Caribbean Nations United in Demanding
Reparations for Slavery and Genocide
By Don Rojas
(Don Rojas is the Communications Director of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and recently represented the Institute at the CARICOM summit meeting in St. Vincent and the Grenadines)
Collectively, the economies of CARICOM member states totals about $78 billion which would place the region 65th in the world if it were a single country. Clearly, this is a region that can’t claim much in the way of economic clout yet its demands for reparations possess enormous moral authority having suffered over 400 years of slavery and colonialism at the hands of European powers, mainly Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and Sweden.
At their St. Vincent meeting the CARICOM leaders took one more important step in their quest for reparatory justice against European countries that had engaged in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade and in slavery itself. They unanimously adopted a 10-point plan that would seek a formal apology for slavery, debt cancellation from former colonizers and reparation payments to repair the persisting “psychological trauma” from the days of plantation slavery. The plan is officially known as the Caribbean Reparatory Justice Program and it was developed jointly by the National Reparations Committees of eight CARICOM states.
The plan also calls for assistance to boost the region’s technological capacity and strengthen its public health, education and cultural institutions such as museums and research centers. It even calls for the creation of a “repatriation program”, including legal and diplomatic assistance from European governments, to potentially resettle members of the Rastafarian spiritual movement in Africa. Repatriation to Africa has been a cardinal belief of Rastafari for decades and their followers have consistently advocated for reparations.
If the European powers fail to publicly apologize and refuse to come to the negotiating table, the CARICOM nations said they will file a law suit against the European powers at the International Court of Justice in the Hague.
They have hired a powerful British human rights law firm to represent their claims against Europe. Leigh Day, a principal of the firm, said that plans are afoot to convene an upcoming meeting in London between Caribbean and European officials to “enable our clients to quickly gauge whether or not their concerns are being taken seriously.” He called the CARICOM plan a “fair set of demands on the governments whose countries grew rich at the expense of those regions whose human wealth was stolen from them.”
In 2012 the Leigh Day law firm waged a successful campaign for compensation of over $21 million for surviving Kenyans who were tortured by the British colonial government during the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s and 1960s.
Last July, at the CARICOM heads of government summit in Trinidad & Tobago the leaders mandated the establishment of a Regional Reparations Commission charged with seeking restitution for citizens of their respective countries. Since then, national reparations commissions have been established in all 14 countries that make up CARICOM.
Professor Beckles, chairman of the regional reparations commission, and a scholar who has written several books on the history of Caribbean slavery, said he was “very pleased” that the leaders adopted the plan and added that “the persistent racial victimization of the descendants of slavery and genocide was the root cause of Caribbean nations’ suffering today.”
Strong support for CARICOM’s reparations claims was voiced in late January by the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) at their summit in Havana, Cuba. In a “Special Declaration” on the issue of reparations for slavery and the genocide of native peoples, CELAC said it supported wholeheartedly “a swift, action-oriented and good-faith engagement with those colonizing states responsible for the genocide of native peoples and African enslavement in the region, with the sponsorship and organization of the State with a view to identifying just and effective means to provide reparations for the impact of those serious violations of human rights that are a crime against humanity, to which they are morally obliged.”
CELAC said it welcomed the formation of the CARICOM Reparations Commission and noted its ongoing work to define the issues and challenges arising from the centuries-long Atlantic slave trade, as well as “the key issues identified by the commission: chronic diseases, education, cultural deprivation, psychological trauma and scientific and technological backwardness.”
European reaction to the CARICOM demands has been mixed, so far. In recent weeks, there have been several relatively balanced reports in major British newspapers like the London Times, the Telegraph and the Guardian and a high level Swedish government official said that his government welcomes the opportunity to have a reparations dialogue with CARICOM. But a British Foreign Office official shot down the CARICOM plan saying, “the UK has been clear that we deplore the human suffering caused by slavery and the slave trade, however, we do not see reparations as the answer…..instead we should concentrate on identifying ways forward with a focus on the shared global challenges that face our countries in the 21st Century.”
Professor Verene Shepherd, chair of Jamaica’s reparations commission told a British newspaper last month that British colonizers had “disfigured the Caribbean”, and that their descendants should now pay to repair the damage.
Meanwhile, the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” has opened up new conversations within the CARICOM countries, as well as in the large Caribbean migrant communities in Britain, Canada and the USA, conversations on reparations that not too long ago would have been considered unrealistic, even Pollyannaish.
Many now buy the argument that the current conditions of underdevelopment in the Caribbean are a direct and lasting legacy of the slave trade and descendants of enslaved Africans should be compensated for contemporary injustices rather than historical suffering.
Moreover, the white descendants of European colonizers who represent a small minority of Caribbean citizens, today own most of the English-speaking islands’ wealth. The majority of the largest businesses in the region are owned by families who amassed huge fortunes from plantation slavery and when slavery was abolished, from the compensation paid to them by the British government for the loss of their human property.
The transatlantic slave trade spanned some 400 years and brought over 10 million captured Africans to work as chattel slaves in sugar and cotton plantations throughout the Caribbean and the Americas. It was the largest forced migration in human history and has no parallel in terms of man’s inhumanity to man.
This trade in enchained bodies was a highly successful business for the nations of Europe with profits from the slave trade fueling Europe’s industrial revolution in the second half of the 19th Century.
Historian and retired head of the University of the West Indies Open Campus in St. Vincent, Dr. Adrian Fraser says the region must pursue reparations from Europe but he does not think much will come of the effort.
“I think it is something which we really should do; it is something that we are, more or less, forced to do,” he told the Caribbean Media Corporation (CMC).
“I am not sure that there is going to be any success down the road, because it is a question of power. We don’t have the power, and they (Europe) will simply neglect us and they probably feel that once they do that (pay reparations), it is going to open a can of worms,” said Fraser.
But Fraser said he does not expect, “at least in the short run” that the region will get “much” from its efforts to get Europe to pay compensation for African slavery and native genocide.
It was almost surreal, improbable just a few years ago: a room filled with presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers from the 15-nation Caribbean Community (CARICOM), all listening with rapt attention, several nodding in agreement, as Dr Hilary Beckles, one of the region’s most distinguished academics gave a riveting report on the recent work of CARICOM’s Reparations Commission. Yes, “reparations”, as in compensation for the crimes of slavery and indigenous genocide at the hands of former European colonizers.
The scene played out in the conference room of the beautiful Buccament Resort on the Eastern Caribbean island of St. Vincent on March 10, 2014. The occasion—the 25th Inter-Sessional Meeting of the Conference of Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community. Contrary to what a casual observer could conclude, this was not some gathering of flaming radical black nationalists demanding reparations from white society.
There was applause at the end of Professor Beckles’s report. Not a single dissenting voice was heard from a group of leaders whose politics ranged from conservative through liberalto progressive, all of whom find themselves in US imperialism’s so-called “backyard”. Without exception, all are currently on good terms with Washington and all represent countries that were former colonies of one or another European slave trading power.
“… but I feel it is something which we need to do, because of the way our history is bastardised and the way our people suffered over that period of time,” Fraser told CMC.
“So, we are compelled to do it. As part of trying to reclaim our history and recognizing what has happened in the past and also bringing before the international public the fact that Britain, and the Europeans generally, benefitted tremendously from us”.
CARICOM Chairman Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves will be the keynote speaker at a major Reparations Rally organized by the Institute of the Black World in Chicago on April 19, 2014. For more information on this event click on this link: http://ibw21.org/press-2/revitalizing-the-reparations-movement-a-nationalinternational-forum/