former Dutch colony on the northeastern edge of South America — believes the European governments should pay.
The Awful Legacy of These Crimes
In a speech last month at the United Nations General Assembly, Prime Minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Ralph Gonsalves demanded justice:
“The awful legacy of these crimes against humanity, a legacy which exists today in our Caribbean, ought to be repaired for the developmental benefit of our Caribbean societies and all our peoples,” Gonsalves said.”The European nations must partner in a focused, especial way with us to execute this repairing.”
The lawsuit, in which Caricom claims slavery condemned the region to a poverty that still afflicts it today, will be brought to the U.N.’s International Court of Justice, based in The Hague in the Netherlands.
Law Firm Won Compensation For Kenyans
Caricom has hired British law firm Leigh Day, which in June won compensation for hundreds of Kenyans who were tortured by the British colonial government as they fought for the liberation of their country during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s and 1960s.
Similar cases that have proven successful include reparations paid to the Japanese interned by the U.S. during World War II and monies paid by Germany to Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
But none has focused on a situation that existed between 200 and 400 years ago.
According to Martyn Day, a lawyer with Leigh Day, the first step will be to seek a negotiated settlement with the governments of Britain, France and the Netherlands along the lines of the British agreement to issue a statement of regret and award compensation of about $21.5 million to the surviving Kenyans.
As a Brit, I have felt great shame at what my ancestors did to as many as 60 million West Africans, transporting them in brutal conditions to the islands of the Caribbean. The Industrial Revolution in Britain was largely financed on the backs of those slaves, and feelings are understandably still very strong, as the resulting suffering and poverty still lingers in the former colonies.
There needs to be official acknowledgement of this abhorrent treatment of such a huge group of people.
However, not everyone agrees.
Where to Draw the Line?
From Catholic Online:
No person alive today has ever been a slave or a slaveholder, specific to African chattel slavery. Too much time has passed and the guilty as well as the immediate victims are all gone. Should the great grandchildren of slavers pay the great grandchildren of slaves?
If so, then where does one draw the line? When do a people stop being victims and become responsible for their own condition? Shall the nations of Europe sue France for Napoleon’s conquest? Shall England pay its former colonies? Should England sue Italy for the conquests of the Romans? You can see the absurdity.
And what about slavery today? A new report claiming to be the most comprehensive look at global slavery says 30 million people are living as slaves around the world. Shouldn’t we be paying attention to them?
Of course, this should not be an either/or situation.
In the U.S., an Apology But No Money
How has the U.S. handled the idea of reparations for slavery?
After the end of the Civil War, about 400,000 acres of land along the Florida, Georgia and South Carolina coasts were taken from former slave owners to be given to freed slaves, who would each be granted a 40-acre plot of land to farm and make a living.
However, this decision was reversed by President Andrew Johnson after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.
In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama said he did not support reparations for the descendants of slaves, although about two dozen members of Congress had sponsored legislation to create a commission on slavery.
What do you think? Should these European countries pay reparations for damages caused by slavery?
Photo Credit: Thinkstock