Europe’s Sin: Caribbean States Call for Slavery Reparations


Samiha Shafy – Der Spiegel

A set of shackles are displayed at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, England, which focuses on the impact of the slave trade between Africa, Western Europe, the United States and the Caribbean.

A set of shackles are displayed at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, England, which focuses on the impact of the slave trade between Africa, Western Europe, the United States and the Caribbean.

The leaders of 15 Caribbean countries are calling for reparations from European countries relating to the slave trade that took place 200 years ago. A lawyer representing them says the legacy of slavery still plagues the region today.

Can countries be held responsible for crimes they committed hundreds of years ago? That’s a question on the minds of some legal experts following an agreement last week between the heads of 15 Caribbean nations to hold former colonial powers, including the United Kingdom and France, accountable for the “lasting damage of slavery.”

Martyn Day, a lawyer at London’s Leigh Day who is representing Caricom, the group of Caribbean states, says the countries’ initial aim is to negotiate for reparations.

The former colonies are demanding an apology for the slave trade as well as a repatriation program that would allow those of the “over 10 million Africans” who were “stolen from their homes and forcefully transported to the Caribbean as the enslaved chattel and property of Europeans” to return to Africa if they choose — particularly those belonging to the Rastafari movement.

If the Europeans are unwilling to negotiate, the Caricom states are threatening to take legal action. Rather than seeking compensation for the treatment of slaves 200 years ago, Day, 57, says, “we want to address the problems of today that result from that era.” He says little investment was made at the time in education and that the countries remain far behind even today. He argues that Europe has a “moral, political and legal liability” to help in addressing a history they created.

SPIEGEL spoke with Day about the 10-point plan approved by Caricom leaders.

SPIEGEL: Your law firm represents Caribbean nations seeking reparations from European countries. What kind of damage are they referring to almost two centuries after the end of slavery?

Day: Between the 16th and 18th century, Western powers brought about the Industrial Revolution, much of it with money made through the slave trade. Meanwhile, communities in the Caribbean and in Africa were treated in the most terrible ways. The Caribbean nations say they are still suffering from the consequences of that era. For example, they never had the resources to build museums or establish cultural programs, but they feel very strongly that understanding their cultural heritage is important for them in order to come to terms with their past. Secondly, there is evidence to show that what happened to them some 150 to 300 years ago has caused ongoing health problems. Hypertension and strokes are at a very high level in the Caribbean compared to other communities, and they believe this is related to what happened to them during the slave era. Thirdly: Western powers hardly invested in education during slavery and colonial times, so the Caribbean nations had to start from scratch. Their educational system remains very poor today. The crucial question is whether the West is prepared to assist the Caribbean in developing these areas.

SPIEGEL: At a meeting last week, Caribbean leaders approved a 10-point-plan for reparations. What are they asking for?

Day: There are a number of demands, the first being a proper apology. The second is that parts of the Caribbean are calling for repatriation assistance to be able to return to Africa. This particularly concerns the Rastafari movement, mainly based in Jamaica, but also other people across the Caribbean. The other points are financial issues related to the damages. Some are political, like the apology and the repatriation issue, but if there is to be progress in welfare, health and education, we’re obviously talking about significant sums of money. Should the Europeans not respond to these demands, the Caricom nations have said they will bring the case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

SPIEGEL: How can they go to court over something that happened centuries ago? Why should modern countries be forced to redress for crimes committed many generations ago?

Day: There is a moral, political and legal liability. We in the West massively benefitted from the slave era and we continue to do so, yet we have left the Caribbean in the most terrible state. This is the most devastating episode in human history. The fact that it still resonates in the Caribbean today means the West cannot ignore it.

SPIEGEL: But Caribbean countries already receive compensation through development aid.

Day: The existing aid is just a tiny fraction of what would be needed.

SPIEGEL: How much do you think Britain and the other Western countries should pay?

Day: I’m not prepared to say that. I have absolutely no idea at this point.

SPIEGEL: What makes you think that your case would stand a chance of succeeding in court? Britain, for instance, accepts the International Court of Justice’s jurisdiction only for events that happened after 1974.

Day: We’re not saying that we’re trying to get compensation for the horrible treatment of slaves 200 years ago. We’re saying there is a problem today that results from that era. It’s a current issue, not a historic one. The Caribbean nations would far prefer to enter into a proper dialogue, they don’t want to go to court. They want ongoing good relations with Europe, and they hope that the Europeans will see the sense in what is being proposed. We are suggesting a conference between the Western nations and leaders of Caricom member states in the summer to examine all these issues.

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